Pets, Death, and Taxes: Defining the Legal Boundaries of Religion in Contemporary Japan

Fri, February 8, 2013 | WCH 4.118

3:30 PM - 5:00 PM

Pets, Death, and Taxes: Defining the Legal Boundaries of Religion in Contemporary Japan

A talk by Barbara Ambros, Associate Professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on February 8, 2013.

Barbara Ambros received her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at Harvard Univerity in 2002 and is currently an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the author of Bones of Contention: Animals and Religion in Contemporary Japan (University of Hawaii Press, 2012) and Emplacing a Pilgrimage: The Ōyama Cult and Regional Religion in Early Modern Japan (Harvard University Asia Center, 2008). Her research interests span a variety of topics, including space, place, and pilgrimage; ethnicity; animal studies; and gender. She is currently working on a book on women in Japanese religions as well as several related projects on contemporary Japanese spirituality and Buddhism.

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The Japanese pet industry has expanded into a trillion-yen business, and estimates place the number of pets above the number of children under the age of fifteen. There are over 900 pet cemeteries in Japan, about 120 of which are operated by Buddhist temples. While Buddhist mortuary rites for pets have become an institutionalized practice in Japan, they are also criticized as predatory and wasteful. Memorial rituals for other animals and inanimate objects are often considered traditional embodiments of Japanese culture, but pet memorial rituals are widely regarded as new-fangled and un-Japanese. Memorial rituals for non-pet animals and inanimate objects often serve to sacralize industrial production and generate only moderate sources of income for officiating clerics. In contrast, pet memorial rituals are focused on the individual and the neo-nuclear family (including pets) and continuously generate substantial income for Buddhist temples. In 1996 in the wake of the Aum incident, the Japanese legislature revised the Religious Organizations Law to require religious corporations to submit detailed financial records to the national tax agency. The revision had curious consequences for pet funerals and memorials conducted by Buddhist temples. Between 2004 and 2008, two paradoxical court cases challenged the tax-exempt status of Buddhist temples operating pet cemeteries. One led to the assessment of corporate income taxes on Buddhist pet funerals whereas the other upheld exemption from property taxes on temple property used for pet mortuary rites. The two cases shed light on human-animal relationships, national identity, and the definition of religion in contemporary Japan.

Sponsored by: The Center for East Asian Studies

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