One day in January, in a quiet Zen temple on a hill in Nagoya’s Tenpaku Ward, a priest offered a Nigerian visitor okaki (rice crackers).
“Can you eat (this)?” the chief priest of Tokurinji temple asked him in English.
The man, who came to Japan to seek asylum, is one of many people — usually students or refugees — that 75-year-old Shucho Takaoka has taken in at his temple over the past three decades.
“Some people call our temple kakekomidera,” Takaoka said, raising a combined term that was used to describe Edo Period (1603-1868) temples that functioned as shelters for women fleeing their husbands.
Although born as the eldest son of a Buddhist priest, Takaoka did not enter the priesthood until he turned 37. After entering Nagoya University, he saw his classmates join demonstrations armed with wooden sticks, and his distrust toward society grew.
When he was 26, he told his father that he would not succeed him at the temple and headed to Nepal. After arriving, he came down with a high fever and diarrhea. A local Chinese man offered to rent him a room for free.
While there, he became involved in activities to preserve Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit. A decade later, he came to feel it was about time to return to his home — the temple in Japan.
In 1985 he succeeded his father at Tokurinji temple and created a room named Shantikuti, meaning “peace house” in Sanskrit, at the back of its main hall to serve as free accommodation for foreign people seeking shelter, just as the Chinese man did for him in Nepal.
In 2011, an acquaintance who supports Africans told him more people were likely to come to Japan seeking refuge. He then set up a pair of wooden two-story houses on the temple grounds, helped by residents and a carpenter acquaintance, for use as a guesthouse.
Since then, he has provided temporary shelter to people in need at the request of a refugee support group and facilitated their bids for refugee status. “I just want to help people in difficulty,” he says.
When a Nepalese man died in March 2017 after being taken into custody at Shinjuku Police Station in Tokyo, Takaoka went there to collect his body and arrange for cremation. In addition, he bore most of the expenses, which reached ¥600,000.
He says most of his activities to support foreign people are covered by donations from danka (supporters of his temple). Usually, such donations are used to run and renovate temples, but Takaoka said he has tried to limit such spending.
“I renovated the temple roof myself to save money, so I hope they will forgive me,” he said.
When he succeeded his father, there were only 16 danka and he was unable to pay a ¥5 million fee requested by the Soto sect, which the temple belongs to. But as he continued to help people in need, his financial supporters grew. His danka now exceed 200.
Recently, some elderly people in the neighborhood began growing vegetables on a small piece of land alongside the guesthouse. The land was initially cultivated by an American Buddhist priest who stayed at the temple 27 years ago, Takaoka said.
While he plans to hand the temple over to his son at some point in the future, he appears willing to continue his work for now.
“I feel like I’m still about 40 years old,” he says.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Jan. 23.