Koyasan University, a private Buddhist university in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture, just south of Osaka, is working hard to change its image and diversify its curriculum in an effort to curb declining enrollment rates.
Koyasan University is located in the town of Koya, on a plateau on the top of Mount Koya, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range. Koya is known as the headquarters of the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism, and Koyasan University proudly traces its roots back to the Buddhist training center founded there in 816 by Kobo Daishi Kukai (774–835), the father of Shingon Buddhism. The university, previously known as Kogidaigakurin, was founded in 1886, making it one of the oldest universities in Japan. It continues to follow Kukai’s educational principles to date and is, thus, mostly known as a monastic school.
In an attempt to cast off its image as a solemn monastic institution, it has developed a lighthearted online presence emphasizing the mystery of the university located atop a mountain.
The official Instagram account of the university, created in July last year, for instance, features playful images of its students, of the local mascot Koyakun, of the university library, the “dojo” meditation hall, and the cable cars that transport students up to the university (an elevation of 800 meters), accompanied with hashtags that translate as “mysterious university,” “secret campus,” or playful wordplay on “hotoke,” which can be used to refer to a Buddha in Japanese. The account has nearly 1,800 followers.
An open campus event held last summer was advertised on the university website with seven “secret programs” that would be held that day, emphasizing the image of mystery surrounding the university.
Seeking to attract not just novice monks, but also students who aspire to become teachers and welfare workers, the university established a Department of Humanistic Anthropology in 2015, which provides courses in psychology and sociology, among others. In 2017, the University also began teaching these courses at a satellite school in Osaka to working adults.
Koyasan University is also planning to establish a department of education on the grounds of Osaka Chiyoda Junior College (which shares Kukai’s educational philosophy) in 2020, together with other universities, and has an agreement with local organizations to teach students practical skills such as agriculture.
Emphasizing the need for this shift in curriculum, Ryunin Inui, the university’s president, stated: “In the 1980s more than 50 monks used to graduate each year, but now that number has dropped to around 10.” (Japan Today) The university conflates the declining enrolment rate with the shrinking birthrate in Japan, in addition to a dwindling interest in monastic life.
“My real thought is that I would like more students to be interested in becoming monks,” Inui added. “But there must be many people who share and understand the importance of unity, which is a Buddhist value. I would like to keep our gates open. . . . Everything is about supporting each other [and] Kukai’s teaching that no one can exist alone is relevant to any job.” (Japan Today)
Although about 67 per cent of Japan’s 127 million people identify as Buddhists, most seldom see the inside of a temple except for during traditional ceremonies to mark the New Year and funeral rites for deceased family members. Buddhism may be approaching something of a crisis point in Japan, with 27,000 of the country’s 77,000 Buddhist temples expected to close over the next 25 years, reflecting shrinking populations in small rural communities and a loss of faith in organized religion among the country’s population as a whole.