Buddhist temple in Peru custodian of waning custom

Canete, Peru - Time-honored ways in which Japanese remember their ancestors are losing ground in this town where the first Japanese immigrants to Peru settled 110 years ago.

At Jionji, the only Buddhist temple in Peru, a Catholic, non-Japanese woman and her aunt do their best to help maintain some of the traditions.

It is an unusual situation, one that reflects social changes faced by Peruvians of Japanese descent.

Increasingly, Japanese-Peruvians have entrusted to the temple care of wooden tablets called ihai that are engraved with the names of their ancestors.

Jionji, in central Peru, keeps about 3,000 sacred tablets and the ashes of about 200 people. In Japan, it is customary to keep ihai in the family altar at home.

Some tablets were handed in by Peruvians of Japanese descent who moved to Japan to find work.

Others are there because younger Japanese-Peruvians, especially the offspring of interracial marriages, find it troublesome to observe Buddhist customs, such as making offerings of incense and tea to their ancestors at family altars on a regular basis.

"Every year, about 50 people from around Peru bring in ihai," said Maria Jesus, who lives in the temple and takes care of it along with her aunt.

Since the last Japanese priest here died in 1992, the temple has been without one. About twice a year, priests visit from Brazil or Japan to provide services.

Jesus and her aunt regularly burn incense and make offerings of flowers and water at Jionji, near the town square of Canete, 150 kilometers south of Lima.

The town is where the first wave of Japanese immigrants to Peru settled in 1899. Many died due to the harsh conditions that prevailed at the time.

The temple was established in 1907 in memory of the dead and given its present name the following year.

Even now, about 500 Japanese-Peruvians live in Canete, including fifth-generation descendants. About 90 younger Japanese-Peruvians from Canete have moved to Japan to work.

Deep in the temple complex is a darkened area where 3,000 or so ihai are kept on shelves. Many are Okinawan style, which features several red tablets grouped together.

Some ihai stored here are so old that the letters are fading. Others have sepia-toned photographs of the deceased attached.

One tablet shows the person was born during the Kaei era (1848-1854) at the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Many ihai have stickers with alphabetical lettering on them. When people bring in their ancestors' ihai, the temple staff ask them to write down the names in Roman letters, so that Japanese-Peruvians who cannot read Japanese will be able to locate their forebears' ihai later.

In the temple basement are urns and boxes containing the ashes of about 200 people.

The temple has lost touch with the relatives for 60 percent of the ihai and for most of the ashes. Only a few people visit during the Bon or higan periods for Buddhist observances honoring one's ancestors.

While many Japanese-Peruvians are Catholic now, some still keep and pray to their ancestors' ihai at home.

However, others have thrown away or burned ihai. Leaving ihai at the temple is better, if not commendable, than disposing of them, says Miguel Gusukuma, 61, chairman of the Canete association of Japanese-Peruvians.

"Family altars and ihai are symbols of being Japanese," Gusukuma said. "We've been urging Japanese-Peruvians not to discard Japanese traditions, but it's difficult."

The association plans to expand the temple's storing area for ihai soon.

The country has an estimated 90,000 Japanese-Peruvians, representing the third-largest overseas community of people of Japanese descent in the world, after Brazil and the United States. It is also the second largest in South America.