Unseen Japan

The Japan You Don't Learn About in Anime.

From drone-riding Buddhas to monk rentals on Amazon, Japan's temples and shrines are finding unique ways to stay solvent during uncertain times. (Picture: Ushico / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

QR Code of the Gods: Will Tech Save Religion in Japan?

Essay   Posted on November 28, 2018 in religion, faith, culture, shinto, buddhism, technology • By Jay Andrew Allen • Read Related Articles

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As I discussed earlier, Japan isn't a very religious nation - and yet, it is. While many Japanese citizens don't attest to being explicitly religious, the traditions and beliefs of Shintoism and Buddhism have seeped deeply into the culture and are inextricably linked to it.

But with the advancement of technology and other social movements, religious support in Japan - particularly, financial support of shrines and temples - has experienced a sharp decline in recent years. That's left some Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples resorting to some...well, let's say novel approaches to supplement their incomes.

The Decline of Organized Religion in Japan?

While post-War Japan hasn't been very religious in general, as noted above, Japanese society manages to conserve key religious practices. Hatsumoude (初詣), the year's first walk around a Shinto temple, is as popular as its' been in the past 30 years. Many households also still keep Buddhist altars to remember loved ones.

But this hasn't helped organized religion, which has seen its coffers steadily diminish over the past 30 years. The largest hit has been to Buddhist templates (寺; tera). Many templates are supported by danka (檀家), or household contributions to a temple made to support funeral and remembrance services - and danka donations have declined rapidly in recent years. It's most marked outside of major cities: smaller towns and villages have seen a marked decline in the number of functioning temples.

One expert, interviewed by Asahi Dot, attributes this as yet another consequence of kasoka (過疎化), or population decline. More and more young people are fleeing villages for the opportunities afforded by the city. When a parent dies, instead of having them interred in the village and paying danka to the local temple, many people elect to have their parents interred close to them, near the city.

Another reason for the glut, says Asahi's expert, is that Buddhism saw a huge spike - about 7-fold - during its economic boom times. Now that Japan is having to wade its way through austere economic conditions, the money to support this surplus of priests simply doesn't exist.

(JP) Link: "A Chief Priest's Work is Already a Part-Time Gig...": The Reason More Temples are on the Rocks

「もはや住職が副業…」困窮するお寺が増えている理由 〈週刊朝日〉
今、お坊さんは本業で生活が成り立たくなり、副業に走るのが当たり前といった厳しい立場に置かれている。背景には、檀家の信仰心が影響しているという見方もある。一方、寺の困窮の理由は信仰心の希薄化ではない、...

Buddhist templates aren't the only ones feeling the squeeze, though: Japan's native Shinto religion is also feeling the burn. In a piece for NHK's Lifestyle blog, journalist Iida Akiko reports on a financial survey sent to 6,000 shrines. While around 2% of all shrines reported an income of over 1 million dollars (1億円), around 60% reported they tap out around USD $30,000 (300万円). In most parts of Japan, that's barely enough dosh to keep the lights on. To economize, some shrines employ Shinto priests who work at multiple shrines. There are documented cases of a single priest serving up to 100 shrines throughout Japan.

(JP) Link: The Unknown Financial Condition of Shinto Shrines

知られざる神社の台所事情
※2018年1月13日にNHK News Up に掲載されました。新年を迎えて神...

Rent a Buddhist Monk on Amazon?!

QR code for a donation box in a template in Japan
A sign at Futaarasan Shrine, a designated UNESCO World Landmark, that accepts donations by QR code. (Picture: TechWave.jp)

Desperate times calls for desperate measures, and Japan's shrines and temples are working to find unique ways to fill their coffers in the digital age.

On the more benign, "gee why didn't we think of this earlier" side, shrines and temples throughout the country are beginning to adopt the use of QR codes, which can be used to make donations via apps like LINE Pay and Rakuten Edy. The use of these codes complements the traditional saisenbako (賽銭箱), or donation box, into which visitors are asked to toss coins. The introduction of the codes has proven popular, and has led to an uptick in donations.

While this may seem like an obvious move in the West, as discussed earlier on Unseen Japan, Japan has been slow to adopt cashless payment systems. In other words, shrines and temples, some of the oldest institutions in Japan, are actually pushing themselves to the bleeding edge of technology in order to stay afloat.

(JP) Link: QR Code Payment Donations Spread at Nikkou; Introduction at World Heritage Sites Met Warmly

お賽銭の「QRコード決済」広がる日光、世界遺産で導入で好評 | TechWave(テックウェーブ)
世界遺産登録されている栃木県日光市の神橋にも電子マネーお賽銭のスポットがいくつも設置されています QRコード決済でお賽銭を払う。QRコード決済先進国の中国では有名寺院でも当たり前の光景となりつつありますが、日本ではまだま …

On the slightly more questionable side, a service that launched a few years ago drew heat for taking things too far. A venture capital company, Minrebi, began a service on Amazon that it christened "O-bouzu-bin". "O-bouzu" is the slang term for a Buddhist monk, and "bin" comes from yuubin (郵便), or "delivery service". The service delivers exactly what it states: for a fixed fee, you can buy a "ticket" for a Buddhist monk, and the company will coordinate sending a qualified practitioner who lives in your area to perform funereal services. The service was primarily intended for the afore-mentioned youngsters who fled their local villages, and don't have strong ties to local temples.

The service has been around in 2013, but it was only in 2016 that the company got the idea to sell tickets through Amazon.co.jp. (And yes, this is still very much a thing you can buy.) That simple act resulted in a 7-fold increase in Minrebi's sales.

But this leap forward in monk rental technology hasn't been without its detractors, with some arguing that, because there are no national standards for qualifying monks, there's no way to tell if purchasers are getting someone properly trained in Buddhist rites and practices, or a charlatan endorsed by a new religious movement who's just looking to make a quick buck. Minrebi has shot back that it only works with monks who are ordained in one of the seven major strains of Buddhism available in Japan.

(JP) Link: "O-bouzu-bin" Causes a Stir in the Buddhist World

仏教会騒然のアマゾン「お坊さん便」 現役僧侶6人、覆面座談会で語った本音
アマゾンが「お坊さん」の販売を開始したことで、仏教会の反発を招いている。「宗教をビジネス化している」(全日本仏教会)。そこで、現役僧侶たちの“本音”を聞いた。

Others - including some working Buddhist monks - have shot back that, whether people are properly ordained or not, the entire practice cheapens Buddhism by reducing monks to objects of commerce, as opposed to members of the community with whom residents have long-standing relationships.

The Rise of "Namui" (ナムい) and the Drone-Riding Buddha

Meet the Monks at Chion-ji Temple
An advertisement for the "Autumn Light-Up" ceremony at Kyoto's Chion Temple exhorts parishioners to "Come meet the monks!"

Okay. So, you know me. I absolutely loathe the use of the terms "Japan" and "weird" in the same sentence. Or the same paragraph. Or, really, within 100 miles of one another. I believe that all examples in the West cited about "weird Japan" are due to a lack of cultural understanding, and that once the supposed "weird" phenomenon is understood in its proper cultural context, it comes across as totally normal. I say that to preface my explanation of the word namui, because...well, no two stones about it, but it's a little weird. Basically, namui is what happens when Japan's idol culture meets Buddhism.

The concept of namui took off when a Twitter user posted a comment about the Autumn Light-up Ceremony at Chion Temple (知恩寺) in Kyoto (advertisement pictured above) with the hashtag "ナムい" (namui). As the word spread across the Internet, it came out that its originated from a group called Tera Paramusu ("Temple Palms"), a self-declared "idol" group whose goal is to draw attention - and visitors - to Japan's Buddhist temples through avant-garde shows that utilize modern technology, but are still based (however loosely) in classic Buddhist tradition.

Tera-paramusu
The "Jodo-affiliated idol group" Tera-paramusu. (Picture: official web site)

So where does namui come from? Tera Paramusu is specifically a group focused on temples belonging to the Jodo Shisnhuu (浄土真宗) sect of Japanese Buddhism. Jodo reveres the Buddha named Amitabu (Amida), and practitioners believe that by simply reciting Amitabu's name, one can be reborn from this violated world into the Pure Land. The word "namu" (南無) means "hail" or "amen", and adding an -i to it in Japanese makes it sound like an adjective. Hence, namui imparts a meaning of something being "awesome" or "cool", but with a slightly Buddhist edge to it.

(JP) Link: What's This "Namui" That's the Talk of the Net? We Asked the Joudo Idols Who Started it All

ネットを駆け巡った「ナムい」とは? 起源である浄土系アイドルに話を聞いた
「ナムい」という聞き慣れない言葉が、Twitterを中心に話題を呼んでいます。みなさんご存知ですか?京都の寺院・知恩院の公式サイトをきっかけに、浄土系アイドルをも巻き込む「ナムい」。いま、仏教界に何が起こっているのでしょうか。注目を集めるアイドル・てら...

Basically, anything that pops Buddhism out of its "stuffy" image and gives it a new, hip, or edgy feel can evoke the feeling of namui. A good example is the Chion Temple light-up ceremony mentioned above, the ads for which treat the participating monks less like monks and more like rock stars.

If you think that's pushing the limits, then hold onto your seats, because the Ryuugan Temple (龍岸寺) in Kyoto took those limits, crushed them into fine powder, and snorted them. At its Choujuuyasai (超十夜祭) event, a monk decked out more like a DJ thrilled the crowd of onlookers with drone-mounted Buddha statue, which he flew around the room to bestow blessings on attendees. A video of the event posted to Twitter (below) has been viewed over 1.2 million times.

Conclusion

First, it's a shame that it's too late for namui to be considered one of the year's trendy new words; based on social media reaction alone, it'd be a strong contender!

Second, the overwhelming question kicked up by the namui phenomenon is: do such attempts to make religion "hip" cheapen Shintoism and Buddhism? That's a larger question for Japanese society to decide, obviously. Personally, while some of the stunts come off as a little over the top, I'm also heartened to see Shinto priests and Buddhist monks search for ways to integrate more deeply with their communities - even if it is in the name of staying financially afloat.

On the other hand, I also don't see any issue with religion becoming a part-time occupation, and with priests and monks working to preserve Japan's religious and cultural history while also engaged in other productive work. While some of the world's great religions do hold moral advice and psychological insight that can be valuable to us in the modern era, it's hard to argue that this requires funneling billions of a society's productive capital into religious infrastructure. This is particular true in Japan, where cash-hoarding is already depriving the country of billions of dollars in economic growth opportunity.

In Japan, the trend for religion to have blended with daily life and culture is already complete and cemented. Thus, I think the trend toward part-time religious workers will continue to accelerate, with only some larger temples in big city areas managing to maintain full time operations. I also think you'll see a push from Shinto and Buddhist organizations to find other unique ways to integrate with their communities, such as through counseling and an expansion of meditation practice and services.

I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.

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