AIKAWA, KANAGAWA PREF. – A yellow-colored Buddhist temple adorned with flags and golden dragons on its pointed roofs in a quiet town outside Tokyo presents a stark contrast to the typically somber-looking Buddhist places of worship usually found in rural Japan.
But the steady stream of out-of-town weekend visitors and their nationality also set it apart, for the temple was built by and serves members of the large Vietnamese community in the Tokyo metropolitan area.
Despite its out-of-the-way location, the Vietnam Temple in Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, located about 50 kilometers from central Tokyo, has become a magnet for many members of the community, drawing them both for the spiritual guidance it offers and the sense of community they find there.
Every Sunday, dozens gather for services while hundreds flock there for major events, with some coming from as far away as central and western Japan.
The temple, whose main building was completed in 2012, attracts a diverse cross-section of the community. Visitors include both younger workers and short-term technical interns as well as refugees who have been in Japan for decades since fleeing their homeland following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
“I enjoy coming here because I can meet many Vietnamese friends,” says Vu Thi Trang, 22, who works at a factory making boxed lunches in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. “I can relax and I feel better.”
Trang, who came to Japan in March 2017 to work for three years under the technical internship program sponsored by the Japanese government, is one of some 20 volunteers who help with chores at the temple.
The native of Hai Duong, near Hanoi, says she attended Sunday services at a Buddhist temple back home and was introduced to the Aikawa temple by one of her friends after coming to Japan.
Nguyen Dung Hieu, 22, also a technical intern who works for a construction company in Sagamihara, agrees with Trang, saying he finds “relief from stress at work” through his visits to the temple. Hieu says he learned about the site via a Facebook post by one of his friends.
The two took part in the celebration of the Vu Lan festival, known as Mother’s Day in Vietnam, at the temple in August.
In the ceremony, young volunteers clad in blue-gray uniforms distributed artificial flowers to the congregation to express gratitude to their mothers. The flowers were either pink or white depending on whether the worshipper’s mother was still alive or had passed on.
The temple was overflowing with visitors including some who had come from as far away as Kobe, and many had to stand outside the main building to observe the ceremony. Some were wearing Vietnam’s traditional ao dai dress.
The ceremony was followed by a buffet lunch of Vietnamese vegetarian dishes using such ingredients as beans, mushrooms and rice prepared by members of the religious community.
More than worship
Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang, 28, who first came to Japan as a student in 2012 and began attending the temple last September, says she believes Vietnamese Buddhist followers in general share a strong bond.
“We have the same purpose, which is to serve everyone in the temple. Here we can easily make friends with strangers and I feel as if I am back in my hometown,” she says. “This temple has a warm atmosphere and I feel like everyone is family.”
The former student at Kyushu Institute of Information Sciences had also been active in Vietnamese Buddhist gatherings in southwestern Japan before coming to the Tokyo area, emceeing a major service hosted two years ago at a Japanese temple because the area had no Vietnamese place of Buddhist worship.
Although the 330,835 Vietnamese residents of Japan form the third-largest group among the 2.73 million foreign residents living in the country as of late 2018, following Chinese and South Koreans, there are says to be only about 10 Vietnamese Buddhist temples in this country.
After moving to Saitama Prefecture, Trang got married to a fellow Vietnamese and the couple had their wedding ceremony at the Aikawa temple in October last year.
“We didn’t know many people at that time, but even strangers celebrated with us,” she says.
The native of Phu Tho, some 80 kilometers from Hanoi in northern Vietnam, jokingly noted the cultural differences that sometimes set her apart from people from the south of her country but says she can nonetheless consult with them about her work or plans for the future.
A worker at a trading company, Trang says that on one occasion when she discussed her plan to export frozen cakes to Vietnam, a fellow worshipper asked for samples to send to a relative running a coffee chain in the country. Older members of the congregation, meanwhile, gave her advice on whether to buy a home in Japan.
“When our baby is born, I’ll definitely come to the temple regularly with the child,” she says.
The temple’s chief priest, Nhuan An, 41, who arrived in Japan to succeed to the post following the death of his predecessor in 2017, says that Buddhism is a major religion in Vietnam that “people feel close to and is always on their side.”
According to official statistics, Buddhists make up about 12 percent of Vietnam’s population, followed by Catholics at some 7 percent in the former French colony (followers of folk religions account for the majority), but some estimates point to a higher percentage of Buddhist followers.
“Vietnamese followers spiritually rely on Buddhist priests whenever they have troubles as couples, or about children, or economic problems,” An says.
The priest, who runs the temple with a Vietnamese nun, says he thinks his compatriots in Japan are “more stressed, nervous and under heavier pressure” compared with worshippers back home.
He points out that the number of young followers who come to the temple has been sharply on the rise, attributing it partly to the ease of sharing information on social media. Vietnam sends the most technical trainees to Japan, numbering about 164,500 as of December last year.
“I’ve been told that they have had a hard time in the workplace, including cases of bullying. I encourage them so they can feel better and hang in there,” An says.
Construction company intern Hieu, who works on paving roads, complained about having to work outside under the scorching sun and says he feels homesick for his family in Buon Ma Thuot, a southern highland area that is cooler than where he is now.
An, who belongs to a Buddhist temple in Dong Nai near Ho Chi Minh City, stresses the significance of the religious site for Vietnamese in Japan, saying it “offers precious opportunities for them to be in touch with Vietnamese culture and become positive by practicing Buddhist teachings in their everyday life.”
He notes that some children of expats who grow up in Japan cannot speak much Vietnamese, leading to what he called “internal conflicts and difficulty living in two cultures.” He expresses hope that by visiting the temple, they can practice their native language and better adapt to Vietnamese culture.
Yu Takefumi, 69, a former Vietnamese refugee who received Japanese citizenship about 20 years ago, welcomed the development of the temple, which he and other long-time parishioners helped build by collecting donations and finding a suitable lot.
Before the Aikawa temple was built, many of those attending its services rented spaces at Japanese temples to hold gatherings. Compared with expat communities in other countries such as the United States and Germany, Vietnamese in Japan have fewer places of worship of their own, he says.
“The temple is not only a place for followers to confide in others about their worries, but also serves as a guide in their life so they can do good deeds,” Takefumi says. He adopted a Japanese name when he became a naturalized Japanese citizen.
“Basically, this religious community is supported by members’ volunteer work and it shows they are practicing Buddhist teachings in their life. Their good deeds will eventually benefit them,” he adds.
An immigrant’s story
The former police officer hailing from near Nha Trang in southern Vietnam is one of the refugees who settled in Japan after fleeing from persecution under Communist Party rule.
By the end of 2005, Japan had accepted some 8,700 Vietnamese as Indochinese refugees. Some of them later acquired Japanese citizenship, with the number of naturalized Vietnamese totaling 1,070 as of March 2018, according to a survey by the aid group Refugee Assistance Headquarters.
In April 1980, Takefumi and his family, which included small children, took to sea in a boat, aiming to reach the Philippines, as he was set to be imprisoned at a re-education camp in Vietnam.
After spending a night at sea, his boat was spotted by a U.S. military aircraft, which called for help from a Japanese shrimp fishing vessel sailing nearby. He and his family ended up landing in Okinawa several days later.
Like other Vietnamese refugees, Takefumi received public support to settle in Japan but only studied the Japanese language for three months at a refugee assistance center set up by the government in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward in 1983, cutting short a six-month program because he had to work to feed his family.
Takefumi, a resident of Ayase, Kanagawa Prefecture, with five children, says he feels sorry that many second-generation Vietnamese residents of Japan are not as eager as newcomers such as young interns to support the activities of the Buddhist temple.
“It would be regrettable if we cannot pass on our activities to our children, but we cannot force them,” he says, conceding that they will “act according to their own experiences.”
But Takefumi says technical trainees temporarily staying in the country and Japan-based younger children of regular temple members who come to Sunday services with their parents offer a bright future for the temple.
“I hope this place will continue to be a magnet for various people to gather so that traditional Vietnamese culture will be inherited by the next generation,” he adds.
Lam Thi My Linh, 48, a native of Soc Trang in southern Vietnam, came to Japan 22 years ago and she and her Vietnamese husband, originally a refugee in Japan, have three sons. Only the eldest, now 21, can speak a little Vietnamese.
On the day of the festival, Linh, who has been attending the temple since 2012, came with her youngest son, Lam Thanh Dien, 10, from their home in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture.
But while her youngest child can only speak Japanese, she says the visit was meaningful because it “provides chances to be in touch with Vietnamese people and their culture.”
Kanagawa Prefecture hosts the largest community of permanent and long-term Vietnamese residents in Japan at 4,962, followed by 3,692 in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan, as of December last year, according to government data.
The two prefectures are believed to have large communities of Vietnamese settlers because Yamato in the prefecture and Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture once hosted centers to promote resettlement of Indochinese refugees, who also included Laotians and Cambodians. Both the centers were closed in the late 1990s.
In Kanagawa, several public housing complexes, known in Japanese as “danchi,” accommodate many Vietnamese residents. Among them, the Icho Danchi that straddles the cities of Yokohama and Yamato is said to have one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the prefecture.
Meanwhile, chief priest An, who is now learning Japanese, is keen to promote good relations with the temple’s neighbors. He makes home visits to ease their worries about noise and the scarcity of parking spaces caused by an influx of worshipers by car.
“We’re learning Japanese culture and customs and I think little by little, Japanese neighbors have come to understand us better, and we’re getting closer to each other,” he says.
The Vietnam Temple is located at 4889-1 Hanbara, Aikawa-machi, Aiko-gun, Kanagawa Prefecture. For more information, visit bit.ly/2lNo6CI.