Japan’s temples are an integral part of the country’s traditional culture. For the majority of us, visits are usually limited to specific events such as New Year’s Eve, or perhaps as part of a sightseeing agenda if the temple is a famous one. The lives of some Japanese, however, still revolve around their local temples — and none more than those families that care for them.
While Japanese Buddhist priests traditionally inherit the position from their fathers and grandfathers, what happens to the women who marry into these families? Several women share their insights into a lifestyle that is little understood by most Japanese, let alone foreign nationals.
American Gretchen Miura lives at Dairyuji, a temple on the picturesque Oga Peninsula in Akita Prefecture, where her husband, Keno, is the head priest. In addition to caring for the couple’s four children and managing an online business, Miura assists with running the temple. With 400 temple “members” — each consisting of one household — to take care of, it’s a busy life.
For Miura, achieving a balance between the traditional lifestyle she married into and her own inherent cultural values has been key.
“It is incredibly important to be a part of and respect the community you live in, especially when you are raising children and, in my case, connected to a temple in a small rural town ,” she says. “Yet, rather than sacrifice too much of yourself to achieve that acceptance, it is much better to remain authentic.”
A major part of Miura’s work at the temple is helping to set up for events and feed the guests.
“An average ceremony will involve between 20 and 30 local priests coming to help, along with approximately 70 to 100 members attending,” Miura says.
Set among beautiful grounds and featuring a water garden, the temple is also something of a tourist attraction in its own right.
“The temple is always open to visitors,” Miura says. “The tours are usually arranged by local onsen or tour groups, so they will contact us to see if they can come. We do not actively promote the temple for tourism too much — we like to think of it as ‘a best-kept secret’ type of place to visit.
“Keno’s mother still does the lion’s share of the typical day-to-day duties, such as planning memorial services, accounting and managing the temple. It is something I am very aware of and appreciate deeply.”
However, Miura knows there will be a transition in the not-so-distant future, and that she must be prepared.
“Without a deep-rooted understanding and knowledge, there are things I will simply not be able to do, such as choosing auspicious Buddhist days for funerals,” she says. “But I hope there are other things I can bring to the table.”
Keno Miura is proud of his wife’s efforts to fit into the complex environment of temple life.
“One challenge with being an international temple family is that Gretchen has had to learn everything from zero, but it is also good since she has no preconceived notions about Buddhism and she offers new ideas and approaches,” he says. “She has helped me open my mind.”
It isn’t just foreign temple wives who grapple with some of the finer points of the role. Miura’s Japanese friend, Ayuko Kori, lives with her husband and teenage sons at Kannonji, another temple in Akita Prefecture.
Kori struggles with what to do about all the foodstuffs and other gifts that people leave at the temple.
“We can’t eat everything ourselves, and deciding how to pass things on is stressful,” Kori says. “I’m still not sure of the best way to share the offerings among the various temple families.”
Chochomin Sato resides with her husband and elderly mother-in-law at Seishoji temple in the Oga region. Sato ran a successful ethnic restaurant in the area before her marriage in 2007.
Sato hails from Myanmar, reportedly the most religious Buddhist country in the world in view of the percentage of income spent on religion.
While one might assume this would give her an advantage in her role as a temple wife in Japan, she points out that there are differences in the two approaches to religion.
“People in Japan tend to think of the temple as a place to honor the dead or one’s ancestors, but in Myanmar it is also a place for self-improvement,” she says.
One major aspect of Buddhism in Myanmar is seeking to obtain a favorable rebirth via the accumulation of merit from good deeds.
“Following and respecting the teachings of Buddha in one’s daily life is the way to happiness,” Sato explains.
Boys are also expected to enter a monastery as novices, even if just for a short time.
At the other end of the country, Victoria Yoshimura from Britain is forging her own path in a rural community in the mountains of Miyazaki Prefecture in Kyushu. Seventeen generations of the Yoshimura family have presided over Shonenji, a 450-year-old Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple in the Takachiho area.
Yoshimura’s schedule is not for the fainthearted. In addition to teaching at a number of local schools and nurseries, she runs her own English school and has also built up a reputation as a speaker, traveling around Japan to give speeches. Income from her outside work allows her husband to concentrate on his role as head priest.
On top of this, Yoshimura is a priest in her own right. She says the desire to carve out a different role for herself dates back to the early years of her marriage, when the two oldest of her three children were very young.
“After providing an heir and a spare, I felt that they just wanted me to stay back, shut up and serve tea, although my husband insists this was not the case,” Yoshimura says. “But I felt that I had given up any opportunity to do post-graduate study by marrying and staying in Japan. I wanted intellectual stimulation and to know the whys and wherefores of the huge temple on my doorstep.”
The Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism promotes an enlightened approach to women and their role.
“It was the first sect to approve of marriage for priests,” Yoshimura says. “The Japanese term for a priest’s wife is ‘bomori.’ When I got married, I became a wakabomori — ‘young wife.’ Now I’m a bomori and my mother-in-law is a zenbomori — ‘previous wife.’ “
Yoshimura notes that female priests are “totally accepted” by Jodo Shinshu, although less than a third of temple wives actually take the priesthood.
Despite being equals to men within the religion, however, she says that in reality this does not pan out for women in rural Kyushu.
Once she had decided to train for the priesthood, Yoshimura did all her own research, consulting with the head temple in Kyoto.
“I ascertained that it was possible to get the qualifications,” Yoshimura says. “I’m basically illiterate in Japanese, even though I’m a fluent speaker. They were very supportive. I started studying, and things started looking up!”
It took Yoshimura around a year to reach the first level in priesthood and then, 12 years ago, she decided to train for the next level to become a head priest.
“My husband was diagnosed with double cancer and as there was a chance I was going to be a widow, I feared they would put another priest in his place to sideline me,” she says.
Fortunately, his health improved and he continues to fulfill the demands of his head priest role at Shonenji.
Like Miura, a large portion of Yoshimura’s duties as a temple wife involve preparing for gatherings at the temple, from cleaning and shopping for the guests, to coordinating groups of “temple ladies” who come to help with catering.
“Even when I officially became a bomori upon my father-in-law’s abdication, people still look to my mother-in-law, because being a foreign woman makes you incapable in many people’s eyes. My mother-in-law has handed the responsibilities over to me and deliberately fades into the background, but the temple ladies still want the OK from her and, ultimately, don’t believe me,” Yoshimura says.
“My priest work, on the other hand, is much more satisfying. I do house visits, funerals, chanting — everyone is appreciative,” she says. “I’ll go to someone’s house for a memorial, chant for 45 minutes in front of about 50 people, do a sermon, go to the tombstone to chant, then back to the house for a first-class kaiseki meal.”
With Japan’s rapidly aging population and the exodus of young people away from rural areas, temple families face challenges ahead.
“There are about 75,000 temples in Japan, so there are too many temples combined with a decreasing population. If there are 300 members per temple, then the temple can survive, but with less than that it becomes difficult,” Keno Miura says.
The Miuras say there is no pressure on their own children to take up the mantle of running the temple. Yoshimura’s oldest son, however, is already looking seriously at his future.
Although still in college, he has completed training for priesthood. An international studies major, Yoshimura says her son is also studying for a teacher’s license, as supporting a future family on just temple income isn’t feasible.
Ayuko Kori echoes this sentiment.
“It will be hard for the next generation of temple families to survive on donations alone, so I think we need to examine the role of the temple in the community and what we can offer,” Kori says.
While change is inevitable, Chochomin Sato notes that part of a temple’s role is to be a constant presence in the lives of those they serve. “I hope our temple can be a place where people can find peace of mind,” Sato says.
Gretchen Miura sees potential opportunities for temples to expand their activities and connect with the community in new ways.
“In the past, most people would visit temple just for a memorial service, but now they visit to enrich their lives though zazen, or to learn about sutras or to have a spiritual experience,” she says. “I have many ideas for the temple, such as running weekend English zazen or yoga retreats. There is so much interest from abroad and it would provide a unique and fulfilling experience both for the guests as well as for ourselves.”
Yoshimura notes that her presence at the temple has brought unexpected benefits.
“Our temple is vibrant and popular. We do unusual things and it can be blamed on the foreign wife!” she quips. “My husband is constantly being challenged by me, so he knows how to think outside of the box.”