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Hard times for Japan's temples

In Japan there is concern that the temple - traditional place of worship for Buddhists across the country - is under threat, particularly in rural areas where the population is aging and the younger generation are leaving for big cities, as Chris Hogg discovered.

The Great Buddha in the Todaiji Temple, Nara
Monks and volunteers dust the Great Buddha at Nara, Japan

Shinkyo Toyoma has three sons and they are all mad keen on judo.

The eldest is 18, a big lad, and he is grimacing at me. No teenager likes to be shown off to guests.

Mr Toyoma takes no notice. He is proud of his three boys. But he is also worried about them.

One day one of them is going to have to take over the family business and none of them is keen.

He tells me that, when he was 18, he did not want to inherit the family firm either.

He rebelled at first but then, as now, there was a lot of expectation in the small community where they live that he would follow his father's example.

For Mr Toyoma is a Buddhist monk. He is the 32nd generation of monks in his family. For more than 1,000 years a Toyoma has chanted sutras and said prayers for those who live in this small community.

Buddhism in Japan has long been a family business. Originally monks were supposed to be celibate, although many would have "unofficial" families. More than a century ago, the rules were changed and monks were told they could marry.

It became commonplace thereafter for temples to be run by generations of the same family.

Financial worries

But the problem for the Toyomas is that small temples like theirs are just not economically viable any more.

Their timber-framed building, perched on the side of a mountain, is in a part of the country so remote that the monk says he can go three days without seeing anyone at all.

There are fewer memorial services, fewer fees: why would anyone want to take on a business that is struggling so badly?

Mr Toyoma needs the support of 100 households, he tells me, to keep the temple going.

In Japan traditionally much of a monk's job is to say prayers and hold services for people's ancestors. You commemorate the dead a year after they pass away, then two years, six years, 12 years - eight times in all over a 50-year period.

Usually the monk asks for a fee for each memorial service, and in a community of 100 households keeps pretty busy, the services providing a regular income. But these days Mr Toyoma has fewer than 50 households who worship at his temple.

So what should he do? As we talk, his son hovers nearby listening, the dark look still there on his face.

Here as elsewhere in Japan, Mr Toyoma explains, the countryside is emptying out. Younger people are leaving for the cities in search of work.

Those left behind are older and more frail. Often they have less money and are increasingly more secular and less interested in the formal rituals that have gone on for years.

So there are fewer memorial services, fewer fees: why would anyone want to take on a business that is struggling so badly?

Fundraising

Mr Hayashi
Kazuma Hayashi offers customers a cheaper option

Some monks are looking at alternative ways of raising money.

In Tokyo I met Kazuma Hayashi, a monk who offers bargain basement Buddhism.

He has a website which sets out the rock-bottom prices he charges for conducting a funeral service, or chanting a prayer.

He can tailor the religious experience you want to suit your budget, and yes, there are discounts for buying in bulk.

"I don't try to steal clients from traditional temples," he assured me.

"I just want to show people who in the past have had to pay huge amounts of money for funerals or memorials that there is another option."

'Giving with happiness'

Back on the side of the mountain, I put it to Mr Toyoma that this was a glimpse of the future.

If running a temple was a business, did not he need to adopt the newest sales techniques that others were using to build their brand?

He looked at me, smiled and then explained that in his view Buddhism should not have to be like that.

Todaiji Temple
Todaiji is one of Japan's most famous Buddhist temples

Yes, he told people how much they had to pay after he had said the prayers for them.

But when they handed over the money they were "giving with happiness" he said, "not simply paying a bill. That was the tradition. That was the way it should be done."

But what about innovation, I asked him. Isn't there more you could be doing to get people to use the temple?

He turned around and pointed at two benches sitting on the tatami mats in front of the icons and the candles.

"Look," he said, "in my grandfather's day those would never have been allowed, but I'm innovating. People here are getting older, too old to kneel, but now I've put these in so some can sit while they pray."

His son, I noticed, had slipped away. For the moment he is leaving it to his father to worry about how to make sure the temple remains a going concern. I suspect he may not be that bothered if in time the struggle to survive here proves to be too much.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 August, 2008 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

SEE ALSO
Country profile: Japan
07 Aug 08 |  Country profiles

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