Every society follows its own way of remembering the dead The culture of remembering the deceased is to ensure that those who have taken leave of earthly delight after passing over the baton to posterity are not forgotten. However, in many societies this tradition is mostly a family matter, except for people whose contribution is seen highly significant.

The ritual of remembering the dead is also deeply rooted in religious belief as well as on existing social practices. So, the modality of this age-old practice varies from country to country, depending not only on religion, but also on the dominant sect of the religion prevailing in a given society. In Japan memories of immediate ancestors are carefully preserved in family alters that the Japanese call 'Butsudan'. These alters are usually placed at an adjacent place of the living room and they contain portraits of the deceased along with some Buddhist scriptures. They also might contain small tablets with posthumous names of those who passed away are inscribed there. Also, in the alter a small container is kept for placing incense along with a box containing incense sticks. A small bowl-shaped metallic bell or an ordinary hand-lifted one is also in the alter, which is used for calling the souls of the deceased before offering prayer. Most of the family alters have doors that are kept shut while not in use. In some households, foods items offered to the deceased are also placed in the alter.

This culture of keeping a 'Butsudan' at home is a typical Japanese practice that can be hardly seen in other countries where Buddhism is the predominant religion. In most of East and Southeast Asia, the ancestor worship is a part of lunar new year celebration and the ritual of praying for the salvation of departed souls varies from country to country. In Japan the usual practice is to keep the family alter at home. Hence, the market share of family alters in the country is relatively high, though a significant drop has been recorded in recent years due to the shrinkage of population. There are approximately 3,000 retailers of family alters in Japan who are competing for the market. Among the manufacturers of family alters. Alte Meister Hoshi Inc. is one of the largest in Japan with the annual sales of around 3.5 billion yen. Established in 1900, the Fukushima Prefecture's Aizu-Wakamatsu based producer of this uniquely Japanese product has incorporated from early days traditional lacquer production techniques where artisans apply gold powder in designs painted with lacquer. This makes the products not only essential commodities used for a specific purpose, but also objects of art attracting attention of artistic circles in Japan and beyond. They are also increasingly becoming a sought-after product among dealers of traditional craft works.

However, as it has become difficult in recent years to find new skilled workers needed for keeping the tradition running due to declining population, producers are facing an uphill task of maintaining the high standard of their quality products. To find out a durable solution, Alte Maister Hoshi Inc. has started collaborating with a local research institute on the research and development of new manufacturing techniques that would substitute the work of veteran artisans and also preserve the technique for posterity. The result has already become visible.

Yasunori Hoshi is the sixth-generation head of the company and the master-mind behind the initiative of incorporating digital technology applications in the production of Butsudan. Speaking recently to a group of visiting foreign journalists from Tokyo at the main office and display center of the company in Aizu-Wakamatsu, he had outlined the motive that prompted him to take such initiative and also explained in detail how the new technology is helping his company to expand its market share.

Since the production of Butsudan might also be interpreted as a form of business focusing on death, he felt it to be important that the products that he has been marketing can also have an aesthetic appeal going beyond the narrow perception of simply praying for the deceased. This idea has been put into practice in the design and production of new items that not only reflect the beauty and charm of the age-old tradition of lacquer ware manufacturing, but also displays new trends compatible to modern works of craft art.

Digitalization demanded capital investment that Hoshi did not hesitate to incur. The result has been a significant increase in productivity followed by the expansion of sales. The company has increased its market share by about 8 percent since going digital. Hoshi's production unit is currently using 3D scanners, 3D printers and 3D modeling machines for developing prototypes and parts that are used for mass production. Time and labor cost has been significantly reduced.

Accident prevention is another aspect where digital technology has proven to be bringing dividend. Lacquerware manufacturing is a delicate hand work that that also uses machineries that need careful handling for avoiding any injury that workers might sustain. In such intricate works as well, digital technology has turned out to be extremely helpful. While in the past there had been four to five incidents of accidents recorded every year, the application of IT programming has brought the number down to almost zero and thus encouraging women and younger generations to join the work.

However, the main success of company's end products is in their designing and finishing, which makes each of the Butsudan a piece of art work of high quality. The display center of the company showcases specimen of such products that are not only items produced for regular household use, but also objects of arts that bring extra soothing charm and comfort to the places where they are kept. The ritual of remembering the death has, thus, also become a significant act of artistic excellence.

(Tokyo, October 12, 2022)

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