One thing I learned on coming to Japan as an earnest foreign student of Buddhism was that the young monks — those shaven-headed fellows in picturesque robes diligently sweeping the temple grounds — are less ascetic than they look. Off duty, they knock back beers, warble at karaoke bars and in general comport themselves like normal Japanese guys.

Hardly surprising, since many are not sages in training but heirs apparent to a family business. Their promotion to abbot — i.e., a temple’s CEO — often depends less on the pureness of their practice than their bloodline. Something similar goes on in many other enterprises and organizations here, from medical clinics to political parties.

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