Japan: Temples of doom

The Econimist, Oct 31, 2015

Japan’s Buddhist temples are going out of business

Tokyo, Japan -- FAR from preaching abstinence from earthly pleasures, the Buddhist priests behind the counter of Vowz, a Tokyo bar, encourage the opposite.

There are different paths to Buddha, says Yoshinobu Fujioka, the head priest, as he pours a gin and tonic for a customer. “Spiritual awakening can come in any conversation. We provide that opportunity.”

Such are the doctrinal contortions that Buddhists in Japan sometimes practise in their struggle to remain relevant. Some of the nation’s 77,000 Buddhist temples run cafés, organise fashion shows or host funerals for pets. Still, hundreds close every year. By 2040, 40% may have gone, laments Hidenori Ukai, the author of a new book on the crisis in Japanese Buddhism.

In 1950 the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto was burned down by a schizophrenic monk who adored the place. Today’s temples, by contrast, are fading away in a puff of indifference. Japanese people are growing less religious, and less numerous, every year.

You might think that funerals would keep modern temples busy. Nearly 1.3m people died last year in Japan (a post-war record); Buddhism has for centuries been the religion of choice at funerals and in spiritual care for the bereaved. But with costs often in the region of ¥3m ($24,700), funerals in Japan are among the priciest in the world. Cremation is followed by a ritual in which the bereaved use chopsticks to pluck the charred bones of their loved ones from a tray and place them in an urn. A priest mumbles incantations and bestows a posthumous name. It’s all rather elaborate.

So cheaper alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. Over a quarter of funerals in Tokyo are now non-religious, says Mark Mullins, an expert on Japanese religion. Many families are opting to scatter ashes in forests or oceans, or even send them by post to collective graves. The Koukokuji Buddhist Temple in Tokyo runs an automated indoor cemetery packed with over 2,000 small altars storing the ashes of the deceased. That helps their families avoid the expense and inconvenience of a remote country plot. A website lists prices, options and walking distances to local train stations.

In the countryside, millions of Japanese still maintain family grave-sites attached to rural temples, paying as much as ¥20,000 for their annual upkeep. But the temples need support from 200 families to break even, say sociologists. Ageing, withering communities can no longer sustain them.