Automated graves: The precarity and prosthetics of caring for the dead in Japan

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Once dependent on family to bury and memorialize the dead, caring for the deceased has become increasingly precarious in the wake of a decreasing and aging population, a trend towards single households, and downsizing of social relationality—including the temple parishioner system once key in mortuary rituals. In the new “ending” marketplace emerging today to help Japanese manage this precarity, automated graves offer customers a convenient burial spot in an urban ossuary where ashes, interred in a deposit box, are automatically transferred to a grave upon visitation. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, the article examines the just-in-time delivery system at work in automated graves, arguing that the mechanism serves as a social prosthesis, propping up the allure of social caring for the dead, even for those whose ashes are never visited by human relations. With over 30 such institutions now operating in Japan, automated graves are a sign of changing sociality between the living and the dead.





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Allison, A (2021). Automated graves: The precarity and prosthetics of caring for the dead in Japan. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(4). pp. 622–636. 10.1177/1367877920950326 Retrieved from

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Anne Allison

Professor of Cultural Anthropology

Anne Allison is a cultural anthropologist who researches the intersection between political economy, everyday life, and the imagination in the context of late capitalist, post-industrial Japan. Her work spans the subjects of sexuality, pornography, and maternal labor to the globalization of Japanese youth products and the precarity of irregular workers. She is the author of Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (University of Chicago Press, 1994—an ethnography of the Japanese corporate practice of entertaining employees and customers in the sexualized atmosphere of hostess clubs; Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (University of California Press 2000)—a collection of essays analyzing the complex desires linking motherhood, pornographic comics, and popular culture; and Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (University of California Press, 2006)—a study of the intermeshing of fantasy, capitalism, and cultural politics in the rise of Japan's brand of "cool" youth-goods on the global marketplace. Her most recent book, Precarious Japan (forthcoming from Duke University Press, 2013) looks at the socio-economic shifts in post-corporatist Japan towards precaritization of work, sociality, and everyday security.

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