Japonism Victoria vol.9 no.1


Shinto and Buddhism, and Japanese people No.5

Vincent A. @ ELC Research International

Buddhism on the Decline: Dislike to Priests and Aversion to Temples

Decrease of Temples

In terms of number of adherents, Japan is one of the world’s major Buddhist countries. The number of Buddhism believers in Japan has been reported either as 84 million or as 46 million, which figure is second to China or third, following China and Thailand. Estimating the number of religious believers is complicated work, and it is particularly so in Japan since the Japanese people have a little bit of an odd conception of religion. For example, in Japan, most funerals are performed in the Buddhist tradition, whereas wedding ceremonies are generally performed in the Shinto form and, moreover, having a wedding in a Christian church is not unusual. Since Japanese people are quite open to different religions, framing the definition for “believer” is not a simple question in Japan. Anyway, leaving aside, for a moment, an accurate estimate of believers, undoubtedly Buddhism is the major religion in Japan, in addition to Shinto (神道.)

However, Japanese Buddhism, as such, is now clearly developing symptoms of decline. One is a drastic decrease in the number of temples, and it results from the increase in the number of abandoned temples and uninhabited temples (temples without a resident priest.) This is particularly notable in low uplands (low mountainous areas) in provinces of Japan. One factor in the decline of active temples is the shortage of successors. Namely, due to the continuing low birthrate, many priests have no child who succeeds their job, such that they have to leave their temples as an abandoned temple or an uninhabited temple, and this occurs regularly at various places in Japan.

Another factor in the decrease of Buddhist temples in Japan is the decrease of Danka families, wherein Danka (檀家) means a Buddhist parishioner who supports a Buddhist temple. Actually, Japanese Buddhist temples can be distinguished in various ways. One categorization is a temple which holds a lot of Danka families and the revenue thereof, relying mainly upon the funeral services and Buddhist memorial services for these Danka families. This type of temple is called a Danka temple or Ekou temple, wherein Ekou(廻向) means a memorial service. Besides the Danka temples, there are “follower temples” holding a lot of followers and acting in the main to direct the ascetic practices of the followers, “tour temples” drawing a lot of tourists and collecting admission fees as the main source of revenue, and “prayer temples” accepting various prayers from the public and collecting prayer charges as the main revenue stream. Most Japanese temples are Danka temples, and it is the Danka temples which are outstanding in terms of the decrease in number. The reason is as follows.

It is believed that 200 to 300 Danka families are needed to financially sustain one Danka temple. However, in many provinces, particularly, in the lower uplands of Japan, birthrate decline, aging and migration of villagers to urban areas are occurring at the same time, which causes serious depopulation and consequent significant decrease of Danka families. To financially support a Buddhist priest and his family with a few Danka families remaining in the village imposes a considerable burden on them. Therefore, in typical cases, when an aged priest retires, the temple is left as an abandoned temple or an uninhabited temple.

Clearly, the birthrate decline, aging and migration of villagers to urban areas are inevitable outcomes of economic development and, therefore, it would be quite difficult to turn back the tide of temple decrease merely by the endeavors of Buddhist priests. But, note here that the decrease of temples is not the sole aspect of the decline of Buddhism in Japan. There is a further, more serious one, i.e., “detachment from temples” meaning that people are willing to be free from temples. For better understanding of the “detachment from temples,” I would like to explain first the Danka family system which determined the notion of the term Danka family.

Danka Family System

The Danka family system was a strong state policy that the Tokugawa (徳川) shogunate government set in the Edo (江戸) era (1603-1867). In this policy, the family is the basic unit, and every family is obliged to choose one Buddhist temple as a family temple and to become a follower of that temple. The temple acting as the family temple is called a Danna (檀那) temple which means a parish temple, while the family attached to that temple is called a Danka family which means a Buddhist parishioner.

The relationship between the Danna temple (parish temple) and the Danka family is rigid and strict. The villagers cannot change their Danna temple with the exception of limited cases where they’re going to get into another family’s line on the grounds of marriage or adoption or they’re going to move to another village.

Furthermore, the Danka families are obliged to support the finance of the Danna temple through contributions and benefactions, and, in addition to this, they are obligated to hold funeral services and anniversary memorial services at the Danna temple, to visit their graves and the temple regularly, and to participate in various Buddhist activities.

More temples were built in Japan to enforce the Danka family system and, as a result, a huge number of temples were finally distributed all over Japan. As the Danka family system was firmly established in this way, Buddhistic manners and customs such as funeral ceremonies, anniversary memorial services and grave visiting were spread out all over Japan. On the whole, these manners and customs are still maintained in Japan, today.

The Danka family system obliged every village family and family member to be a Buddhist belonging to a certain temple. So, in this sense, it was a policy of forcing Buddhism into the status of state religion on one hand and a policy of religion oppression aimed at eliminating Christianity, on the other. However, these were not the true ends which the Tokugawa shogunate government intended to achieve. The ultimate goal of the Shogunate was the complete control of the public through the temples. For this purpose, the Shogunate established a Danka certification system, called a Terauke (寺請) system, which was inseparable from the Danka family system.

The Danka certification system is a status-controlling and taxation-controlling system using temples as administrative hubs. More specifically, under this Danka certification system, each Danna temple was requested to prepare, usually every year, a status and tax register called a “Denomination Examination Book” with respect to every Danka family held by that temple. The records collected in this register included not only the family temple and denomination of each family but also the birthdates and birthplaces of all the family members, the new place of one who moved out, and changes in relationship such as marriage or adoption, as well as detailed property inventories such as the family business, the area of owned fields and the head count of owned domestic animals. Further, most importantly, the Danna temple was authorized to issue a Danka certificate which proved that the family was really a Buddhist Danka family and, in addition, to issue a certificate called a “Tera-Okuri-Jou” (寺送り状) (temple change notice) which was required in case a villager had to change their Danna temple due to marriage or moving place of residence. These certificates were issued based on the Denomination Examination Book.

Thus, for villagers, in order to get a Danka certificate or a temple change notice, it was invariably necessary to be registered at the village temple as a Danka family. On the other hand, with regard to the temple’s side of things, by virtue of the authorization to issue Danka certificates and temple change notices, they were largely successful in registering a large number of villagers as Danka families, and gained the benefits of stabilization of the temple finances and a substantial rise of the social status of the temple and the priests in the village.

Note here that all villagers were not able to get a Danka certificate. At first those families who didn’t make contributions or benefactions to the temple were expelled from the Danka family, and they couldn’t receive a certificate. Furthermore, Christians as well as those Buddhist believers who belonged to such Buddhist temples that defied the Shogunate and were not authorized to issue Danka certificates, couldn’t get it. Those people having no identification were regarded as a drifter or a non-person, and they were purged from society or forced to live at the bottom of the society as an under-class.

As described, the Shogunate planned and executed status control, thought control and taxation control for the public using temples. Thus, the temples were incorporated into the Danka family system and the Danka certification system but, as a benefit of that, they succeeded in encompassing villagers as Danka families and received powers to exert extensive influence on their lives in the village. In this way, Japanese Buddhism that began to spread among the people in the Kamakura (鎌倉) era (1185-1333) infiltrated deeply into the life of the people in the Edo era (1603-1867). Thus, a golden age of Buddhism had arrived. Looking back at the history, it could be said that Japanese Buddhism was adopted for use by, and with, government authority but at the time, Buddhism extended its power on the basis of that authority. The Danka family system and Danka certification system described above are just an example of how that occurred.

Trapped Priests

However, there was a big pitfall. Buddhism in fact permeated among the villagers by tying them to temples through the Danka family system and the Danka certification system. Since, however, Buddhism succeeded in confining people to temples with the compelling force of the authority (legal system) of the Shogunate, Buddhist priests didn’t need to bring up the faith of the people any more.

This is a point of vital importance. For, in stark contrast to Christianity, Buddhism is essentially free from the notion that “those who believe shall be saved.” More specifically, in Christianity, those who believe in the words of Christ and what he offered, representing God’s will expressed in human language, shall be saved, whereas those who do not shall not. This, though, doesn’t apply to Buddhism. We can see a good example in the sect Jodo Shin Shu (浄土真宗) of Buddhism. That is, according to the teaching of the Jodo Shin Shu sect, no matter whether people believe in the truth (i.e., the mercy of Amitabha) or not, they shall be saved certainly posthumously. Of course, those who repeated evil things shall fall into hell, but it is because of their evildoing and, anyway, even after falling into hell, they could be saved at some time if they repent their crimes. Thus, in Buddhism, believing in Buddha or not is not a crucial point; but rather, to feel gratitude toward Buddha is essential.

In Christianity, adding even one person, through missionary work, who becomes aware of the teaching of Christ, is regarded as absolutely good. But, in Buddhism, the absolute good is to deepen one’s own ascetic practices so that one gets a little closer to the emancipation of the soul; it is not essential to spread the truth to others. Therefore, after the priests succeed in encompassing the villagers with the Danka family system, basically it was no longer necessary for the priests to bring up faith with the villagers.

As a consequence, priests not strongly motivated to cultivate the faith of villagers began to work hard on the practical matters of boosting the authority of the temple or stabilizing the temple finances. In particular, a lot of priests rushed to enlarge their temple buildings and raise Buddha statues, and the villagers had to assume the expenses. Furthermore, in most cases the villagers were obliged to establish grave sites for their dead, and they were directed to hold funerals and memorial services invariably in the family temple. Until then, funerals were led by the village (community), but after the government directives, the temple took that place as a way to offer the temples income stabilization. In addition, many temples began to hold Buddhist rites and religious fairs to attract a lot of people for further expansion of their income.

Liberation from Danka Family System

At last, the Tokugawa shogunate government collapsed. As the Meiji (明治) era (1868-1912) started, the Danka family system and the Danka certification system, backing up the Buddhist temples and priests, were abolished. Although the relationship between the Danna temple (parish temple) and the Danka families till then seemed rigid superficially, it was not based on the strong religious faith of the people; it owed its existence to the compelling force of the Shogunate authority. The temples now having no power to issue Danka certificates no longer had any authority and, therefore, the relationship between the temple and the villagers was weakened to the status of a purely religious tie between a family temple and Danka families.

However, though the times and systems changed, village life didn’t change immediately. The priest and villagers continued living as they had before, seeing each other every day in the same village, and since the temple was still a family temple for the villagers, funeral services as well as grave-visiting went on at the same temple. Under such circumstances, the awareness of the Buddhist priests who had owed the temple finance entirely to the Danka family system wouldn’t change readily.

Namely, despite that the Danka family system was nullified legally, the illusion thereof has not been wiped away yet. This isn’t so unreasonable because the Danka family system continued for 260 years whereas, only 150 years have passed since the Danka family system was abolished as the Meiji era began. Notably, even after the legal Danka family system was abolished, the priests’ strong belief that the Danka families should properly support the temple remained in place. This has led to two things: (1) possessiveness by priests of the Danka families such that the priests hate the dropout of a Danka family which is going to move their grave to another temple and become a Danka family of that temple, and (2) immaturity among priests in that they consider the contributions and benefactions as a rightful obligation of the Danka families and they do not really appreciate the offerings given to them.

Undoubtedly, the reasons cited above have caused people’s “detachment from temples.” Probably, the shift to “detachment from temples” has been going on for the last two or three decades, but it has become even more obvious quite recently because Amazon Japan has started the Buddhist priest dispatching service called “Priest Delivery.”

Proofreading: David Gordon-MacDonald

Shinto and Buddhism, and Japanese people No.5
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