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Online Funerals, Zen Apps Keep Japan’s Buddhist Temples Afloat

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Ayai Tomisawa
·4-min read
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(Bloomberg) -- Memorial services held online. Zen meditation apps. Buddhist temple-led match-making services.

As the coronavirus pandemic forces institutions around the world to change the way they do things, those new endeavors are some of the ways that Buddhist groups in Japan are trying to survive. Their temples are part of the landscape: there are about 77,000, more than the number of Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores.

Covid-19 has caused further pain for Buddhist organizations already struggling in recent years due to Japan’s shrinking population and sagging interest in religion among the young. One estimate is that temples’ total income has halved in the five years to 2020. And now the virus has kept believers at home, reducing donations they make for services such as memorials for the deceased.

Buddhist temples have thrived in Japan for more than a millennium. But they need money to operate, and the pandemic has prompted some priests and monks to think of new ways to generate income. It’s a reflection of the way that industries worldwide from travel to dining and retail are having to improvise as Covid-19 restrictions batter their usual business.

‘Cloud-Sitting’

Ryosokuin, a Zen temple with more than 660 years of history in Kyoto, is one such innovator. Faced with a drop-off in services such as memorials and a plunge in tourism, the organization boosted its online operations. It developed a meditation app that’s been downloaded more than 15,000 times that it expects to eventually monetize, and it’s organized an online zen meditation community called UnXe, meaning ‘cloud-sitting.’

“When we lost visitors and donations fell, we realized that our conventional way of supporting our operations no longer works,” said Toryo Ito, deputy chief priest at the temple. “We need to adapt to a management style which meets with the times.”

Read about some Buddhist monks snapping up ESG debt

Buddhism has a history stretching back to the 6th century in Japan, but few periods have brought such challenges. Over a third of temples may disappear by 2040 as the population grows old, according to Kenji Ishii, a religious studies professor at Kokugakuin University in Tokyo.

Temple income is falling too. The total figure likely dropped about 51% since 2015 to 263 billion yen ($2.4 billion) in 2020, according to estimates by Hidenori Ukai, the chief priest at the Shokakuji temple in Kyoto and a freelance journalist.

The pandemic is adding to financial troubles across a broad swath of Japanese society. While the economy is recovering, a state of emergency in major cities has continued to weigh on consumer spending. And businesses that serve customers face-to-face such as retailers have been hit especially hard, resulting in a spate of bankruptcies for restaurants and hotels.

Tsukiji Hongwanji, a four-century-old temple near Tokyo’s old fish market, is another organization trying to make the best of the virus period. It started online memorial services last May for families that don’t want gatherings for the deceased, and has done about 70 such events, according to Yugen Yasunaga, a representative director and priest at the temple.

The organization is also venturing into areas that staid temples aren’t traditionally known for, such as match-making services, a cafe and yoga classes, said Yasunaga, who worked in a major Japanese bank for more than two decades before starting his career at Tsukiji Hongwanji.

“Just like Amazon.com responds to the various needs of customers online, a temple can do the same,” he said.

Another area that Japanese religious institutions are increasingly exploring is environmental, social and governance investing. Tokuunin, a Zen Buddhist temple in central Tokyo, bought 40-year social bonds sold by the University of Tokyo.

“At a time when we can barely get any returns from long-term savings, we’re happy that we can contribute to helping society while earning enough returns to cover inflation,” said Yuzan Yamamoto, its chief priest.

(Updates with link to story about property development projects by priests.)

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