Marusue manufactures “Nagoya butsudan,” but what exactly is a “butsudan” in the first place?
The oldest known Buddhist altar in Japan is the Tamamushi no Zushi, located in Horyuji Temple. Most religions in the world either worship idols or prohibit idolatry, but Buddhism seems to have been neither. The Buddha simply said, “Idolatry is not very good. He did not prohibit it, but he did not personally recommend it. For several hundred years after Buddhism was established, that teaching was followed and there was no idolatry.
However, people’s hearts are shaken when they do not have a real object to pray to. It is more gratifying and easier to understand if there is an object to pray to, so hundreds of years later in India, Buddhist statues were created and idol worship began. By the time Buddhism was introduced to Japan, idol worship had become commonplace. Buddhism was packaged in such a way that it was easy for anyone to understand, with Buddhist statues made and temples built.
Today, monks from temples come to your home, but until the Edo period, temples were like Christian churches, attended by parishioners. However, the Edo Shogunate instituted the “terakitei” system*1 in order to suppress Christianity, and since then, butsudan (Buddhist altars) have been widely used in private homes. So a butsudan was like a miniature temple, made so that people could visit the temple at home. So the essential part of a butsudan is that it is an item for praying. It was a tool to pray and to reflect on oneself.
*1 Terakomisei System: A system established by the Edo shogunate as part of its religious control measures. This system was established by the Edo shogunate as part of the religious control system. The establishment of the temple contract system obliged the people to become a parishioner of one of the temples. Each household was required to have a Buddhist altar and to invite Buddhist priests for Buddhist memorial services.
In the old days, when people looked back on themselves, there was a culture of valuing the inseparable connection between themselves and their ancestors. It has become a place to remember one’s ancestors, to make offerings, and before you know it, it has come to be associated with graves.
So, people misunderstand that a butsudan is really something like that.
What are some of the characteristics of Nagoya Butsudan?
The first thing that sets them apart from others is that they are very luxurious.
Some people said they looked too luxurious and didn’t like them because they didn’t match the interior design of their houses 10 to 20 years ago. They have too much metal fittings and so on. It looks eccentric. But nowadays, people are interested in it because they have never seen anything like it before.
One of the reasons why they have become so gorgeous is that there were many temple carpenters*2 in this area when the making of Buddhist altars began in the Edo period. The Kiso River flows right there, and it comes from Nagano. This area was rich in lumber, and carpenters gathered here. This is why carpenters gathered in this area, and materials and techniques were gathered as well. Nagoya butsudan (Buddhist altars) are made by craftsmen who are divided into eight different specialties, called “hachushoku,” and this detailed division of labor has resulted in high quality and gorgeous products.
*2 Miya-daikou: Craftsmen who build or repair shrines, temples, and castles. They are highly specialized craftsmen who build buildings using the “wood-frame construction method,” which does not use nails or other metal fittings.
Also, because the elevation of this area is low and flood damage was common, the altitude of butsudan altars is higher than in other areas. A butsudan is divided into two parts, the body and the stand. Nagoya butsudan is characterized by the fact that the stand is slightly higher than in other regions, so that even if flooding occurs, the body of the altar will not be submerged.
How did the luxurious construction of “Nagoya butsudan” develop?
First of all, there are various sects of Buddhism, with Higashi Honganji and Nishi Honganji being the most major. The main temple in Kyoto is the most luxurious, but below it there are branch temples in each area, and then there are branch temples in each area, which in turn are more modest in construction.
In the case of Nagoya butsudan, the design is luxurious because we want it to be as close to the head temple as possible. Another reason is that in the past, there were many more Buddhist rituals than there are today, and temples came to the house every night to perform sutra chanting. However, the temple could not visit all the homes of the parishioners every night, so there was a system called “Tonari Gumi,” in which neighbors would gather at each neighborhood, first at this person’s house this week, then at this person’s house the next, and so on. In this way, there was a desire to compete with one’s neighbors, or to have something better than the next house, and this is one reason why the Buddhist altars were so luxurious.
Is that how many rich families in Nagoya were able to spend money on Buddhist altars?
Yes, I think so. Probably a large percentage of the money spent. Buddhist altars were very important.
This is my personal analysis, but I think that in the past, unlike today, there were not many items or contents to raise oneself up. Spending money on faith was like the ultimate self-investment. Nowadays, there are many things you can spend money on instead, such as acquiring a new certification, which is also a personal investment. But in the past, a Buddhist altar was a status symbol.