Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Modern Japan
280pp. September 2012
Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan
Author: Ambros, Barbara R.;
Since the 1990s the Japanese pet industry has grown to a trillion-yen business and estimates place the number of pets above the number of children under the age of fifteen. There are between 6,000 to 8,000 businesses in the Japanese pet funeral industry, including more than 900 pet cemeteries. Of these about 120 are operated by Buddhist temples, and Buddhist mortuary rites for pets have become an institutionalized practice. In Bones of Contention, Barbara Ambros investigates what religious and intellectual traditions constructed animals as subjects of religious rituals and how pets have been included or excluded in the necral landscapes of contemporary Japan.

Pet mortuary rites are emblems of the ongoing changes in contemporary Japanese religions. The increase in single and nuclear-family households, marriage delays for both males and females, the falling birthrate and graying of society, the occult boom of the 1980s, the pet boom of the 1990s, the anti-religious backlash in the wake of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyō incident—all of these and more have contributed to Japan’s contested history of pet mortuary rites. Ambros uses this history to shed light on important questions such as: Who (or what) counts as a family member? What kinds of practices should the state recognize as religious and thus protect financially and legally? Is it frivolous or selfish to keep, pamper, or love an animal? Should humans and pets be buried together? How do people reconcile the deeply personal grief that follows the loss of a pet and how do they imagine the afterlife of pets? And ultimately, what is the status of animals in Japan? Bones of Contention is a book about how Japanese people feel and think about pets and other kinds of animals and, in turn, what pets and their people have to tell us about life and death in Japan today.

25 illus.
"The thesis of this book is very clear and consistent throughout the text.... The author's archival research is thorough—she draws from Japanese folklorists, scholars of Japanese religion, psychiatrists, spiriualits, pet loss specialists, various Japanese websites, newspaper articles and the Japanese classics (koten).... The broad range covered in this book , both historical and topical, is possible thanks to Ambros' extensive reading of published materials in conjunction with her interviews and participant observation. Personally, I find her thesis of the liminality of pets quite accurate as well as anthropologically interesting.... As a contribution to the ethnography of contemporary Japanese society, this book sheds new light beyond the immediate topic of concern, namely human-animal relations." —Shiaki Kondo, University of Alaska Fairbanks

"We owe a debt of gratitude to Ambros for bringing these changes to our attention as yet one instance of the instability of categories and boundaries (conceptual and physical) in the modern world." —Jack David Eller, Anthropology Review Database

"Barbara Ambro's fascinating study of the increasing popularity of pet mortuary rites in contemporary Japan adds significantly to our knowledge of the changing character of funeral practices in postward Japan.... What makes this book so impressive is the great lengths Ambros goes to in thoroughly investigating her topic. She goes far beyond just textual scholarship to harvest a rich store of information through solid ethnographic fieldwork, predominantly in the Kanto area.... Each of her chapters offers intriguingly new perspectives on contemporary Japanese religious life.... In sum, this is a wonderfully edifying book.... Bones of Contention also provides a valuable cautionary tale." —Erik Rath, University of Kansas

"Drawing on an astonishingly diverse set of textual and ethnographic sources (from the Kojiki to corporate tax law), Ambros has take what would appear at first glance to be a narrow topic of investigation and produce a wide-ranging, fascinating study.... Bones of Contention... will be a significant interest to readers in both Japanese studies and religious studies, and with its thick description of ritual practice and nimble use of theory makes a particularly significant contribution to animal studies, which to date has been largely oriented around western materials. Given its subject matter, its carefully considered structure, and Ambros's vivid and accessible writing style, Bones of Contention might also find a place in the undergraduate classroom."—Melissa Curley, University of Iowa

"Bones of Contention is impressive in its interdisciplinary reach, the rigour of its research, and its adept analysis.... Thanks to her meticulous textual and ethnographic research ... Ambros has produced a study that will be of interest to scholars of Japanese history, anthropology and religious studies, as well as animal studies."—Aaron Skabelund, Brigham Young University

“Modern animal memorial rituals, Ambros argues, emerged out of a context of the increasing commodification and consumption of animals, and she describes fascinating accounts of the memorializing of animals by whalers and fishers, in the food industry, and in the context of research laboratories and zoos. . . . Across interviews, necro-landscapes, chat rooms, and books by a wide range of interlocutors from historians to psychics, Bones of Contention expertly traces the very different ways that these questions have been engaged and debated in contemporary Japan.” —New Books in East Asian Studies (30 January 2013)

“This book is a fascinating study of pet memorial rites in contemporary Japan, demonstrating on every page that the subject of rituals for pets is deeply serious. Based on fieldwork at pet cemeteries (many of which are managed by Buddhist temples), zoos, and aquariums, as well as detailed investigation of historical antecedents and fine-grained analysis of recent legal cases involving pet memorial rites, Ambros presents a rich and highly readable ethnography. In its broadest terms, the study portrays a debate about the borderlines where species meet. For many in Japan today, pets are, or are almost, family members; for others, preoccupation with pets seems irrational or pathetic. Given that the main group paying to memorialize their pets are women, the debate takes on a biting gender dynamic. Approaching the emergence of pet funerals and memorials as a new ritual form within ‘Japan’s necral landscape,’ Ambros eschews the notion that pet cemeteries represent an uncomplicated extension of traditional Japanese conceptions of nature, arguing instead that they are ‘a response to modernity with its inherent commodification and consumption of animals.’ This book will intrigue all who take an interest in contemporary debates on the meaning of human life.” —Helen Hardacre, Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, Harvard University

“This tightly written, thoroughly researched, and timely book sheds new light on important questions of contemporary Japanese life. It is ultimately about how Japanese people think and feel about pets and other kinds of animals and, in turn, what pets and their people tell us about life and death in Japan today. Ambros’ compelling exploration of the necrogeography and religious politics of pet mortuary rites will take the field in a new direction. It is the first work I know of to deal so fully with one of the most distinctly Japanese aspects of this issue: ritualized mourning for dead animals. Bones of Contention will be read by scholars of anthropology, history, and religious studies both inside and outside of Japanese studies as well as by those with an interest in animals, pets, and pet-keeping.” —Ian Miller, Harvard University

“In this thoughtfully argued book, Barbara Ambros adroitly maneuvers through difficult terrain—rituals of death, changing cultural conceptions, and the relationships between humans and other animals. While many such studies of animals as pets have focused on North American and European cultures, Ambros' work in East Asian studies is groundbreaking. Bones of Contention opens up a whole new area in the rapidly emerging field of animal studies and religion.” —Laura Hobgood-Oster, Southwestern University, author of The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals and Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition
Author: Ambros, Barbara R.;
Barbara R. Ambros is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Read the Introduction (PDF).
List of Illustrations 

1.  Order, Karma, and Kinship: Animals in Japanese History and Culture 
2. Masking Commodification and Sacralizing Consumption: The Emergence of Animal Memorial Rites 
3. Pets, Death, and Taxes: The Legal Boundaries of Religion 
4. Embodying Hybridity: The Necrogeography of Pet Memorial Spaces 
5. Vengeful Spirits or Loving Spiritual Companions? Changing Views of Pet Spirits