Last year, a friend who lives in Tokyo received a letter from the Buddhist temple where her family grave is located. The temple is in a town in Gunma Prefecture, and while none of her relatives live there any more, they visit the grave for the proper seasonal observances.

The letter informed my friend that the temple had decided to move the graves to a “more convenient” location, and it asked them to pay for the removal. Families don’t own grave plots: They pay a one-time fee for the right to use them in perpetuity so long they visit them regularly. Obviously, if the temple was moving the graveyard, there was nothing my friend could do if she wanted to maintain her family’s grave there, so she paid the considerable removal fee. When she later visited her family grave in its new location, she found that the old graveyard was still in use but that the temple had sold rights to the newly empty plots to other families.

This is a good illustration of the situation surrounding Japanese temples, which is becoming increasingly precarious in a country where religion is more a matter of function than anything else. Whatever Buddhism’s value as a philosophy and spiritual outlet, for most Japanese its main purpose is to facilitate rituals associated with death. In the past, temples were central to the lives of communities because ancestors were interred within their precincts, and as more people leave their hometowns for the cities, their relationship with those temples deteriorates.

The problem for temples is that these changes not only make them less central to people’s lives, they make them poorer as well. My friend decided to pay the removal fee, but I imagine many families didn’t, since their hometown ties have become weak. Many city people simply remove their family remains and take them to private or public graveyards near their homes.

As temples lose danka (members), they lose revenue.

But they face another threat as well. Last summer, nationwide retailer Aeon started advertising on its website funeral services that included a price menu for things such as wakes, funerals, cremation and even the dispensing of kaimyo (posthumous Buddhist names). The All-Japan Buddhist Association protested over the inclusion on Aeon’s price list of ofuse, monetary offerings made to priests who carry out funeral rites. It objected because Aeon was basically merchandising a transaction that is private in nature.

The privacy of the transaction is, in fact, a problem that Aeon wants to solve. There is no standard amount for ofuse, which means it’s a mystery to people who pay it, and they tend to pay a lot since it’s considered better form to pay too much than too little. In addition, if you want a better posthumous name (presumably to impress all your old friends in the afterlife), you have to pay extra, but how much isn’t clear. Aeon at least gives you a price.

Japanese funerals are the most expensive in the world, but that’s not why Aeon’s smart-consumer model is a threat to temples. What worries the Buddhist association is that by commodifying the ritual elements of funerals, Aeon shines a light on the undeniable fact that temples are in the funeral business, and the government, always on the lookout for new sources of revenue, may revoke part of their nontaxable status as “public interest” organizations.

Religious groups must pay taxes on side businesses, unless the business is religious in nature and transacted on property owned by the group. The law is and always has been ripe for abuse. Several years ago, Aichi Prefecture tried to impose taxes on a temple’s pet memorial services, which the temple rejected, saying Buddhism recognizes that animals have souls. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, which found in favor of the prefecture, ruling that since the temple published a price list for the pet memorial services, it could be considered a business.

In a recent article in the magazine Aera, Takanobu Nakajima, a Keio University professor who has written a book entitled “The Economics of Temples,” pointed out that the law related to public interest corporations, which covers religious groups as well as the Japan Sumo Association, was revised several years ago, and by 2013 these corporations will have to reconfirm their nontaxable status.

Many of these organizations, which include Buddhist sects, already have side businesses that clearly are not religious in nature. In addition, many for-profit companies buy out these organizations to hijack their nontaxable status. Aera gives an example of a funeral service that purchased a small Buddhist foundation and then demanded kickbacks from priests who it introduced to mourning families. The funeral service basically received part of the ofuse the priests received, which it then claimed as nontaxable because it involved the religious activities of the “religious foundation” it owned. The priests had in effect become subcontractors for the funeral home.

If Buddhist organizations are scared of losing income, Nakajima thinks they should be more scared of becoming irrelevant. He uses Okinawa as a model. Okinawa has no danka system. Residents only utilize temples for graves, and as a result the number of temples is steadily declining. Currently there are 76,000 temples in Japan, and Nakajima predicts that if the country in general follows Okinawa’s example, in 50 years there will be only 6,000.

Irrelevance may come to plague the industry as well, or at least the graveyard part. The popular funeral poem “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” which in Japan was turned into the song “Sen no Kaze ni Natte” (“I Become a Thousand Winds”), has become a cultural phenomenon here in the past decade. Its message that the dead are everywhere (which sounds more like Shintoism) has made some people realize they don’t want to be cooped up in a grave for eternity, especially with a bunch of relatives.

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