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Bonds of the Dead

Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism

Bonds of the Dead

Temples, Burial, and the Transformation of Contemporary Japanese Buddhism

Despite popular images of priests seeking enlightenment in snow-covered mountain temples, the central concern of Japanese Buddhism is death. For that reason, Japanese Buddhism’s social and economic base has long been in mortuary services—a base now threatened by public debate over the status, treatment, and location of the dead. Bonds of the Dead explores the crisis brought on by this debate and investigates what changing burial forms reveal about the ways temple Buddhism is perceived and propagated in contemporary Japan.

Mark Rowe offers a crucial account of how religious, political, social, and economic forces in the twentieth century led to the emergence of new funerary practices in Japan and how, as a result, the care of the dead has become the most fundamental challenge to the continued existence of Japanese temple Buddhism. Far from marking the death of Buddhism in Japan, Rowe argues, funerary Buddhism reveals the tradition at its most vibrant. Combining ethnographic research with doctrinal considerations, this is a fascinating book for anyone interested in Japanese society and religion.

256 pages | 10 halftones, 2 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Buddhism and Modernity

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


Bonds of the Dead is an intriguing and impressive work of social analysis that helps us understand the current state of religious practice and spiritual concern in Japan. It makes us think not only about how these Buddhist practices are responding to changes in Japanese society but about how they are helping to constitute those changes. Rowe succeeds in triangulating field observations and interviews with textual analysis, and he uses his time in Niigata, Tokyo, and elsewhere to situate his analysis of these movements in convincing detail. An appealing, instructive, and entertaining book.”

William Kelly, Yale University

“Reading this book, I came away with renewed admiration for Rowe’s skills as an interviewer and as an analyst of contemporary developments in Japanese Buddhism. Bonds of the Dead will be widely recognized as setting a new standard in studies of contemporary Japanese religious life.”

Helen Hardacre, Harvard University

Bonds of the Dead contains a wealth of fascinating information that reminds us that human societies rely on religion to confront the insurmountable problem of death. Rowe’s first-person perspective allows the reader to gain insights into how ordinary people approach Buddhist temples and how ordinary priests attempt to serve them, and he writes in a breezy and entertaining manner that is accessible to a broad audience of people interested in contemporary Japanese society and religion.”

William Bodiford, University of California, Los Angeles | William Bodiford, UCLA

“This is a very readable account of how religious, political, social, and economic forces have placed Buddhist tradition at the center of Japanese funerary practices. It offers valuable insights into Buddhism’s relevance to contemporary Japanese people in general.”


“This book provides a wealth of ethnographic material on the transformation of contemporary burial forms accompanied by insightful commentary that looks beneath the novelty of eternal memorial graves to identify important changes and continuities in contemporary Japanese Buddhism.”

Journal of Buddhist Ethics

“The tone is lively, the style elegant, the arguments are well made. . . this is on the whole a very convincing, successful, and most pleasurable book indeed.”


“This book reminds us that death has more meanings to the living than the dead, and thus mortuary practices are closely related to changes in society. This book serves as a significant contribution to the understanding of what Rowe calls the ‘post-danka era’ of Japanese mortuary practices.”

Religion Watch

“Rowe’s skillful consolidation of Japanese and English scholarship, years of fieldwork, and thought-provoking analysis has set a high standard for works on contemporary Japanese Buddhism.”

Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

“Mark Michael Rowe . . . engaged in intensive fieldwork in various parts of Japan. Drawing on this research, he has crafted an insightful analysis full of interesting observations. . . . Bonds of the Dead is an innovative study of funerary Buddhism in Japan deserving of attention from scholars both here and abroad.”

Monumenta Nipponica

“Rowe succeeds impressively in presenting an insightful and compelling account of important developments that illuminate and foster a greater appreciation for the role that funerary Buddhism continues to play in contemporary Japanese society.”

Journal of Japanese Studies

“The problem with an exclusive focus on doctrine emanating from the leadership is that it only offers us one side of the conversation. Rowe, by adopting an ethnographic approach, has given us a compelling glimpse into the other side.”

Social Science Japan Journal

 “A work that is as compassionate and eloquent as it is astute.”

Journal of Religion in Japan

“Mark Rowe has provided us with a rich and insightful critical inquiry into one of the most common assumptions about contemporary Japanese Buddhism, namely, that it is a ‘funerary religion’ and that this fact is inextricably tied to its long-standing decline. His innovative analysis of recent to current developments is based upon almost a decade of fieldwork and study pertaining to innovations in Buddhist and non-Buddhist funerary ‘technology.’ . . . Rowe’s book deserves to be read and discussed widely by scholars and students of Japanese and comparative religion.”

Journal of Asian Studies

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. The “Death” of Japanese Buddhism
2. Avoiding Abandonment
3. Challenging the Status Quo—Myo¯ko¯ji
4. Limitless Connections—To¯cho¯ji
5. Scattering Ashes
6. Sectarian Researchers and the Funeral Problem

Appendix: Jo¯do Sect Survey of Funerary Buddhism (1994)
Works Cited


American Academy of Religion: AAR Award for Excellence - Analytical-Descriptive Studies

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