Temples seek tighter community ties

by Takeshi Nishide


A new generation of Buddhist priests is working closely with ordinary people to regenerate communities as population shrinkage threatens the future of their temples.

On a Saturday night in May, a group of five men, mostly in their 30s, sat down at Saikoji Temple in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, to discuss ways of reinvigorating a lackluster local festival. The group was assembled by Taimei Ohara, a 33-year-old deputy chief priest at the temple, which belongs to the Soto sect of Buddhism. Ohara selected residents with ideas and initiative, among them a civil servant, a farmer and a clothing designer.

The Torinoichi festival, which has been celebrated at Saikoji each November over the past century, is now a shadow of its former self and only attracts a paltry crowd of 1,000 people, down from its peak of 5,000.

Ohara’s group wants to rejuvenate the festival and turn it into a magnet for visitors, who can breathe new life into the downtown area.

“I joined (the group) in the hope of energizing our community,” one of the men said after the meeting, which started around 7 p.m. and went on late into the night.

Ohara hopes their initiative will help form an “organic network of relationships.”

Ohara’s life is steeped in Buddhism. He was born to the family that presides over Saikoji, studied Buddhism at university and cut his teeth as a priest at Eiheiji, one of the head temples of the Soto sect.

As opportunities to relate with a wider parts of society and mingle with ordinary people are gradually rising, however, Ohara has begun to wonder what the future role of Buddhist temples will be.

The aging and shrinking of Japan’s population is starting to strain every facet of society and is casting a shadow over its temples as well. This has prompted young priests like Ohara to actively search for solutions within their own communities.

Last year, Ohara enrolled with Future Chief Priests, a training program initiated by priest Shokei Matsumoto, who runs a website that serves as a meeting place for Buddhists of all sects.

The program requires budding priests to think about what temples should do to contribute to society and map out visions for managing them, borrowing ideas from the study of business administration.

Reinvigorating the Torinoichi festival and building the community back up was a pillar of Ohara’s plan.

Meanwhile, 38-year-old priest Chiaki Matsushima is rejuvenating a temple in Suo-Oshima, Yamaguchi Prefecture, that she is set to take over from her father, by strengthening its community ties. The singer and songwriter, who performs live and has her own CDs, preaches Buddhism through her songs.

Matsushima studied Buddhism away from her home town, which is on a picturesque island in the Seto Inland Sea, and started a family in an urban area. While the stresses of urban life hurt Matsushima mentally, she managed to keep her spirits up through her belief in Buddhism and the tender memories of her hometown.

Matsushima later returned to Suo-Oshima with her family and entered the priesthood after her husband quit his job. While serving at Shogonji, her father’s temple, Matsushima supports Jam’s Garden, her husband’s home-made jam and marmalade business.

Jam’s Garden attracts online orders from across Japan, and Shogonji’s cooperative relationship with the local community keeps the supply of fruit flowing to it.

“We have managed to get along because of the mutual confidence that has been established between the temple and the community,” said Matsushima’s husband, Tadashi.

Matsushima is resolved to continue supporting Shogonji in the face of the island’s aging and dwindling population.

“I want to preserve Shogonji along with the landscape of this island for the sake of the people who have left it and may wish in the future to come home, like me.”