BONES OF CONTENTION: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan, by Barbara R. Ambros. University of Hawaii Press, 2012, 255 pp., $29 (paperback)

Bumping into a Japanese acquaintance on the street recently, I inquired where he was going on his day off dressed in a formal business suit. A worker at a major pharmaceutical company, he explained that he was participating in a ceremony honoring the spirits of all the animals that had suffered during experiments in their laboratories. A Buddhist priest would be conducting the rites.

In Barbara R. Ambros’ “Bones of Contention,” the writer includes a similar example of a restaurant at the foot of a pet cemetery, which holds an annual memorial service for fish, birds and mammals, in a spirit of gratitude for sentient creatures that are “martyrs for the sake of the nation’s progress and prosperity.”

Obliged to kill hundreds of thousands of chickens after avian flu struck in 2004, the Japan Poultry and Egg Farmer Association, we learn, held a large memorial service at the Tokyo Grand Hotel, the altar bedizened with white lilies and a pyramid of boxed eggs. Such initially startling events come, through the powerful transformer of Ambros’ research, to gradually make perfect sense, to even be perceived as morally well-grounded actions.

The author illustrates just how embedded animals have become in Japanese life, reflected in the increasing desire of owners to be interred with their pets. And Buddhist temples, always on the lookout for new sources of revenue, have welcomed the demand for memorial rites for pets.

The writer’s own entrée into this deathly landscape was more experiential than academic. Ambros first came across mortuary rituals when her parakeet came down with sudden seizures, the attacks requiring incubation in a Tokyo clinic and eventually euthanasia. It was there the vet told her about the possibility of being interred and memorialized in a pet cemetery at a Nichiren temple.

Following the bifurcating paths that hands-on research often presents, the writer gained access to pet funerals, usually the exclusive preserve of family members, surveyed websites dedicated to pet loss, joined in online consolation chat rooms relating to propitiatory rites and funerals for pets, tracked stories in the print media and the content of pet literature, even examining court documents relating to legal cases connected to pet cemeteries.

Ambros touches on the intriguing subject of metamorphosis, which in Japanese folklore and mythology often takes the more specific form of zoomorphism, the shape shifting of animals into humans. Such beliefs may not be confined entirely to the past. One recalls in Alan Booth’s travelogue, “The Roads to Sata,” the author being warned not to take a forest road at twilight, as foxes, transformed into alluring women, would likely bewitch him. The book was written in the 1980s.

Ambros questions the propensity of Japanese scholars to lean on oversimplistic dichotomies in suggesting that they possess a closer relationship with animals than other races, one reflective of a greater holistic sense of the natural world. The writer easily explodes the notion that the Japanese live in harmonious coexistence with nature, noting that “Wildlife has been treated both as a resource to be exploited and as pests and predators to be exterminated and feared.” This would seem perfectly natural for a people who once hunted deer and boar with dogs, and who now rank among the world’s more enthusiastic consumers of meat.

Ambros references the idea that attitudes to animals and their care vary regionally in Japan. There may be something to this. Outsiders who have settled in Okinawa, for example, have complained to me about the wretched mistreatment of animals there, comparing it to conditions in China.

Interestingly, such attitudes do not preclude sentimentality about animals. On a recent trip to Okinawa, I came across two dog statues facing each other across the water between Aka and Zamami islands. Such was the passion of one dog, he swan each day to a beach on Zamami for a rendezvous, a distance of some 3 km. This tale of loyalty and affection was even made into a film. Like many an ambivalently sentimental people, the Japanese, it seems, cannot resist a good animal story.

Stephen Mansfield is a British photo-journalist based in Japan. He is the author of several books on Japanese and Asian subjects.

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