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The Case of "doubutsu no haka no shashin":
The Use of Snapshots in Japanese Pet Cemeteries.

Richard Chalfen
Department of Anthropology
Temple University
Philadelphia, PA 19122 USA

A paper presented during the Annual Meetings of the INTERNATIONAL VISUAL SOCIOLOGY ASSOCIATION
The University of Bologna
Bologna, Italy, July 8th-12th, 1996

The Case of Pet Grave/Funerary Photography
Interior Grave Sites
Exterior Grave Sites


Amateur photography in the Japanese context provides us first with a curious dilemma. Western observers including social scientists and international tourists have consistently commented on the overwhelming popularity of photography for the Japanese. For many people, the sight of Japanese people taking snapshots has virtually become an icon of Japanese society and culture. I've had no trouble recording personal accounts of this popular stereotype. In one report from the English language newspaper The Asahi Evening News I read: "The Japanese and cameras are inseparable" and "Japanese people have camera hands" (Takahashi, 1994). Psychologically-grounded explanations and comments have been suggested first. For instance I have read that the Japanese people are "mentally stingy" and have a "miniature garden mentality." However there are virtually no accounts that take this observation substantially further, that is, by placing this activity into a broad-based cultural context. This domain of visual studies remains undone in Japanese scholarship.

The primary objective of my study has been to understand better the significance of Japanese personal photography in contexts of home media, home mode communication, and Japanese culture. I have been examining the ways in which Japanese people have constructed and communicated meanings of their own lives through the making, using and collection of family pictures. Whenever possible I have been including studio photographs, home movies and home videotapes. This project focuses on the cultural significance of vernacular imagery by exploring relationships between technology and culture, socialization and personal media, private communication and family structure as well as memory and family history. Thus the topic of pet cemetery snapshots discussed in this short paper comes from a much larger on-going study.

The following paper ties together interests in both visual sociology and visual anthropology. Common themes include attention to family and home, kinship, social organization, and what I will call "the canine- and/or feline-extended family." Other important reference points include Goffman's "keys of reality", models of social semiotics, identity formation and maintenance, studies of everyday life, and common sense as related to local knowledge. Current literary interests in "native voices" and indigenous expression have visual counterparts that have only recently been examined in depth. In past years, however I have tried to bring some of these themes to a sense of "us" -- that is, to dominant, mainstream, middle class Anglo-American culture. In short, I am suggesting a fresh look at taken-for-granted materials and activities, at the visual/pictorial renditions of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call "the stories that people [the Japanese] tell about themselves to themselves" (1973: 448).

The central interest of this new work on the construction, use and interpretation of home media in Japan. I am interested in knowing how Japanese people have organized themselves and their thinking to participate in the broader framework of "Camera Culture" -- a term brought forward by Halla Beloff (1985) including anthropologist Margaret Blackman's "the culture of imaging" (1986), as long as that concept includes audience behaviors and, especially, attention to schemata of interpretation. My work has been with just one piece of camera culture, namely home media and the home mode of pictorial communication.

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Living in Tokyo while teaching Visual Anthropology and American Studies at Temple University Japan (TUJ) for two years offered me many opportunities for personal daily observations of picture-taking and picture use. For example. I was able to buy photograph albums at flea markets -- though I often did not know what I had bought, requiring that I get subsequent interpretation; from previous connections in Rochester, New York, I was able to arrange several interviews with personnel at Eastman Kodak Pacific Ltd. I also developed an undergraduate course entitled "Pictorial Lives" to train Japanese research assistants. And perhaps most valuable and important, during the summer of 1996, with the helpful introductions from some TUJ students, I was able to return to Tokyo to continue making personal visits and conducting interviews with Japanese family members in their homes.

However, as might be expected, I encountered several serious problems. I was not able to develop my Japanese speaking abilities to do interviews by myself. I, as a gaijin/outsider, was asking very unusual questions for Japanese people about private materials. And, I ran into all the problems of context bound information of a "high-context culture." I was also handicapped in that I could not locate any previous studies of Japanese home media to make intra-cultural comparisons.

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The Case of Pet Grave/Funerary Photography.

The example under discussion is known in Japanese as doubutsu no haka no shashin translated as animal grave pictures. The use of photographs in conjunction with Japanese human deaths, funerals and grave sites has been discussed by several authors, namely Robert Smith (1974) and David Plath (1964), just to mention two. Most frequent comment is made of 8" by 10" black and white portrait photographs kept in the butsudan, or household alter dedicated to recently deceased family members.

But virtually nothing has been said about connections between personal photographs and household animal pets -- either while they are alive or dead. Common to many parts of the world, but certainly not all, I learned that many Japanese commonly treat their pets as family members, as furry "children", as brothers and/or sisters, so to speak. We learned that pets are a common subject of photographs carried in wallets or schedule books and sometimes framed and placed at bedside. But what happens after a beloved dog or cat dies?

The tradition of a pet burial site in Japan is more formally recognized than in sectors of American culture. Pet cemeteries are indeed known in the United States, but generally speaking they are thought of as an oddity, as some kind of eccentricity. Not so in Japan where pet burial habits are treated more seriously and not as unusual. We learned that different practices prevail in different regions of Japan. Also there is considerable variation in religious beliefs. In one interview, I heard the following:

In Buddhism there are different sects and some sects believe that animals are reincarnations of their great ancestors. For this reason, the owners of the pet can not let others take care of their pet after it dies. They think that an evil spell will be cast upon the family if they don't bury the animals properly. This Buddhist sect allows people to put the ashes of the human being and the pets in the same family altar. Other Buddhist sects will be furious if they saw a picture of a dog in the butsudan (family altar). Because they believe that animals have their own heaven, paradise, or kingdom after they die and the same goes for human beings. (J. O.)

We discovered at least seven pet cemeteries within the Tokyo metropolitan area. Jindaiji, located just west of Tokyo in Chofu-shi is a Buddhist temple that was built in 733. This temple has set aside a section of its property and buildings for use by an independent business firm that leases pet grave sites. This pet cemetery has been open since March, 1962.

Upon approaching the pet cemetery section of Jindaiji, we see signs wishing "good rest" for animals along with lanterns decorated with astrological signs and mention of the Goddess of Mercy. Along the wall surrounding the charnel house, we find commemoration sticks (used with grave stones) called tooma. These sticks include an inscritption of the pet’s name and are used to signal the visit of pet masters to particular grave sites. And here is where we find first evidence of snapshot use. Some pet owners secure snapshot images of their deceased pet to the tooma.

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Interior Grave Sites.

Directly inside the charnel house, we find a mass grave site containing the cremated remains of many animals. For reasons of cost, pet owners may deposit these remains here instead of having individual graves. Just to the side of this communal grave we find additional evidence of roles played by snapshots. Owners are invited to deposit a favorite photograph of their deceased pet in this photograph album. In this way the album represents the contents of the mass grave.

Typically, charnel houses are lined with walls of lockers containing individual grave sites, many of which are a meter square cubby. Most have open fronts but some have plexiglas covers, and a few even have curtains. By our estimates, 90% of the deceased animals were dogs and cats, averaging 70 percent dogs and 20 percent cats. But these graves also included rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs as well as birds, monkeys, mice, and in one case, a raccoon.

As we move closer to individual graves, we see that each cubby contains roughly the same items, including flowers in small vases, an urn for the pet’s ashes, a decorated ceramic container for water, the pet's favorite can of food and small toy, and possibly the pet's collar. In some cases, I also noticed the pet's pedigree certificate. We also found a memorial tablet called an ihai in the majority of these graves. This mirrors Buddhist traditions surround human burials. I learned later that a photograph can substitute for the ihai in pet graves. name plate are called a mini-Tooba. These markers included the pet's name and the family's surname, e.g. Popo Nakamura or Willi Nagano. But in some cases, pets are accorded posthumous names as in adult Buddhist practices.

What is striking and relevant for this study is the frequent inclusion of a photograph. A business manager at Jindaiji Temple in Chofu-shi estimated that 80 percent of their shrines contained pictures. Of all the cemeteries studied for this project, between 60 percent and 80 percent of these individual graves contained a photograph of its occupant. One report stated 95 percent. However not as many owners put their pets' photographs in the album kept for joint graves/shrines as mentioned earlier.

The majority of the photographs found in these charnel house graves were quite similar to one another: three-by-five or five-by-seven inch snapshots, framed and often displayed on a miniature easel. They were all color pictures instead of black and white as in most human shrines. All the pets shown in these photographs shared similar poses, looking directly into the camera and with similar "expressions" -- one interviewee felt "they are all kind of "smiling" in the pictures. It (this) shows that they had good relationships when they were alive."
We also noticed that pets are almost always alone, and more to the point, the pets' masters are not in these photographs. An executive in one cemetery's business office offered the following reason: "Masters do not want to be included in the picture in shrines because it would bring them fears of being invited to where the pets are now." However we did notice that masters can appear with their pets when the photographs are displayed at home (possibly in the master's bedroom) or in one of the family's photograph albums.

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Exterior Grave Sites.

However not all graves are inside a charnel house; we also found exterior cemetery sites. Suburban or country locations are more likely to be outside with grave markers much like human cemeteries. The pet's part of the cemetery is also likely to have a statue of the Goddess of Mercy for animals (Junnishi-Kwannon) placed in front. Incense sticks may be offered and burned at the entrance to the cemetery -- some additional indication that there is a belief in life after death for these animals.
In one case we discovered a outside setting with grave stones; nearby there was a stage-like table with clear bottles each containing a pet's photograph. These pictures-in-bottles served as the grave markers for owners who did not purchase or lease an individual or group plot (see accompanying photographs). But it was sad to notice that many of the color pictures were fading because of exposure to the sunlight and some were becoming damp with exposure to rain and humid weather.

Many people interviewed for this study felt they should come to the grave site and pray once a month, similar to patterns for recently deceased human relatives. Business Office personnel told us that between 250 and 300 people visit Jindaiji on an average weekday and around 500 on weekends, especially Sundays and holidays. Eighty percent of the visitors are usually women (60-70%) and older (50+) women. One woman felt "her pet might be lonely if she kept away from the cemetery for a long time " -- this would ensure the existence of a pleasant after-life with "quiet sleep" for her pet. Worries about a pet's loneliness were frequently heard.

In another example, a woman was pleased to note that these cats can have a nice (after)life with many other cats. But in one cemetery, exclusively reserved for only dogs and cats, one woman remarked that it was "strange that dogs and cats are buried next to one another because they might not get along and even fight.." She added: "If I were a dog I certainly wouldn't like this idea... What a misfortune. "

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Naturally we sought some understanding for what people felt they were doing when they leased grave sites for their deceased pets in this manner, and specifically when they included photographs. Not surprisingly, we frequently heard: "Because other people do it" and "To console them (pets) like a human being, you know." (Yoko K.) Most people interviewed for this study said they came to the grave to "meet" their pet in the cemetery.

And as part of "meeting their pets," I was personally interested to learn if visitors used pet cemeteries for purposes of pet-human communication. Are these photographs used to interact with their deceased animals? Could these images serve as a medium of communication into the pet's afterlife? Some people were seen and heard to be mumbling when standing in frontof the grave and staring at the pet's photo. One interviewee stated: "it is easier for people to talk if there is a picture in front of them." Some visitors leave short one-line messages such as "Thank you for all the work you did" and others leave letters for their departed pet -- for instance, we discovered a grave that included a letter to a dead cat from the family. In short, it is highly likely that snapshots are used as a channel of communication, not unlike how portraits are used in household butsudans for interpersonal human communication. As many observers have noticed, it is very important for Japanese people to stay in touch with their recently departed relatives. Thus we find another role of visual/pictorial communication in everyday life.

When asked specifically about the use and appearance of photographs, responses were quite uniform. People stressed the theme of memory retention. One person said, "Their memories of playing with their pets are very important for them. So they want to save the memories as photographs." (K.O.) Many interviewees said they wanted to recall the looks of their animal and help keep their memories alive: "To keep the image of a dead pet in their minds." Later this woman added that people believe "memories for [of] the appearance of the pet can not continue to be in people's minds for a long time unless people have photographs to recall the appearances of their pets and all other memories of their pets."(N.G.) Thus we see the ‘aide de memoire’ function highlighted in these responses.

However it was possible to detect something more powerful beyond the fundamental function of jogging and reinforcing one’s memory -- something more significant about the existence of photographs. In the last quote we heard the phrase "unless people have photographs..." In another instance, one student summarized her survey results as follows: "I feel that people go to "see" the pets they love. But because the spirits of them are invisible, they display those pictures so that they can always see them through the photographs." (T.O.) And in other examples, people expressed a desire to extend the "life" of their pets through the use of photographs. In one report, I read "people want to feel like their pets are still alive by seeing pictures... making people remember how happy they were with (their) pets and what they got from them." (N.N.) One student summarized that these pictures "are not for the animals, but for human beings who take it and see it... by placing photos, people can console themselves, for those pictures may help them to believe that their pets exist somewhere." (Y.K). There is a sense that photographs are capable of more than we in the West generally think.

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Relationships to Japanese Culture.

Before going on, let emphasize that I do not highlight this example of "doubutsu no haka no shashin" as an exercise in exoticising Japan or Japanese culture. Other sources -- especially news reports and feature films as well as the mass media in general -- do that quite well. Rather, I use it as an entrée point to other salient features of Japanese culture. With some additional work, I would like to see this as a kind of semi-medium-thick description, one that replaces a cockfight with pet cemetery photography, and one that serves as a launching pad into other features and domains of the culture. A perspective grounded in relating culture to communication should facilitate such an effort as we seek to find connections between such topics as kinship and social organization, ritual behaviors, interpersonal and small group communication, as well as relationships between secular and sectarian behaviors and activities.

The doubutsu no haka no shashin I have been discussing play important roles in lives of their Japanese custodians. These images have important connections to cultural characteristics well documented in the literature on Japanese society and culture. For instance, using photographs in pet grave sites can be related (1) to the cultural significance of staying connected to the central unit of Japanese social organization, specifically ie or the household, -- but in all published accounts I have read, this notion has not included non-human members. In turn, we can see relationships (2) to ratifying a sense of personal and group belonging, (3) to taking short and long term responsibility for family members in significant ways, (4) to keeping life orderly and maintaining a good (usually meaning pleasant) set of personal relationships, (5) to maintaining and reinforcing good memories, and (6) to adhering to beliefs in an after-life-existence.

It is perhaps this last point which might enhance a cross-cultural appreciation of photographic representation and communication.. By exploring the cultural significance of doubutsu no haka no shashin we can see connections to animistic beliefs that are so alive and well amidst Japanese daily life. In turn, we are encouraged to examine an alternative belief system surrounding the making and use of photographs and to reconceptualizing photographs as a medium of information and communication -- perhaps more powerful than we are accustomed.

Finally, I am tempted to introduce the notion of a "carrying capacity" of photographic representation. In addition to the functions of social currency previously mentioned, these connections to a belief system as I have described them have given a different sense of power and authority to vernacular photography -- one that varies from what we in the West might normally recognize and accept.

Results of this study are very much of a mid-point. It remains, for instance, to explore how this sub-genre of pictures might be intimately connected to other home media in Japanese society and culture. What relationships can be found to other zones of photograph use and everyday life such as household display, Butsudan portrait photography, carrying of wallet photographs, showing personal pictures at work, taking tourist pictures among others.

In yet another context it remains to explore connections between pet grave photographs and broader contexts of memory making, and to understanding how both might be connected to the nostalgia industry in Japan including deep-seeded diary traditions as well as the theme of information management and control. These questions and problems speak to broader dimensions of the total project. Clearly each of these topics requires much additional time and space.

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References Cited

Beloff, Halla
Camera Culture. New York: Basil Blackwell.
Blackman, Margaret
    1986     "Introduction" in
From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of
    Imagery. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press.
Chalfen, Richard
Snapshot Versions of Life. Bowling Green, OH: The Popular Press, Bowling Green
    State University:
Turning Leaves - The Photograph Collections of Two Japanese American Families.
    Albuquerque, NM.: University of New Mexico Press.
Geertz, Clifford
    1973     "Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" in
The Interpretation of Cultures. New York:
    Harper Colophon Books.
Goffman, Erving
Frame Analysis--An Essay in the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper
    Colophon Books.
Hall, Edward T.
Beyond Culture. New York: Anchor Books
Smith, Robert J.
Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Plath, David
    1964     "Where the family of God is the Family: The Role of the Dead in Japanese
    Households" in
American Anthropologist 66(2): 300-17.
Suguru, Miyazawa
    1996     "Nihon no inu ha siawaseka" (Are dogs happy in Japan?),
Sousisha. Tobin, Jeffrey
    1992     "A Japanese-French Restaurant" in
Re-Made in Japan -- Everyday Life and
    Consumer Taste in a Changing Society, J. Tobin (ed.) New Haven: Yale University Press.
Takahashi, Genichiro
    1994     "Keeping the finger on the trigger" in the
Asahi Evening News, December 2.
Waugh, Evelyn
The Loved One. Boston: Little Brown and Co.

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To contact Richard Chalfen, email: rchalfen@temple.edu