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Nature's Embrace

Nature's Embrace: Japan's Aging Urbanites and New Death Rites

Satsuki Kawano
Copyright Date: 2010
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    Nature's Embrace
    Book Description:

    Based on extensive fieldwork, Nature’s Embrace reveals the emerging pluralization of death rites in postindustrial Japan. Low birth rates and high numbers of people remaining permanently single have led to a shortage of ceremonial caregivers (most commonly married sons and their wives) to ensure the transformation of the dead into ancestors resting in peace. Consequently, older adults are increasingly uncertain about who will perform memorial rites for them and maintain their graves. In this study, anthropologist Satsuki Kawano examines Japan’s changing death rites from the perspective of those who elect to have their cremated remains scattered and celebrate their return to nature. For those without children, ash scattering is an effective strategy, as it demands neither a grave nor a caretaker. However, the adoption of ash scattering is not limited to the childless. By forgoing graves and lightening the burden on younger generations to care for them, this new mortuary practice has given its proponents an increased sense of control over their posthumous existence. By choosing ash scattering, older adults contest their dependent status in Japanese society, which increasingly views the aged as passive care recipients. As such, this study explores not only new developments in mortuary practices, but also voices for increased self-sufficiency in late adulthood and the elderly’s reshaping of ties with younger generations. Nature’s Embrace offers insightful discussion on the rise of new death rites and ideologies, older adults’ views of their death rites, and Japan’s changing society through the eyes of aging urbanites. This book will engage a wide range of readers interested in death and culture, mortuary ritual, and changes in age relations in postindustrial societies.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6088-2
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    This book is a story of people producing a new mortuary rite, the scattering of ashes, in a society where a growing number of people find themselves unable to peacefully anticipate their eternal rest. In his study of maturity in Japan,Long Engagements, the anthropologist David Plath observed the transformation of the social framework of the life course in the era of mass longevity: “In post-industrial nations a new pattern of constraints and opportunities is shaping the entire course of life for persons as they go along enacting their allotted span of years” (1980, 3). Mass longevity has transformed not...

  5. Chapter One The Actors
    (pp. 25-52)

    Conventional interment distributes memorial-care rights and resources across generations in the framework of generational interdependence, and this framework is also relevant to people who choose ash scattering. The new option of ash scattering as a way of reconstituting the generational contract is better understood in the wider context of social actors’ access to lifestyle options that shape their generational relations in their life courses. In the generational contract in a stem-family framework, social actors, particularly siblings, have unequal access to available lifestyle options, for example, taking certain jobs or marrying certain partners. These lifestyle choices, in turn, shape the allocation...

  6. Chapter Two Historical Perspectives
    (pp. 53-87)

    “Freedom from a grave,” most commonly a family grave, is a slogan of the Grave-Free Promotion Society (GFPS), which has been scattering its members’ ashes since 1991. At a cemetery in Japan, a visitor is likely to find a forest of family graves (see Figure 1). A family grave accommodates the remains of a stem family’s members, marked by a single gravestone, often bearing the family’s name. The issue here is not simply a preference for scattering ashes over interring them in a family grave. GFPS members feel that they would like to choose their own mortuary practices rather than...

  7. Chapter Three The Grave-Free Promotion Society
    (pp. 88-111)

    Ring, ring, ring … Hamada-san, a sixty-year-old full-time staff member, reaches for a phone on her desk: “The Grave-Free Promotion Society.” A moment of silence follows, as the caller peppers Hamada-san with questions. She skillfully cuts in before it turns into an hour-long consultation: “Well, it would be best if you could take a look at our brochure first, and call us back with further questions. Could I give you our address? Do you have a pen?” What follows is an almost musical recitation of the society’s office address in Tokyo.

    The new mortuary practice of ash scattering is produced...

  8. Chapter Four Scattering Ceremonies
    (pp. 112-139)

    “Bye-bye, I’ll see you again!” After scattering her late husband’s ashes at sea, a sixty-nine-year-old woman called out this farewell as she watched bright-yellow pansies dedicated to the deceased float away in procession.

    At scattering ceremonies the bereaved celebrate the deceased’s return to nature and mourn their final parting with the deceased. Although the GFPS provides a basic ceremonial framework, it is the volunteers and the bereaved working together who produce an ash-scattering ceremony. In this chapter, I will examine the making of a ceremony at the GFPS: the role played by ceremonial directors, the usual sequence of events involved...

  9. Chapter Five Ash Scattering and Family Relations
    (pp. 140-166)

    What family conditions prompt ash scattering? And what consequences does the choice to scatter ashes have for patterns of allocating memorial assets and duties? Do the mortuary trends that have developed since the 1990s reflect a shift in the family system from stem family to nuclear family to individualization? I contend that new mortuary strategies, particularly the scattering of ashes, developed partly because stem-family-based patterns of inheriting ceremonial assets persist in urban settings. However, this contention certainly does not imply that the stem-family system established as a legal system in the Meiji period is operating in exactly the same way...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 167-180)

    While I was conducting fieldwork at the Grave-Free Promotion Society of Japan, a telephone fraud was spreading quickly, with billions of yen reportedly stolen from “poor” older persons. In this type of fraud, a swindler, frequently a young man pretending to be a grandson, phones an older woman and says, “Grandma, it’s me, it’s me.” The woman often responds with her grandchild’s name. Then, claiming that he has been abducted by the Mafia and needs ransom money, needs to pay off loan sharks, or wants to settle a traffic accident out of court, the swindler urges the victim to make...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 181-192)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-210)
  13. Index
    (pp. 211-220)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 221-222)