Temples, Shrines Have Soothing Role to Play as Pandemic Inflames Anxiety

The impact of the novel coronavirus has spread to traditional religious events such as New Year’s visits to temples and shrines, funerals and memorial services for the dead. Many temples and shrines are in a difficult situation, but it is hoped that they will continue their activities while being considerate of people’s anxiety.

Ahead of the time for people to make New Year visits, the Association of Shinto Shrines has drawn up guidelines calling for such measures as avoiding crowds and disinfecting objects. Some temples and shrines call for spreading out dates of worship rather than concentrating on the first three days of the New Year.

The number of people infected with the virus continues to increase, and many railway operators in large metropolitan areas have decided not to operate overnight on New Year’s Eve through the morning of New Year’s Day. New Year visits to temple and shrines have served as opportunities to attract people who do not usually visit temples and shrines and enable them to feel a connection with Shintoism and Buddhism. Therefore, the current situation can be said to symbolize the hardship of temples and shrines.

Funeral services have also changed due to concerns about infections. Buddhist rites have been the mainstream, but it has become necessary to narrow down the number of mourners present and to refrain from holding wakes and banquets. Also, the number of cancellations is reportedly increasing for such Buddhist occasions as Bon and Higan seasonal memorial services.

Funerals and memorial services have traditionally helped in accepting death and healing sorrow. In recent years, there has been a growing tendency toward simplification. If the number of temple parishioners leaving a temple increases, the damage to the management of the temple, which is supported by donations, will worsen.

In regional areas, there are many temples and shrines that continue to function through activities such as children’s classes to teach good manners and other topics, and by organizing festivals with the whole community. The stagnation of such activities could weaken the bonds that hold local communities together.

It has been pointed out that the foundations of temples and shrines have been shaken due to depopulation and changes in lifestyle. The novel coronavirus pandemic dealt a further blow. It could be that the only way for them to survive is to maintain and strengthen ties within society and local communities.

In this regard, it is noteworthy that attempts to conduct activities online are spreading. This covers a wide range of topics, including the livestreaming of major religious events and online preaching.

Some businesses have started broadcasting funerals online. There certainly are many who feel uncomfortable with such moves. For temples or shrines, it will be necessary to discern where to keep up with the trends of the times and where to maintain tradition.

Without depending on the internet, it is important to directly talk to parishioners and others on a daily basis and listen to their concerns.

According to a survey by the Japan Buddhist Federation, fewer than 40% of respondents received letters or phone calls from their family temples after the spread of the infection. However, a higher percentage of young people viewed such moves positively, saying they felt “thankful,” compared to middle-age and elderly people.

This suggests that temples and shrines are still required to play a role in giving people peace of mind. It probably is time for them to respond to people’s expectations of religion to soothe unrest in society.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 30, 2020.