Buddhist monk in Japan raps to attract young converts

By Chu Yang, UPI, March. 29, 2011

Tokyo, Japan -- The sounds of central Tokyo's Kyoouji Temple have long included softly chanted prayers and traditional bell chimes. But in recent years, another beat has joined them: hip-hop.

“Okay, baby, no problem. It is hard to live in this world. Hey, hey, bro, listen carefully!”

This lyrical rap comes from Kansho Tagai. He is not a hip-hop star, but a 50-year-old monk who is also the head of this 400-year-old temple.

Tagai raps Buddhist sutras to hip-hop beats to draw younger people to his place. Once or twice a month he dresses in traditional Buddhist robes and performs hip-hop at his temple.

Tagai’s efforts have won him young followers, who call him Mr. Happiness for his positive outlook. The number of people that visit his temple has doubled since he began rapping. Each month, about 100 young fans stop by to see Tagai.

“I am interested in studying Buddhist thinking,” said Kurara Nakano, who lives in Handa, a city west of Tokyo. “But we have few chances to meet and talk to monks, even though there are so many temples all over Japan.”

For most Japanese people, attending funerals is a rare opportunity to learn about Buddhism. As people live longer, younger generations have their first experience about Buddhism in the 20s or 30s. Without building a spiritual foundation at a young age, religion isn't a part of their lives, Tagai said in a phone interview. Funerals alone are unlikely to drive people toward Buddhism.

With a dwindling number of visitors, temples in Japan often fail to bring in enough revenue to pay for basic costs. Hundreds of Japan's 75,000 temples close each year, according to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. Some even worry that religion in Japan will become a thing of the past.

Toshie Tanaka, a 52-year-old housewife from Fukui, a city near Kyoto, is a dedicated Buddhist. She visits temples and shrines throughout the year, but living a Buddhist life isn't easy for young people, she said in a phone interview.

“When I was growing up, Buddhism always closely connected to my life,” Tanaka said. “But now it is far away from young people, except funerals.”

Mark Schumacher, a 52-year-old American who has lived in Japan for 20 years, operates the Web site, “A-to-Z Photo Dictionary of Japanese Buddhism.” He hesitates to call the situation a religious crisis. In reverse, He insists that Japan is still a religious country.

“Buddhism is declining because it could not answer new spiritual needs,” Schumacher said in a phone interview. “A lot of Japanese are unhappy with Buddhism or monks because they think the monks or priests are lazy and corrupt.”

Tagai has seen the changing religious landscape in Japan, since he took over the Kyoouji Temple when he was 26 years old. He met several rappers by chance a few years ago and decided to try a new way to teach sutras. A new method might improve the public image of Buddhist monks, he reasoned.

“Hip-hop is a good way to communicate with youths, and I have built a good relationship with them,” Tagai said. “They told me that they have never met such an easy and friendly monk.”

Despite his popularity, not everyone is a fan of Tagai's offbeat innovation.

“Buddhism is a spiritual training, not an advertisement,” said Yusuke Kusunoki, a graduate student. “In this way, young people might be interested for temporary fun, but that won’t be long-lasting. By doing this, (Tagai) could be extremely famous in a short time, but people will forget him soon, just like the pop stars.”

John Leneskie, a 23-year-old American who has lived in Japan, is studying Buddhism. He also voiced concerns.

“The monk proliferated a more easily learned and practiced version of religious doctrine and belief, so it could be good,” Leneskie said. “But it also might be dangerous if the spreading morals and values are manipulated by secular or religious leaders for personal ends.”

Keiichi Higuchi, a 54-year-old engineer, does his best to observe Buddhist traditions, but he thinks Tagai's methods could bode well for the religion.

“The rapping monk is not really a matter.” Higuchi said in a phone interview. “The point is if he teaches Buddhism or not. There is no need to mix Buddhism with hip-hop. However, Buddhism is very flexible, so it could differ. If he can create the environment to learn about Buddhism, other things are not really important.”

Tanaka, the housewife, said that if Tagai is boosting Buddhism's popularity, that's a good thing.

Schumacher isn't opposed to Tagai's efforts, but he's not sure if one monk can reverse the national trend to move away from traditional Buddhism. New religions are the cause, he said. Even so, Schumacher said, Buddhism will never entirely disappear from Japanese culture.

“Sake used to be Japan's national alcoholic drink. Today the number of breweries continues to tumble, and the beverage has fallen from the first place to the third place in popularity.” Schumacher said. “Why? Japanese have a greater variety of alcohol to choose from. Cannot the same be said about the market for religion and spirituality? Will sake die? No. So go the religions.”