In Japan, these traditional household Buddhist altars are generally as tall as a person and have everything from photos to tablets with people’s names, birth, and death dates.
I’m not a devout Buddhist and nor are many young Japanese, but many still believe in having these altars in their homes to honour their ancestors. The problem is that most of us simply can’t afford the space.
So a company in Japan has recently released a new kind of altar for a changing Japan where family homes are quickly becoming family apartments.
Japanese designer Keita Suzuki wanted people living small apartments to have their own altar and for it not to take up that much space. Product Design Center carried out a small project called “Shinobu” to produce something for the modern household.
“The altar is losing its place in the household, the peoples’ feeling of mourning the deceased have not diminished – if anything it is said to have increased in the past couple of years,” a statement from the company on website says.
“The aim of this project had become to find the perfect middle ground between these conflicting factors, and the outcome was to set the standard for the modern Buddhist altars and altar tools,” the statement continues.
The shoe box-sized altar has a bamboo blind instead of doors that swing outward and its miniature metal altar pieces – candles, incense, and singing bowls – are developed by NOUSAKU CORP.. The altars also come with heat-resistant glass covers made by Hirota Glass Co. Ltd., which is a good safety feature considering how cramped Japanese apartments can be. However, there’s a little history that makes these small shrines interesting.
Dating back around 1,300 years, Japan’s emperor ordered citizens to have their own Buddhist altars to celebrate their ancestors. They were quite expensive and only the nobility could afford the large altars. It became something of a privilege to be able to honour those who have been lost.
Now in mostly agnostic Japan and as the emperor has little to no real power, Buddhist practices involving a household altar are in decline, but they still exist in way that’s far different from 1,300 years ago.
This is what makes Product Design Center’s shoebox-sized altar so unique in that it caters to a changing Japan that still has old tradition in heart, but not as much space to play around with.