Buddhist Priest Invites Same-Sex Couples To Marry At His Temple

The Huffington Post, Oct 22, 2015

"We mustn't act as if it's all right to cast the LGBT community aside because they're a minority group," says priest at Japan's Shunkoin temple.

Tokyo, Japan -- Same-sex marriages are not legal in Japan. However, there is a Japanese Buddhist temple where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and members of other sexual minority groups can wed: the Shunkoin temple in Hanazono, Kyoto. Same-sex couples from around the world visit the temple.

<< Deputy Head Priest Zenryu Kawakami at Shunkoin temple in Kyoto, Japan. HuffPost Japan

How did the Shunkoin temple start holding LGBT wedding ceremonies? HuffPost Japan posed the question to the Rev. Taka Zenryu Kawakami, deputy head priest at Shunkoin.

The priest admits he was prejudiced against the LGBT community when he was younger. "I am not gay myself, and there were no LGBT people around me when I was growing up. The old me was prejudiced against sexual minorities," he said.

Kawakami was born into a family that has produced Shunkoin chief priests for generations. After graduating from the Hanazono School (which is affiliated with Rinzai Buddhism's Myoshinji temple), he studied English at Rice University in Texas, and then enrolled at Arizona State University.

"One day I was having tea with a friend, and a person walked past who you could tell at a glance was gay. I made a discriminatory comment. My friend replied, 'I'm gay, too. Is that the way you feel about me, Taka?’” Kawakami recounted.

“When he said that, I remembered being discriminated against as an Asian person when I traveled in the South," he said. "Especially because I had been the victim of prejudice myself, I felt terrible shame, and I completely changed my position. As I changed, my friends began to open up to me about the fact that they were gay or lesbian."

Kawakami majored in religious studies and psychology at Arizona State, and lived in the U.S. for approximately eight years. In 2004, he returned to Japan to start his ascetic training at the Zuiganji temple in Miyagi prefecture, since having experience as a priest would help prepare him for graduate school.

In 2006, Kawakami finished his training and returned to Shunkoin, where he had the opportunity to give an American acquaintance zazen meditation classes in English. Word got out about the classes, and tourists started calling. In 2007, Kawakami officially became deputy head priest at Shunkoin, and started offering meditation classes to more and more English speakers.

The first person to ask about same-sex wedding ceremonies was a woman from Spain who had visited Shunkoin many times to learn about zazen meditation.

"'Can you hold wedding ceremonies here?' she asked me," Kawakami recalled. "I told her, ‘Yes, we can.' Then she said, 'I have one more question. My partner is a woman.' And I responded, 'That's fine.'"

Kawakami looked over the sacred texts of Mahayana Buddhism, and confirmed that such a wedding would not contradict scripture. He expected to be criticized for holding the ceremony, but was also sure that his willingness to hold same-sex wedding ceremonies at the temple would support the LGBT cause by paving the way for more acceptance in Japanese society.

"The reasons why LGBT people are not accepted are different in the West than in Japan," Kawakami said. "In Japan, there is no religious pressure from groups like Christian conservatives. So you don’t see the same sort of strong opposition as in the West. On the other hand, in Japan, there is an underlying pressure to conform, a sense of ‘We are all the same; we are all heterosexual’ -- and that makes it hard to live as an LGBT person."

"I thought that if places such as my temple could show that we actively accept same-sex marriage, it would draw more attention to the problem," he added.

In 2010, the Spanish couple held a public wedding ceremony.

In the spring of 2014, Shunkoin partnered with Hotel Granvia Kyoto to offer Buddhist wedding package tours for LGBT couples. Five couples signed up that year. So far in 2015, eight couples have come to pledge their love, Kawakami said. Six of the couples were from abroad, and two of the couples were Japanese -- two men, and two women.

"A lot of the couples are women. This was the first year we had a couple where both individuals were Japanese, which made me happy. I hope we get even more couples like them in the future," Kawakami said.

Since the same-sex wedding ceremonies started at Shunkoin, Kawakami has given lectures at General Electric and the University of Tokyo, and has been invited to speak at other institutions.

"The missionary Luís Fróis recorded that in the Warring States period, daimyo [lords] had sexual relationships with their pages. Same-sex love is depicted in the shunga [erotic] art of the Edo period, and was accepted," Kawakami said.

"This changed during [the Meiji period]. During the ‘Leave Asia, Join Europe’ phase, the definition of a 'civilized country' as a Protestant-based Western nation was blindly imported, and it came to be thought that gay love was a sin. If we look carefully at history, we can see that pre-Meiji Japan was 'gay friendly,'" he added.

"We mustn't act as if it's all right to cast the LGBT community aside because they're a minority group," Kawakami said. "According to surveys, 7.6 percent of Japan's population is LGBT. That means about seven percent of the people in Japan don't have the option to get married. This cannot lead to happiness in the country."

And it’s not just about gay rights, Kawakami believes. Becoming a society where women, people with disabilities, immigrants, and other minority groups can be happy is the road to happiness for the whole country, he says.