A Buddhist temple in Nemuro, Hokkaido, is seeking to redefine its role in the community amid a rapid decline in followers.

Nemuro Betsuin Temple of the Shin Buddhism Otani sect began a series of meetings with volunteers last June under the moderation of Ryo Yamazaki, 42, a self-styled community designer, to re-evaluate the temple’s functions.

Around 40 people attended the fifth meeting, held recently at the temple. A range of events have been tried, including live music, and finally it was decided that the temple should host a cafe.

The upbeat meetings energized participants, especially elderly people.

At the fifth meeting, Yamazaki asked seven young Buddhist monks if they were ready to take on the extra work that would accompany rejuvenation.

“Monks should seek to play more roles in the community at a time when temples are rapidly losing the meaning of their existence,” he contended. “People used to gather at temples just for the sake of faith, but no longer.”

Tetsuya Tsunemoto, 25, one of the seven monks, said: “I want to learn here how to attract people.”

Tsunemoto said he hopes to make use of his experiences in Nemuro when he returns to a temple in Wajima, Ishikawa Prefecture, which he will take over from his father in the future.

After studying open-space planning at the graduate school of agriculture at Osaka Prefectural University, Yamazaki joined an architectural design office in Osaka in 1999.

He importance of human connections was brought home to him by the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. When Yamazaki walked through Nada Ward in Kobe to survey quake damage to houses, he was impressed by the sight of survivors encouraging each other in the midst of crisis.

He states his philosophy as “how to incorporate warmth of heart into town development.”

While working at the architectural office, Yamazaki formed a group with colleagues and other people to create community groups with a particular focus, such as how to use a park.

In 2005, Yamazaki established an office in Suita, Osaka, with the unique purpose of designing human relations.

The office, named Studio-L, now has a staff of 25 and takes on around 70 projects each year.

Yamazaki is “totally different from other consultants who propose ideas in a haughty attitude and take no responsibility when their proposals end up in failure,” said Masanori Fukuda, 63, secretary-general of a nonprofit organization in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture. Fukuda’s group carries out community rejuvenation events in cooperation with Studio-L.

Yamazaki is confident of his ability to find leaders like Fukuda: “I frequently changed schools when I was young because of my father’s job assignments and so became capable of quickly identifying class leaders,” he laughed.

Sokujo Oe is head of planning at Higashi Honganji, the mother temple of the Shin Buddhism Otani sect. Oe asked Miyazaki for advice on how to manage temples and said people who attend his meetings “feel uplifted for life” and shed any anxiety about the future they may have felt before.

“The can-do-spirit is raised when empathy spreads among people through conversations,” Yamazaki said. “You must not impose your values on others.”

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