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Zenkoji faced tough choice on Olympic relay

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Apr 20, 2008

Nagano, Japan -- Zenkoji temple's decision to withdraw from the Beijing Olympic torch relay, to be held Saturday in Nagano, saw divisions emerge among the temple's decision-making body.

<< As a result of the Olympics torch boycott, the main building Zenko-ji was vandalised with grafitti

The decision not to participate in the event means the route of the torch relay will change.

With only a week remaining until the event, the city's organizing committee, local police authorities and other involved parties were worried by the unexpected development.

Since April 13, the temple's younger priests had been voicing doubts over whether it was appropriate for Zenkoji to be the venue for the start of the Olympic torch relay.

The younger priests spoke out due to their sympathy for Tibetan Buddhist priests who protested the Chinese government's brutal crackdown on riots in the autonomous region.

On April 13, a citizens group held a candle-lighting event to mourn victims in Tibet inside the Zenkoji temple precinct. The priests took part, reading a sutra aloud.

Senior priests who have worked at Zenkoji for many years also expressed fears about the risk of damage to the temple's national treasures and state-designated important cultural assets if incidents similar to those that have occurred in other countries, in which activists tried to obstruct the torch relay, occurred inside the temple.

In the few days before the temple decided to refuse to serve as the starting point for the relay, it had received nearly 200 telephone calls a day from Nagano citizens urging the temple to pull out of the relay.

In February, before large-scale riots erupted in Tibet, Zenkoji temple decided to accept the request to be the venue for the start of the torch relay.

The decision was reached by a meeting of the temple's top decision-making body, comprising more than 10 representatives of the Tendai and Jodo Buddhist sects that jointly manage the temple, chief priests of Zenkoji's temple lodgings and followers.

But at another meeting Thursday, the priests and representatives were evenly split, due to the changed situation in the wake of the Tibetan riots.

One of those present at the meeting said it would not be good to give the impression that Zenkoji priests, who are of the same Buddhist faith as Tibetan monks, side with the Chinese government.

Another opposed that view, saying Zenkoji--a temple open to all regardless of religious sect--should not be influenced by outside protests.

The debates at the temple meeting lasted nearly three hours without reaching a conclusion.

Finally, one participant offered the persuasive argument that it would be better to leave the decision to Shinsho Wakaomi, head of the temple's secretariat, eyeing the option to decline to be the venue.

"No conclusion could be reached however many hours we talked," another attendee said. "It was a bitter choice to leave the decision to the secretariat head."

Another Zenkoji priest said emphatically, "We didn't decline because of the protests." But he added, "We had to avoid at any cost the possibility the temple precincts would become a site of mayhem."

Zenkoji priests notified the Nagano city organizing committee for the torch relay of their concern about security last week.

Committee officials visited the temple and told the priests that security on the day of the event would be ensured by temporarily closing to the public the starting ceremony venue and the temple's approaches.

However, other sources said the plan made Zenkoji priests worried that such a measure would shut out ordinary worshippers from the temple.

The committee had considered some alternative torch relay routes, out of concern that protesters might disrupt the event.

But Keiko Arai, chief of the city government's sports division, expressed surprise, saying, "After Zenkoji temple accepted [the role as the relay starting point], we hadn't considered other sites."

Executives of the Japanese Olympic Committee also were embarrassed. President Tsunekazu Takeda, who also is honorary chairman of the Nagano city organizing committee, said, "Though it would be best for the torch relay to be carried out as initially scheduled, I'll carefully make a decision because the most important thing is that the event is a success."

Kenichi Chizuka, JOC vice president and secretary general, said, "The Olympics are a chance for athletes who've trained hard to display their achievements, and a peaceful celebration."

"The torch relay is part of it, and I believed the point had been understood. So I feel regret about what has happened," he added.

The police also have had to drastically reexamine their plan to guard the torch relay.

The police will be unable to devise an alternative plan until the city organizing committee determines a new course.

A senior police official said, "We might not be able to finalize the details of our security operations until the very last minute."

When Zenkoji was chosen as the starting point, the police saw the temple as the most difficult place to guard because the approaches are narrow and the torchbearer and spectators would be close to each other.

Some police officials voiced the view that changing the route would make their task of guarding the event easier.

But the overall burden on police officers working the event is likely to be the same unless the course is shortened.

In addition, the police have no experience of providing security for a high-profile event that would enable them to prepare for demonstrations by not only domestic radical activists, including right-wing activists, but also human rights protesters from Western countries.

Members of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement group outlawed by the Chinese government, and their supporters were planning to hold rallies Sunday and Friday.

On Friday and Saturday, a group of former Tibetan refugees and anti-China groups also plan to demonstrate.

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