Pets in rich countries are increasingly pampered and treated as prized family members. On the streets of Japan, this contemporary phenomenon manifests daily in the form of people pushing a stroller occupied by one or more furry family members wearing warm sweaters and perhaps even diapers.
This almost human treatment has progressed so far that pets are being afforded funeral rites previously limited to human beings within the last couple of decades.
Is there not something within the doctrines of the native religion Shinto, or else the imported but more dominant religion Buddhism, that might explain this more “humane” treatment?
Shinto and animals
Some of the earliest Japanese myths introduce the kami of hunting and fishing. There is also a kami that protects humans from animals. Occasionally animals appear as messengers of the kami. In short, in Shinto, animals are either food, foe or they work for you.
Even today, there are literally tens of thousands of shrines dedicated to the worship of these animal controlling deities. If you have ever visited a Suwa Shrine, you have contributed to the upkeep of the kami of hunting. Most foreign visitors have seen the seven gods of good fortune and noticed that one, Ebisu, has a big fish slung over his shoulder.
Maybe you have stopped at Ebisu in Tokyo and toasted your good fortune with his eponymous beer. In short, according to early native Shinto mythology, animals are not friends. They certainly don’t rate human treatment. So if there is a Japanese religious reason to offer pets funerals, it doesn’t come from the Shinto tradition.
Buddhist Animal Stories
Sometime in the sixth century, Buddhist practitioners started trickling into Japan from the Asian continent. Over a thousand years earlier in India, religious ideas about the sanctity of the lives of all sentient beings started to spread and eventually traveled through what is now China and Korea, then into Japan. Some of these religious teachings came in the form of tale literature. That is, Indian Buddhist monks would tell simple stories to the public who in return fed them hoping to gain merit that would lead to better future reincarnations.
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