Intergenerational continuity clearly is important for the Satō family. Having nine people, two of them being mothers-in-law to the wives of their sons, all living in the same house, cannot be easy. However, they have ancestors that need ritual attention. Periodically during the year they go to the family grave site to pay their respects and pray before the family ancestors. They also occasionally go to the family temple where they pray before the ancestral memorial tablets (ihai), in the new, modern mortuary chapel (ihai-dō) that the parishioners see as a money-maker for the temple. In spite of the parishioners' cynicism concerning the motives of the temple priest in having it built, the new mortuary chapel is a sacred site for the ancestors. Thus the ancestral tablets in the new and very elegant chapel cannot be disregarded. Ideally on a daily basis they pray and give offerings at the Buddhist altar in the family home. The offerings are varied, but frequently consist of a cup of tea, rice or toast, fruit and maybe even the favorite canned coffee from a vending machine if that is what a recently deceased ancestor liked. The ancestral altar in the house, the butsudan, typically costs from $8,000 to $15,000 and must be replaced every fifty years because of damage from the incense smoke. However, for an established family it is an expense that is necessary to show both the ancestors and the neighbors that the living members of the family are responsible people caring for their ancestors.
Giving proper ritual attention for the ancestors is a self-interested and important activity that is seen as being obligatory for the well-being of the living members of the Satō family and for all future descendants. It is a task that is too important to entrust to neighbors and friends. Family members who themselves will someday become ancestors and will need the same kind of ritual attention are the most dependable. The seniors in the household religiously perform these rituals for the ancestors and in so doing inculcate into the younger generations the idea that this is something they too will do and ultimately will want done for themselves.
Although the Satō family lives in a rural area, within an easy commute to a nearby town, a concern about the ancestors is not just a rural survival in contemporary Japan but rather is common throughout the society, rural and urban alike. In the nearby town of Mizusawa, a former castle town, some of the descendants of the samurai can trace their descent back nearly 400 years, at the same house site, to 1629 when the castle lord first brought his entourage to the town and built his castle there.
Likewise, merchants in the town have similar concerns about family continuity. Nearly forty percent of the merchant families in one neighborhood, with their shops conveniently situated immediately outside the former castle gates at the end of the feudal period in 1868, remain at the same shop site today, five generations later. Many of course have changed the wares they sell in their shops over that century of significant change, but they continue to live in the back of the shop and in the floors above. Some of their living quarters and gardens in the back are quite elegant. What is noteworthy is that they have remained in place, sharing the same neighbors and loyal customers over the years, and generations, and caring for their ancestors.
This residential continuity is possible because this former castle town was spared the devastation of the fire bombing of 1945 during the Pacific War. Unlike Tokyo and many of the other large industrial centers of Japan leveled by the bombing, Mizusawa and similar small towns experienced only sporadic strafing in the last months of the war. The townsmen had no need to evacuate to safer areas. Rather, a number of people in Tokyo at the time of the March 1945 fire bombings escaped to Mizusawa where they had relatives willing to take them into their own wartime impoverished households.