Japan’s Buddhist temples in danger of going out of business

Due to high cost of death rituals and a shift from belief, temples are in less demand

A glass Buddha altar at the Ruriden columbarium in Tokyo, Japan. Operated by the Koukokuji Buddhist Temple, it houses 2,046 futuristic altars. A smartcard allows the owner to access the building and lights up the corresponding statue. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

A glass Buddha altar at the Ruriden columbarium in Tokyo, Japan. Operated by the Koukokuji Buddhist Temple, it houses 2,046 futuristic altars. A smartcard allows the owner to access the building and lights up the corresponding statue. Photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

 

Like the fictional Fr Trendy, Buddhist priest Yoshinobu Fujioka believes religion should be accessible to the young. Far from preaching abstinence from earthly pleasures, Fujioka can be found most nights behind a bar encouraging the opposite.

There are different paths to Buddha, he says, pouring a gin and tonic for a customer at Vowz, a Tokyo drinking landmark owned and run by a Buddhist order. “Spiritual awakening can come in any conversation. We provide that opportunity.”

Monks shunning asceticism is one of the spiritual cartwheels Buddhism has turned to survive a steep decline in Japan. Some of the nation’s 75,000 Buddhist temples have opened cafes, run fashion shows and hosted funerals for pets. Still, hundreds close every year. By 2040, up to 40 per cent will probably have vanished, laments Hidenori Ukai, author of a new book, Vanishing Temples, on the crisis in Japanese Buddhism. Thousands of rural temples are being hollowed out by a combination of secularism and depopulation.

Priests are ageing and temples are struggling to find successors. The elderly cling to the faith: like the once ubiquitous votive-lit picture of the Sacred Heart in Irish homes, Japanese pensioners keep mini-Buddhist altars, but the practice is declining among the young.

In the last Irish census (2011), 84 per cent of people in the Republic identified themselves as “Roman Catholic”, although many rarely set foot inside a church. More than 90 million Japanese, too, identify themselves as “culturally” Buddhist even if they seldom practise: for most, their encounter with the faith has been relegated to a visit to a neighbourhood temple over the new year break.

While the decline of Catholicism has been hastened by a string of scandals, Japanese Buddhism appears to be disappearing in a cloud of indifference. Many urban young have no interest or connection to the faith of their grandparents, says Ukai: “In the countryside, family graves are falling into ruin because there is no one to take care of them.”

The crisis seems counterintuitive, given that the “primary arena” in which Japanese have interacted with Buddhism – death – is a growth industry, says Ian Reader, a religion specialist at the University of Manchester. Nearly 1.3 million people died last year, a postwar Japanese record.

Buddhism has for centuries enjoyed a virtual monopoly in funerals and spiritual care for the bereaved in Japan, Reader says. At up to three million yen (about €22,630), Japanese funerals are among the most expensive in the world. Buddhist rites and the selection of a kaimyo (posthumous name) for the deceased make up a large chunk of those costs.

Dissatisfaction with funeral services runs high. Each step of the burial process is highly ritualised and often barely comprehensible to the people paying for it. Cremation, overwhelmingly the preferred method of body disposal, is followed by a ritual in which the bereaved use chopsticks to pluck the charred bones of their incinerated loved ones from a tray and place them in a ceramic urn.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, alternative services are increasingly popular. More than a quarter of funerals in Tokyo are now non-religious, says Mark Mullins, co-author of the book Religion and Social Crisis in Japan. Instead of expensive burial plots and urns, many families are opting to scatter ashes in forests or oceans or even send them by post to collective graves.

The Koukokuji Buddhist Temple in Tokyo runs an automated indoor cemetery, operated by smartcard and packed with more than 2,000 small altars storing the ashes of the deceased. That helps their families avoid the expense and inconvenience of a remote country plot. A website lists prices, options and walking distances to local train stations.

All this spells disaster for rural Buddhism. Millions of Japanese have traditionally maintained family gravesites attached to temples, paying up to 20,000 yen (€150) for their annual upkeep. Temples need support from 200 families to break even, says Ukai, but ageing, withering communities can no longer sustain them. Derelict graves are a growing problem for local governments.

Shaky finances are only part of the larger problem, says Mullins. Buddhist temples are often passed down from father to son but grown-up children are moving away. “The number of parishioners is also shrinking with the decline in fertility and birthrates,” he says. “Given that all religious organisations depend on this natural growth for real and potential parishioners, it is unlikely that many temples will be able to recruit new members.”

Christianity’s hold on much of Europe is eroding too, but the consequences in Japan could be more profound, predicts Ukai, who says he was forced into writing because he could no longer make a living as a monk. Buddhism is one of the main tributaries for Japanese culture, enriching architecture, cuisine and literature.

One reason for the dignity and calm showed by many Japanese after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami was the lingering hold of religion, he maintains. “They were brought up to believe that God was watching.” Something will have to replace that moral pillar of Japanese life. For now, he doesn’t see what that might be. “There is just no way to be optimistic,” he says. “My son is six and of course he will make his own choices, but I can’t see him opting to be a priest like his father. There is no financial future in it.” The monks behind the bar of

Vowz, however, see things differently. “Temples may go out of business but people will always need someone to talk to,” says Fujioka, the bar’s head priest. “That will never change.”

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