Religious groups grope to keep, attract flock

In the crisp morning air, two young men fervently chant a sutra in front of a shining 2-meter statue of Amida Buddha, which is of cardinal importance in the Jodo sect, at Kaihoji Temple in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward.

The two men visit the temple every Sunday morning to offer prayers to Buddha, who according to the sect's doctrine presides over paradise, and to the graves of relatives buried in the temple's compound.

A 25-year-old intern of a judicial scriveners' office began attending the morning service every Sunday in October, after his mother's death in July.

"I visit this temple just to communicate with my mother," said the Ota Ward resident, who asked not to be named. "Even though I offer a prayer to Amida for his help for my mother, I've never felt I've engaged in the practice of Buddhism."

Since Buddhism's arrival from China in the sixth century, the religion has played an important role in the various aspects of daily life in Japan.

Temples once served as religious centers, meeting spots and schools. During the Tokugawa shogunate, temples played an administrative role in local government, including the registry of births and deaths.

But today, temples have limited roles. Their major function is to provide funeral services. Thus present-day Buddhism is widely referred to as "funeral Buddhism."

"It was historically the prime function of temples to take care of the dead and their families through spiritual services," said Kiyomichi Yazawa, chief editor of Gekkan Jimonkoryu, a monthly magazine for Buddhist priests.

"But people today do not expect any religious functions from temples, only funeral and other services related to deaths in their families."

Another Sunday regular at Kaihoji Temple's morning service is Daisuke Yamaguchi, 36, who lost his father seven years ago.

"Since my father's death, I have experienced a series of hardships, including losing my vision due to retinal detachment, which deprived me of employment opportunities," said Yamaguchi, a student at a massage school for the blind.

"Buddhist services for me are chances to purify my mind. This has given me strength to live out my life."

Yamaguchi said he has begun to consider himself a follower of Buddhism.

But cases like Yamaguchi's are considered rare.

Taijun Hasegawa, the chief priest of the temple, said it has become increasingly difficult for a Buddhist temple to maintain its function as the center of religious faith, even for families that own their ancestral graves there.

"Strangers barely visit my temple for support or advice today, and even for those who have their ancestors' graves here, my temple is usually not in their thoughts except on special occasions like the anniversaries of deaths or funerals," Hasegawa, 47, said, adding, "Buddhism in Japan has gradually lost its ability to provide moral support to troubled people, after being spoiled through donations customarily paid by grave owners."

According to Hasegawa, the temple has graves belonging to about 400 families, whose donations are a prime source of income.

The temple collects some 4.3 million yen annually in donations from the families in the form of "voluntary monthly fees" for the graves. The families also make donations to the temple for Hasegawa's services at funerals and other events.

The Buddhist concept of such monetary offerings, called "fuse," means that people give something precious to themselves, such as money, to priests for their services.

Each family decides the amount of donations, but there is a tacitly agreed upon level. A donation for, say, a funeral service -- which ties up a priest for two days -- is usually more than 200,000 yen in Tokyo, Hasegawa said.

Priests encourage donations anytime a religious service is conducted.

For bestowing a new, priestly name on someone who has just died -- a regular Buddhist practice -- some temples often set the donation at several million yen, according to some media reports.

But donations to Kaihoji Temple are not quite sufficient to cover its running costs, the 1.5 million yen it must pay annually to the sect's administrative offices in Kyoto and Tokyo, and the living expenses of Hasegawa, his wife and his mother. The priest thus also works at the publishing division of Zojoji Temple in Minato Ward, the head temple of the sect in Tokyo.

But Hasegawa also believes that what brought about "funeral Buddhism" is the public desire for Buddhist priests to not engage in normal social activities.

"In order to keep Buddhism sacred enough to serve the deceased, people do not seem to want Buddhist monks to do secular activities, especially like getting involved in politics," Hasegawa said.

Hasegawa is actively engaged in human rights and other social activities, but such priests are often called "red monks" in a derogatory sense.

"Such sentiments shared by the general public and many priests have greatly limited our social role," he said.

New god at Shinto shrines

Shinto shrines -- which shared a central role with temples in serving the religious affairs of the public -- are also trying hard to attract visitors and contributors at a time when rapid urban growth has splintered many local communities.

More than 1,000 years after its establishment, Amatsu Shrine in what is now Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, changed its name to Ebisu Shrine in 1960, after its neighborhood was renamed Ebisu in a redevelopment project.

It was more than just a change in name; local residents added the Shinto god of commerce, Ebisu, to six other gods that were traditionally enshrined there.

Shozaburo Namiki, an 87-year-old longtime resident who heads the local organization running the shrine, said the decision was not controversial.

"It may be because Shinto is a unique religion that has no fixed doctrine," he said.

Unlike other religions that have a specific theology and doctrine, Shinto largely comprises myths of the origin of the country and a series of rituals developed through the course of history.

"What's important is only the practice of prayer by each person, and we thought adding another prominent god to the shrine would help people feel more pious in praying," Namiki figured.

"We just added another god, and that's all."

Namiki added that the shrine, which has no permanent priest attached to it, has attracted more visitors and donations than before.

Shrine manager Mataichi Shimizu said the several million yen in yearly running costs is covered by these donations from locals, who pay 600 yen or 1,200 yen annual membership fees.

"But the rapid urbanization of the past decades forced many old-time residents to move out, making it harder and harder for the shrine to collect donations," he added.

Compared with Buddhist temples, which have stronger ties with contributors through their graveyards, the financial foundation of Shinto shrines is generally less solid, he said.

Rise of new religions

Corresponding to traditional religions' dwindling importance in people's daily life in Japan, the 20th century witnessed the rise of so-called new religions.

Aside from certain antisocial cults, such as Aum Shinrikyo and the Honohana Sanpogyo foot-reading cult, many new religions have remained on friendly terms with traditional religions.

The majority of these religions also enshrine Buddhist figures or Shinto gods.

A 30-year-old nurse joined Shinnyoen, a Tokyo-based religious group, 14 years ago, after being taken to a meeting of the group by a high school friend.

Shinnyoen was founded by a priest of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in 1936 and now has 796,000 followers nationwide, according to the group.

Its followers adore Sakyamuni, the historical founder of Buddhism who lived in India in the sixth century B.C., and his last canon states that everyone can become a Buddha or a Buddhist saint after death by doing good while they live.

"I noticed everyone at the meeting was very positive, and so I decided to join the group," the nurse said. "Aside from my faith in Sakyamuni, what I like about the group are my friends there who share the same religious faith."

The nurse, who asked not to be named, said she visits Shinnyoen's headquarters in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, at least once a month, while practicing what the group encourages as good deeds, including showing kindness to others all the time.

She donates less than 20,000 yen to Shinnyoen each year, not much more than the average amount -- 19,607 yen -- that Japanese spend for religious purposes each year, according to a survey conducted in 2000 by the public management ministry.

Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of religious studies at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, said new religions are successful because they provide city dwellers with the spiritual base they lost when they left their hometowns and the temples and shrines to which their families were connected.

"Traditional religions served exclusively the members of geographical communities," Inoue said. "New religious groups provide a community based on spirituality to city dwellers, who are far away from their hometowns."

Inoue claimed that some 10 percent of the population belong to a new religion or have learned about them through seminars or published materials.

But even though some modern religious groups have been around for decades and have millions of members, many remain hampered by widespread negative perceptions.

A survey conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun in 1998 shows that 43.8 percent of 2,015 respondents believe that religious organizations collected large donations and 37.3 percent suspect the groups impose their doctrine through coercive means.

Partly because of the heinous crimes of Aum Shinrikyo in the late 1980s and mid-1990s and money scandals at other sects, a 1999 survey conducted by Inoue and other scholars shows that 65.8 percent of some 4,000 college students nationwide found the term religion to be "scary" or at least "dubious."

But Inoue believes that behind the distrust is the lax attitude people in Japan have traditionally held toward religion.

"New religions that have to start from scratch need to make specific efforts to attract people to join," Inoue said.

"The efforts give new religions a sort of odd or coercive image in Japan, where people view religions as something that have been automatically inherited from their ancestors."