As Japan loses its ties to temples, ‘rent-a-monk’ businesses thrive


FUNABASHI, Japan — In a quiet room thick with the smell of incense, Buddhist monk Kaichi Watanabe chants sutras to commemorate the one-year anniversary of a woman’s death. The 41-year-old may look like a traditional holy man in Japan — but he wasn’t dispatched by a temple. Instead, the family ordered him through a fast-growing rent-a-monk business that has angered traditionalists who warn it is commercializing the religion. Watanabe’s employer, Tokyo-based firm Minrevi, said demand for its monk delivery service has spiked since it started in May 2013, as more and more Japanese lose their ties to local temples — and lose faith in an opaque donation system. The monk later rings a small traditional bell and bows to relatives as the 30-minute ceremony winds down at the grieving family’s home near Tokyo. “There are many temples in the neighborhood, but I didn’t know where to call,” said the deceased woman’s middle-aged son, who asked not to be named. “Also, I have no idea how much I should donate. But this has a clear pricing system.” At the click of a mouse, customers can hire a monk from Minrevi from 35,000 yen (US$300) depending on the ceremony. Retailing giant Aeon sent shockwaves through Buddhist circles in 2010 when it started a service that had a price list for introducing customers to temples for funeral services.

The open pricing flew in the face of longstanding system in which monks collect donations, known as ofuse, in return for performing ceremonies. But there has been growing unease about the murky system which leaves the amount up to families, who have to make several more donations after a funeral for more than a decade. ‘Commodified donations’ Japan’s Buddhist temples count on donations to do renovations, which can cost several million dollars, but there has been criticism that they’re more interested in raising revenue than offering spiritual guidance. Chiko Iwagami, an executive member of the Japan Buddhist Federation, acknowledged that some monks have improperly demanded specific amounts of money at memorial services, hurting public trust.