Ryohoji in Tokyo’s western suburb of Hachioji was just another temple that few passersby bothered to enter until it came up with the novel idea of using “anime” characters to attract visitors.

The 420-year-old temple’s combination of Buddhism and geek culture, which has even seen it hold “maid cafe” events on its grounds, may not be to everyone’s liking.

However, it is a serious initiative by Shoko Nakazato, Ryohoji’s 46-year-old chief priest, to seek new ways of interacting with the younger generation as ties between temples and their communities fray in modern society.

The turning point for Ryohoji came in May 2009, when it put up a colorful sign welcoming visitors with original “moe” animation characters based on the images of gods enshrined at the temple. Moe is slang used by avid manga and anime fans to express a feeling similar to “cute.”

The characters include one depicting Benzaiten, a goddess of art and music, wearing a pink costume and holding a sword, and one of Kishibojin, a goddess of birth and children.

“Nowadays, the younger generation, even those from households that have financially supported the temple, do not visit us except for funerals or memorial services. So I wanted to make a sign that would be eye-catching for them, and to various other people living in this commuter town,” said Nakazato.

The chief priest had for a while considered using “something artistic” to promote Buddhism, and turned for help to the grandson of one of Ryohoji’s supporters who also manages an event company. Nevertheless, even as the attempt to turn Ryohoji into what is now referred to as a “moe temple” began to take shape, he still had trouble making up his mind.

“I was not sure whether it was right to put up such a sign at a temple. . . . The picture is cute, but it has so much impact . . . and I was very concerned that it may startle visitors,” Nakazato said.

The sign was designed by an “Akiba-style” illustrator and singer who goes by the name of Toromi. “Akiba” is the shortened form for Akihabara, the Tokyo electronics district that is also a center of subculture, including manga and anime.

Toromi said she was initially worried she might be doing something “indiscreet,” but eventually concluded that even if the sign was controversial, it might lead people to visit the temple and think about religion.

It did not take long for the sign to make its mark. First, young people started showing up to take photos and then the media caught on and started to report on the temple.

During a two-day local festival in November 2009, Ryohoji saw some 2,000 visitors, including 400 people drawn by a maid cafe — a coffee shop with waitresses dressed as maids. Nakazato said this was a huge change from the past, “when hardly anyone stopped by.”

Ryohoji has also generated publicity from related projects organized by, among others, the event company of the supporter’s grandson, such as the release of an upbeat “temple theme song” that includes words from the Lotus Sutra, and a mobile phone program that plays a recording of Nakazato chanting the sutra.

Recently, the temple held an event to dedicate a figurine based on the Benzaiten anime character, describing it as a “moe Buddhist statue.” The figurine’s creator, Takeshi Miyagawa, 41, said Buddhist statues should “evolve” by using cutting-edge design and materials so his generation can come to admire them, just as people in the past appreciated traditional statues made in their own era.

While many of the responses have been positive, some people living nearby appear to have mixed feelings about the temple’s new direction, according to Toromi.

Tetsuya Ono, a 54-year-old company employee, said that while temples should “devise ways” to lure visitors and avoid becoming desolate, he is not sure about the Ryohoji’s newfound direction.

“I think the signboard was a fine idea, but maid cafe events were going too far,” Ono said. “And I’m afraid that the temple will end up being just a mecca for fans of manga and anime, which is probably not the temple’s intention.”

Nobuharu Imai, a religious sociology researcher at the Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics at Kokugakuin University, said some sects of Buddhism have historically developed under the guidance of monks who seemed to react against the established Buddhism of their time. He said Ryohoji’s use of anime could be considered such a move.

However, Imai said it remains to be seen whether Nakazato can maintain the current level of interest in Ryohoji, or whether the development will turn out to be just a fad.

“The temple has succeeded in bringing in visitors, so the next challenge will be how the priest can use this chance to promote Buddhism. . . . It may also become an opportunity to revive the temple as a key local community space, like in days gone by,” Imai said.

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