The Secularization of Japanese Buddhism:
The Priest as Profane Practitioner of the Sacred

Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu

Before entering the topic, I would like to clarify the concept of "secularization". As you already know, there are many interpretations and understandings of the term "secularization". As Winston Davis notes in his essay "The Secularization of Japanese Religion", there tends to be two opposed methods for approaching the idea of secularization: one that it is an inevitable result of the advance of modernism; the other that it is an impossibility based on man's essential religious nature. Both of these viewpoints take the notions of "tradition" and "modernity" as clearly delineated concepts in which secularization is the movement of society from the former to the latter.1 As I will argue below, since Japanese Buddhism contains a fundamental ambiguity between the realms of sacred and profane, it becomes quite difficult to speak of secularization in terms of Japanese society moving from the traditional (which is presumed to be more sacred) to the modern (which is presumed to be more profane). Therefore, I feel to pursue such an analysis of secularization is an inappropriate method for evaluating religiosity in Japanese society.

In my presentation, I will attempt to gain a view of the "secularization" of modern Japanese Buddhism in more concrete and meaningful terms through looking at the Buddhist priest, his status and attitudes towards him. This attempt, I hope, will offer a more grounded view on the movement of Japanese society and Japanese Buddhism within it. In this way, I will speak of two sociological movements. One I will call "secularization" as the absorption of certain aspects of the Buddhist priest into everyday, profane social interaction; the other I will refer to as "marginalization" as the movement of certain aspects of the Buddhist priest away from the centers to the margins of social interaction.

After first discussing this ambiguity between sacred and profane as a key characteristic of Japanese Buddhism, I will address the increase of this ambiguity (as secularization and marginalization) in terms of the Buddhist priest. Finally, I would like to illustrate in detail the present condition of this trend by looking at the role of the Japanese priest and the attitudes towards him through his role in society during World War II and most prominently in his place in modern Japanese society.

Historical Development of the Secular Monk
There is no doubt that at the end of the 8th century the great Shingon founder Kukai became the first Japanese monk to interpret Buddhism in uniquely Japanese terms. In his teaching of hosshin seppo (all natural phenomena are the dharma body), he stated that dharma, as ultimate truth, is not found beyond present reality. Out of this idea, Kukai formulated a soteriology based on the triangle relationships of man, nature, and gods. In this system, the phenomenal world is sacred, and the sacred world is found within phenomena. It is this system which is the foundation for the development of Japanese Buddhism's own unique character.

A good illustration of this ambiguity between sacred and profane are the various types of Buddhist monks which emerged in the Japanese tradition. One type is referred to as shidoso which meant an unauthorized monk. As early as the Nara period and especially in the Heian and Kamakura periods, these were monks who had dropped out of their temples or had actually never been ordained. They would wander from town to town teaching Buddhism and begging for food and money. They were notorious for their frequent criminal behavior such as theft and rape. They grew their hair and wore robes in the style of the famous itinerant hijiri like Ippen and Koya. They differed from hijiri, however, in that they were not officially ordained by any temple. What is significant is that although they were social menaces and held no formal qualification as a monks, people saw them as holy men if they provided services and teachings or aided in some communal project. Essentially, what was important was not the sacred status that would be proffered upon them as an official member of the Buddhist clergy, but their concrete actions in society. This is an initial, clear example of how the Buddhist monk in Japan has a tendency towards secularization.

The next step in this development of ambiguity between sacred and profane in terms of the Buddhist monk is the rise of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism under Honen (Jodo-shu) and Shinran (Jodoshin-shu). In the 12th century, Honen took the unprecedented step of systematizing in a Buddhist doctrine the abandonment of the Buddhist precepts. In such a way, Honen was discarding the essential factor which separated ordained from lay and sacred from profane. It was then Honen's disciple Shinran who fully practiced the doctrine by openly marrying and having children. Furthermore, in the 15th century, Rennyo institutionalized Shinran's practices thereby laying the foundation for the lifestyle of the modern Japanese Buddhist priest. Although Jodo-shu monks continued to keep the precepts in outward form through this time, the Edo period marked the full incorporation of the nembutsu as the single precept alongside Honen's original Tendai precepts, which had been the standard of the sect since its official recognition early in the 15th century. This legitimization of Pure Land practice in Japanese society marks the further development of the Japanese monk as transmitter of the sacred in increasingly profane form.

The final step in the transformation of the Buddhist monk in Japan was the Meiji edict of April 1872 concerning monks. This edict allowed monks under state law to eat meat, to marry, to grow hair, to take on a family name, and to not wear robes except at services. In the Tokugawa period, the precepts had been become state law applying to all monks, except for the followers of Shinran. This edict was the final institutionalization of what was once regarded as Honen's outrageous interpretation. The decision behind this edict has two significant ramifications.

Firstly, since it had become common at this time, even among the non Jodoshin-shu sects, for monks to engage in the above practices, this edict merely made official what was already in general practice. In this way, we can see how the basic lifestyle of the vagabond shidoso monks of the Heian period developed and finally became the codified lifestyle of official priests in the modern era. In the Heian period, these practices were recognized by neither the sects nor the state. In the Kamakura period, they found doctrinal legitimization with Honen. Into the Edo, they became common practice, and finally by the Meiji they became the accepted standard for a monk's lifestyle. This final movement towards the obliteration of distinction between monks and lay people marks the foundation for the modern Japanese priest's secularization.

Secondly, this above codification of a secularized lifestyle for the monk coupled with the revival of the emperor system and development of State Shinto were fundamental in desacralizing Buddhism and pushing it to the margins of society. This movement marks the beginning of a marginalization in which monks began to lose their monopoly over the sacred realm.

Wartime Policy Towards the Buddhist Clergy
The first illustration I would like to discuss of the changed status of the Buddhist priest in modern Japan is his treatment during the World War II. One of the key ramifications of the 1872 Meiji edict was that Buddhist monks began to be viewed by the government as common people, as civilians before clergy, with few special exemptions in status. This is clearly seen in the wartime government's drafting of priests directly into the military as foot soldiers. There is actually precedence for this policy as some priests had fought as soldiers in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Their status as common citizens before priests is further born out in the fact that priests with any special status within the clergy, such as abbots of temples, were given no special treatment in the military. At this time, only doctors received exemptions from the fighting, and only the highly educated were able to enter directly as officers.

Although the conditions during World War II and the policies of the Japanese wartime governments were certainly exceptional, the status of the Buddhist priest during World War II shows the growing trend in modern Japanese society of not distinguishing priests from the rest of the society. More and more the priest as a person has been absorbed into secular society, and his role as sacred representative of Buddhism pushed out of the mainstream of society.

From Monastery to Family Home
As far back as the Tokugawa era, the development of a money economy had begun to have a secularizing influence not only on Buddhist institutions but on society as whole.2 This trend in the larger society coupled with the Meiji edict accelerated the secularization and marginalization process concerning the Buddhist priest and Buddhist institutions. In this way, I will now look at the role of the modern Japanese priest and temple in terms of its development as an economic entity. The changes they have undergone in the last 100 years show a further loss of distinction between sacred and profane.

Concerning the role of the Buddhist temple, the Meiji edict's most far reaching element was the official permission for monks to marry and raise families. This has radically altered the makeup of the temple from a community of monks or nuns to a family unit. Where traditionally, the temples survived on donations and land holdings, if they had them, the priest now has had to reform the temple into a family business, not only to keep the temple running but to provide for his family.

Out of this situation, temples have become increasingly hereditary enterprises. Although official records are not kept on this, we can estimate that 80-90% of Japanese Buddhist priests have inherited their positions from their fathers. In the case where the temple has become economically prosperous, there is tremendous pressure on the first son of the family to become a priest and to maintain the family's prosperity. Where the temple is not prosperous economically, especially in the countryside, the brightest son in the family is encouraged not to become a priest but to further pursue his education in hopes of gaining a good job and prosperous lifestyle. In this scenario, the less able of the sons will enter the priesthood and take over the temple. An extremely significant result of this development is that the impetuous to become a priest in modern Japan has shifted from spiritual to economic. In the above example, we can see the temple becoming thoroughly secular from the makeup of its very inhabitants to its role as an economic enterprise for the priest and his family.

A second consequence concerning the temple has been its marginalization, especially in urban society during the last 50 years of population exodus from the countryside to the city. During this exodus, the vast majority of migrants have not entered new temples. This has precipitated a great drop in temple followers in the countryside with one priest often taking care of two or even three temples. According to Heian Saiten, one of the largest funeral homes in Tokyo, in 1992, 60-70% of all Tokyo residents were without temple affiliation.3 As any family which has lived in Tokyo for over 50 years will no doubt have a family temple, this statistic bears out the large number of immigrants who do not join temples upon their move.

The reasons for this ambivalence towards temple affiliation further indicate Buddhism's marginalization in urban Japan. Simply, a first cause has been the general secularization of urban centers in Japan with local governments providing day care centers and schools which used to be prominent features of temple life, as witnessed in the terakoya schools of the Tokugawa era.

In accordance with this development has been the movement of temples away from public domains to private ones. The Tokugawa era's dankaseido system, which forced all families to take on temple affiliation, began to make the Buddhist temple a more private entity for the interaction of member families only. This was the first step in making temples more exclusive places of interaction. The centering of the temple around the family unit has further privatized it. Now, for instance, it is quite difficult to enter a Buddhist temple in Japan unannounced and find a place to sleep for the night since temples fairly exclusively serve only their members and do not appreciate too much intrusion on their family life. Although some temples actively seek out new members and welcome visitors, it is often in the hopes of gaining the income received with new membership and grave fees.

This is a final reason why people resist joining new temples. The regular fees to help the upkeep of the temple and especially exorbitant grave fees keep many people away from temple affiliation. In Tokyo, a one square meter grave plot on average costs $20,000. This does not include a family headstone which on average costs another $20,000.4 Thus the Buddhist temple under the influence of the economic growth of modern Japanese society has become increasingly privatized in orientation and removed from general public access.

Funerals: the Marginalization of the Priest
The next topic I would like to discuss in the status of modern Japanese Buddhism is the present role of the Buddhist priest. As ancestor worship is a key aspect of Japanese religiosity, the Japanese priest has evolved into a very essential figure for his comforting and taking care of the souls of the dead. Funerals and periodical memorial services have become a central role of the Buddhist priest.

The significant aspect in this role in the post war era has been the development of this service as a major industry. According to the Mitsubishi Research Institute, by the year 2020, the Japanese funeral industry will become Japan's largest industry outpacing the automobile and dental care sectors. According to these estimates, it will gross $34 billion per year at a rate of 1.7 million funerals per year costing on average $20,000 for a basic funeral. The significant movement here has been the replacement of compensation for priests' services from various traditional forms of charity like food, labor and money to purely cash money. Whereas the amount of this compensation was often up the lay follower, many temples' services now have set prices to them, especially in the case of funerals.

Concerning the funeral itself, according to the Japanese Consumer Association, the 1992 the national average of $20,800 per funeral broke down into $11,200 for the funeral home, $4,300 for the catering service, and $5,100 for the temple.5 This $5,100 is for holding the wake, funeral, cremation, and first seven day services (all of which takes about 4 hours) and giving the kaimyo. The kaimyo is the posthumous name given to all Japanese who die and have Buddhist rights. Incorporated from China, it became a form of social status, especially in the Edo era, to receive a kaimyo upon death, the longer the name the higher the status. Now, although it is supposed to be based on a person's meritorious deeds in his/her life, especially contributions to the temple, it has become relegated to a fixed price service for some temples. Among the sects, Nichiren and the two Zen sects tend to have the highest prices.6 In an average Japanese city like Nagoya, a basic 6 Chinese character kaimyo in Nichiren-shu will usually be $4,000-$5,000 and for a higher end 9 character kaimyo $10,000-$20,000. The Zen sects will average $3,000-$5,000 for the basic 6 Chinese character kaimyo while the 9 character kaimyo will usually be $5,000-$15,000. The Pure Land sects average $2,000 for the basic 6 Chinese character kaimyo and $3,000-$4,000 for the 9 character kaimyo.7 What this all boils down to is that the role of the Buddhist priest, especially concerning funeral services, has become big business, further blurring distinctions between sacred and profane and secularizing the priests' role.

As we have seen in the above price break down, the funeral companies are the main benefactors of this growing industry. In looking at their growing role in Japanese society, we can see further causes for the marginalization of the Buddhist priest and of the Buddhist temple. The first funeral companies in Japan arose in the cities of the Meiji Era. Now they have become the main competitors for the Buddhist priest in his own temple industry. As we noted above, the majority of Japanese urban dwellers do not have temple affiliations. Thus when someone in their family dies they have become prone to seek out the services of a funeral home first. The funeral home then takes care of contacting a priest who will perform the subsequent services. Especially in the last 20 years, funeral companies have became increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of this lucrative market. They will now stake out hospitals and develop relationships with hospital staff. This enables them to find customers right at the key time of death. This is increasingly significant when we take note that according to the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare, 75% of the Japanese who died in 1992 did so in a hospital. A further development of this is that funeral company employees are becoming confidants and emotional supporters through the grieving process. Their training manuals expressly instruct the funeral worker " sell not our services or just conduct the funeral, but to sell your sincere heart to the people and to grant all requests".8 In this way, the funeral homes have not only taken over the practical role of the Buddhist priest in making arrangements, but they are also increasingly usurping the spiritual role of consoler from the priest, further pushing the Buddhist priest as an institution to the edges of society.

The Deteriorating Image of the Priest
As a final aspect of my discussion I would like to look at the prevalent attitude towards Buddhist priests in Japanese society. As we have seen, the April 1872 Meiji edict has provided the central foundations for the transformation of the Buddhist priest in this century. Perhaps the clearest example of this is that it is now quite often impossible to differentiate by sight a Buddhist priest from any other citizen in Japanese society. If they don't happen to have a personal custom of keeping short hair as many Zen priests do, one may often catch a glimpse of them in a cardigan sweater or more commonly in a coat and tie, like a sharp salary man. The very physical presence of the Buddhist priest in modern Japanese society has all but dissolved his separation from non priests and the caricature of the sacred, shaved head, robed monk.

In my first section, I discussed the shidoso and the roots of ambiguity between sacred and profane in the Buddhist monk. It is interesting that now modern Japan has its own form of shidoso, the apartment priest. He, like the shidoso, is not ordained nor officially recognized by any sect. Further, like the shidoso, he performs an important social role, as a low cost alternative for funeral homes in finding a priest to do services. He is especially convenient since he will know the services for all major sects and look more like a priest with a shaved head and spotless robes than a real priest. In this way, 1,500 years apart we have mirror images. The shidoso resembled the itinerant hijiri monks and looked nothing like most official monks. In the same way, the apartment priest resembles more closely the few modern day itinerant monks and less the common priest, especially in regard to Jodo-shu and Jodoshin-shu priests. Both found their niches in Japanese society as profane practitioners of the sacred.

As we saw in the rise of the funeral companies, priests have increasingly become nothing more than actors on a sacred stage, viewed for a moment as possessors of holy power. This attitude by most Japanese can be very clearly seen in the concept of honne (official stand) and tatemae (real intention), which are fundamental concepts in understanding Japanese behavior. They point to the tendency of people to take on certain social airs when expedient, while masking their real feelings. This has become the standard practice now in dealing with the Buddhist priest. People who come to the temple for services will exchange pleasantries and efface themselves in front of the priest. However, once outside the temple the Japanese priest may be refereed to as bozumarumoke, bozu having become a crass word for monk and marumoke as one who works little with low overheard and gets paid well. Such is the status of today's Buddhist priest, now fully transformed into a layman as seen by his family, business and clothes and taking his brief moments on the temple stage as caretaker of the sacred.

As I have outlined above, Japanese Buddhism has an original tendency towards secularization. What we are seeing today in Buddhist institutions is the extreme extent of this tendency which has further brought about a marginalization of it in society. The next step in this process we can already see happening in the past century's growth of the new religions in Japan which emphasize lay leadership and have done away with the priestly institution. The traditional Buddhist temple still contains some sacred importance though. Since in urban centers, it houses the graves of families, even followers of the new religions will still come to temples to worship their ancestors.

However, as we have seen in the recent scandals surrounding Japanese religion and especially Japanese Buddhism such as AUM and the traditional sect temples who advertise to people to give their money to the temple as a way of release from materialism, the use of Buddhism to make money is a great crisis to our 1,500 year old heritage. If this crisis is not clearly faced and dealt with, the next step for Japanese Buddhism is the death sentence. Japanese religiosity will of course continue on, but the institutions begun by Kukai, Saicho, Nichiren, Dogen, Honen, Shinran and others will become mere historical entities. In this way, there actually have been some recent responses to this crisis. One has been an attempt by some priests to revive the traditional nature of Buddhism through returning to a strict following of the precepts. Another impulse by some priests has been to try to re-integrate Buddhism into mainstream society through engaging in social welfare activities. In conclusion, I would like to encourage my fellow colleagues in the field of Japanese Buddhism to begin to engage in more detailed studies of this aspect of Japanese Buddhism as a money making enterprise.

Presented at the American Academy of Religion, Philadelphia, U.S.A., November 16, 1995

1 Davis, Winston. "The Secularization of Japanese Society" in Japanese Religion and Society: Paradigms of Structure and Change (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), 229-31.
2 Davis, Winston. "The Secularization of Japanese Society", p.236.
3 From an unpublished training manual for funeral workers, Zengo Renchuokyodokumiai Association, 1987.
4 One should remember that Japanese do not have individual grave plots, but rather cremate their dead and put the ashes under one family headstone.
5 Inoue, Haruyo. Ima Sogi Ohakaga Kawaru (Tokyo: Sanseido, 1993), p.186.
6 The Nichiren and Zen sect kaimyos are more expensive since the main temples tend to exact higher yearly fees from their branch temples. It should also be noted that there can be great varieties between individual temples as some temples do not take fees for giving a kaimyo.
7 Inoue, Hiromu. "Korega Ofuseno Kingakuda" in Obosanto issho (Tokyo: Takarajimasha, 1995) 85.
8 Textbook of Funeral, unpublished training manual for workers, Japanese Funeral Association, 1992.

Rev. Yoshiharu Tomatsu is a Jodo-shu priest and Research Fellow at the Taisho University Institute of Comprehensive Buddhist Studies in Tokyo, Japan