In the homes of most Japanese families, there is usually a special altar and often even a special room specifically for housing that very special altar. It is a place where families communicate with and pray for their past relatives. It is also a place where they honor their ancestral lineage in general. These altars are often quite ornate, despite their potentially small size, and they are also often one of the most beautiful and cared for areas of a Japanese home. There is usually a wooden cabinet, like a small wardrobe, at the center of the sanctified area of a Japanese home, which houses the altar and acts as a kind of doorway into the proverbial spirit world of the family’s ancestry. There is usually a small statue or image of one of the forms of the Buddha and also a photo of the most recent close relative or relatives who have departed.
Incense, candles, rice, alcohol, and fruit are commonly offerings given as gifts of love and gratitude to the ancestors, and a daily relationship with the altar is not uncommon in a traditional home. It truly imbues a wonderful kind of sobriety and humility to interact with such an altar on a daily basis and it can be a beautiful way to practice a very Japanese form of Buddhism. Since Buddhist temples and animistic Japanese shrines are generally only visited on rare occasions such as holidays, festivals, and for prayer or consultation in important situations, the home altar is actually the primary “temple” or “church” where Japanese people conduct their weekly spiritual activities. It is rather evident how important family values are to the Japanese by this cultural example alone.
Ancestors are considered to be a kind of “Kami” (pronounced “Kah-mee”) to the Japanese people. Kami are essentially nature spirits, which include everything from wind and thunder to rocks and trees. The concept of ancestors as Kami in this way may be a product of the imperialistic megalomania of Japan’s pre-WWII era, in which the imperial family hijacked Japanese animism to conveniently include the imperial family as “Kami”. Whether or not Japanese ancestors were regarded as Kami in the same way prior to this era is currently unclear. Most families don’t seem too focused on the details of the concept, and are appropriately more concerned about actually maintaining a healthy relationship with their loved ones in the spirit world.
While this is all an undoubtedly beautiful way of honoring those one cares for, even after they have departed, a skeptical onlooker may question the validity of any actual interaction taking place. There is certainly a large and apparently profitable industry exploiting the sadness and guilt of families who have lost a loved one. The cost of many such altars and the golden items with which they can be filled is often seemingly rather ridiculous. There is also potentially a sense of buyer pressure in which how much is spent on an altar and its various objects could be conceptualized as equivalent to how much a buyer loves the person being honored. The consumerist concept that if one loves someone, one buys them the fanciest altar they can possibly afford even though there is no proof that they are there to enjoy it, certainly sounds like a rather unkind sales tactic for a profitable store dealing in such goods.
Regardless of one’s take on the validity of the relationship to a spiritual ancestry, the conceptual relationship with an internalized symbol of what a loved one is to a person is a wonderful activity to cultivate. It imbues a sense of dignity and loving devotion which are truly magnificent traits in any human society.