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Buddhism Is Waning In Japan


We turn now to Japan, a country that has over 77,000 Buddhist temples. For years, they have been a fixture in cultural life there. Yet many are expected to close - 40 percent of them in the next 25 years. To find out why, we've called up Ian Reader. He's a professor of religious studies at Lancaster University in the U.K. He joins us now. Professor Reader, thanks so much for being with us.

IAN READER: Thank you. OK.

MARTIN: You've traveled to Japan many times. What have you seen happening to Japan's historic Buddhist temples, especially along pilgrimage paths?

READER: Well, you mentioned that there were 77,000 temples. Around 20-plus thousand of them do not have a priest anymore. At least 2,000 of those 77,000 temples have ceased doing any religious activities. And the numbers are just going to increase over the next few years.

MARTIN: Before we begin to kind of unpack what's to account for those changes, can you give us some historical context about the role of Buddhism in Japan historically?

READER: It's the religion of death. When I first was in Japan, I was talking to a couple of academics that I knew. And one of them said to the other, what Buddhist sect do you belong to? He didn't ask whether his colleague was a Buddhist. He just said what do you belong to? And the guy - the other person said, I don't know because nobody in the family has died yet. There is that kind of relationship traditionally between Buddhism and death that - it dates backed from the 17th century, really.

MARTIN: Because we should point out, Japanese people - as a whole, it is not a Buddhist country. I mean, there are Shinto shrines everywhere. And Japanese people identify with Shinto religion for much of their life.

READER: They - many Japanese will say that they're both Shinto and Buddhist and that they're not religious at the same time. You know, it's traditional to go to the Shinto shrine for a prayer or a blessing for the New Year. When you die, you go to the Buddhist temple. There's a traditional belief in Japan that when you die, your spirit becomes - if it's properly cared for - becomes a family ancestor. And the tradition has been for families to do Buddhist rituals at death to memorialize the dead person, to turn them into an ancestor. And that's a long process. And it also is actually quite a costly process. They often say that the most expensive thing to do in Japan, apart from buying a house, is to die.

MARTIN: What does this mean for Buddhist priests and the families who have run these temples for generations?

READER: Well, for the last 150 or so years, Japanese Buddhist temples have generally been inherited. The sons of priests are increasingly saying, I don't want to do this. Now, there are attempts to revive things. There have been a number of particularly younger monks - younger priests - who've tried to do, you know, get into social welfare activities. They've tried to find new ways to speak to people. They, for example, set up cafes at their temples. They set up bars that have got a Buddhist theme to them.

MARTIN: Buddhist bars?

READER: Yeah, they're called vows bars - V-O-W-S bars. But it's a play on the word - vow sounds very similar in Japanese to bouzu (ph), which is the word for monk. And if you go in there, it's an ordinary bar, but it's run by Buddhist priests. And you can talk to the priests and so on as well as having a drink. They are effective in a very small way. But they haven't done anything to alter the major decline - process of decline. A few temples have done OK. But the bigger problem is that the tradition itself is ossifying. It's almost dying on its feet.

MARTIN: Ian Reader teaches religious studies at Lancaster University in the U.K. Thanks so much for talking with us.

READER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.