Funerals are out and counseling, cafes, and storytelling are in as Buddhist institutions in Japan rally to attract a younger, more secular generation.
Worshippers at Buddhist temples in Japan are dwindling, reports The Asahi Shimbun, and Buddhist institutions are therefore attempting to change the religion’s cultural associations with death and funerary practices. One way they are going about it is through a reorientation towards pastoral concerns for temple visitors and worshippers alike, providing counseling, social facilities, and more.
One of the best examples of this new focus is Ejo Yamaguchi, a 61-year-old nun of the Jodo Shinshu tradition’s Honganji school who works at Tera Cafe Daikanyama coffee shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. The cafe is operated by the temple Shingyo-ji and offers Buddhist vegetarian dishes as well as the average cafe menu. Crucially, the cafe serves customers who want to explore Buddhism without immersing themselves too quickly in the temple environment, and has three monastics at the ready to offer advice to guests coming in to share their problems. Customers can take sutra-copying lessons or join prayer-bead-stringing sessions as well. Yamaguchi’s role in this initiative is as a certified psychological counselor.
“The existence of such traditional terms as kakekomi-dera (temples acting as refuges for abused wives) and tera-koya (temple-run elementary schools) means that temples are where people can seek advice or study,” she told The Asahi Shimbun. “We have introduced a cafe because we want people to easily drop in on us. . . . I am often asked by women to listen to their stories about their children, careers and love, as they typically hesitate to talk with men about those things.”
As there is no ethical or social stigma in Japanese Buddhism about consuming alcohol, Niso Bar Koenji (Priestess Bar Koenji) in Tokyo’s Koenji neighborhood has carved itself a niche as one of a small but growing number of Buddhist bars—not simply Buddhist-themed clubs and bars like Paris-based global brand Buddha Bar, but lounges staffed by Buddhist clerics and assisted by clerks dressed as priestesses. Its sister shop, Vow’s Bar in Nakano Ward, has a Buddhist priest, 61-year-old Genko Shaku, for a bartender. “The religious community has reflected on its dependence on funeral Buddhism,” he said. “As fewer devotees now visit temples, the number of priests who are aggressively trying to reach out to ordinary people has increased.”
A festival called “Kogen,” which has taken place a number of times since its inception following the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and was held from 2–3 May this year at the temple Zojo-ji in Tokyo, is another such attempt. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, young priests from different schools came up with the idea for the event to provide an opportunity for people to reflect on their losses and grief. According to The Asahi Shimbun, the first Kogen pulled in only 70 visitors while the most recent festival at Zojo-ji attracted 6,000. The programs on offer this year were diverse, from a puppet play performed by monks to a Zen meditation session in English to a booth where visitors could discuss personal problems with monks. “I rarely have the opportunity to speak with a priest,” said one visitor, who is a company employee. “I talked about love affairs today and was able to feel at ease.”
These efforts to rebrand Japanese Buddhism indicate a more sophisticated approach than the “moe-fication” of Buddhist deities (turning goddesses like Sarasvati into cute cartoon characters to sell merchandise to families and children, as reported by Rocket News 24) at the temple Ryoho-ji in Hachioji District. Evidently, cute anime Buddhist deities can only go so far, and seekers are looking for something deeper and familiar at the same time.
Buddhism undergoes modern twist to attract young people (The Asahi Shimbun)
Tokyo’s moe temple is now selling Buddhist goddess anime figures (Rocket News 24)