Why Traditional Japanese Altars Are Vanishing With The Times

Dec 31, 2015

Gina Maeda-Caluya's family has had their butsudan for more than 60 years.
Credit Molly Solomon

For many Japanese, early days of a New Year are a time to visit temples. And both in Japan and Hawai‘i, there’s a tradition of having small shrines at home, all year-round. But as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, in Hawai‘i, that’s changing.

It’s a busy morning for 32-year -old Gina Maeda-Caluya. She lets me into her Pearl City home where she lives with her mom and dad. Flour is tossed on the dining room table, as she prepares to make fresh mochi, a Japanese tradition to ring in the New Year.

Gina Maeda-Caluya in front of her family's Buddhist altar.
Credit Molly Solomon

Another tradition involves cleaning the family’s Buddhist altar, the butsudan. "Here, I can show you," said Maeda-Caluya, as she leads my down the hall to her father's office. "My dad just finished cleaning it."
She tells me every year the family makes two larger mochi and stacks them on top of each other by the butsudan.  "You know, the mochi with the good luck paper," she explained. "And the ferns, the tangerine and all that stuff."

The butsudan looks like a small wooden cabinet, with intricate carvings along the front and shutters that open and close.  Pictures of Gina’s grandparents line a shelf in the altar, alongside wooden plaques with the family name written in Japanese. "I actually asked my dad how long we've had this and it's actually been more than 60 years. So two generations have grown up with this butsudan," said Maeda-Caluya. "As far back as I have memories, this has always been in the house."

But growing up with a traditional altar is becoming less common for younger generations. "I'm part of that trend of younger Japanese americans who are really falling to the wayside with this daily  observance of caring for the ancestors," said George Tanabe, a retired University of Hawaii professor of religion.

Traditionally the butsudan was a way to bring daily worship out of the temple and into the home, said Tanabe. He remembers his parents lighting incense, while serving daily offerings of rice and water before meals. Now, he rarely uses his family altar, except during New Years. "Basically it's a loss of meaning. People don't know what it's for, what it's about, why they should do it," said Tanabe. "There may come a time when it may be rare to find a butsudan in a home." Like many Japanese families, Tanabe doubts his children will carry on the tradition. "Temples are getting back many butsudan," said Tanabe. "They're returned from families who are no longer interested in caring out these daily rituals."

Honpa Hongwanji is a popular Jodo Shin Buddhist temple in Honolulu off the Pali Highway.
Credit Molly Solomon

Some altars are destroyed by the church during an annual ritual. The nicer ones are kept in storage. Eric Matsumoto has been the bishop at Honpa Hongwanji since 2011. He takes me to a side room, where the popular Buddhist temple off the Pali Highway keeps the altars brought in by families. He says usually they’re recycled, given away to people who come to the temple looking for a butsudan. Inside a closet we find one. It looks almost new, once Matsumoto wipes off the dust. Inside the altar drawer is a set of accessories. "Usually they're about this size," he said, lifting up a butsudan no taller than two feet. "This one comes with a flower vase, candlestick, incense burner, and a small bell."

Eric Matsumoto is the Bishop at Honpa Hongwanji. He keeps a smaller butsudan in his office.
Credit Molly Solomon

Matsumoto grew up on the Kona side of the Big Island. He said his family’s altar in the living room is one of the most distinct memories he has of his grandmother. “In my early years, the family altar was very central in our household,” said Matsumoto. “For some reason, Grandma allowed me to begin changing the flowers, to take care of the altar. I had a relationship with the butsudan.” He worries that relationship is changing for the younger generation. “They have lost that connection with the family altar,” said Matsumoto. “For them, it’s not seen as something meaningful that they’d like to retain.”

According to Matsumoto, the diminishing presence of family shrines is not just disconnection to old traditions: it’s also a matter of space. That was part of the reason Corday Feagins’ family returned their butsudan to the Honpa Hongwanji. "Nobody had a place for it," said Feagins. "It was pretty big." The family shrine, close to six feet tall, was actually built into the wall at her grandfather’s house in Salt Lake. Much of the loss, she said, is simply generational. "A lot of families don’t extend the information to their children. My grandparents never talked to me about it and my children have never grown up with it," she said. "They have no idea what a butsudan is."

But in other families, the tradition lives on, and not just because of the past. "It helps you really move forward because you know now where you come from. Even though I only have pictures and stories and names on a wooden plaque, it's still my heritage, my grandparents," said Gina Maeda-Caluya. "It's that connection that defines who I am.