Temples in depopulated areas finding hope on internet

The Yomiuri Shimbun

With temples in depopulated areas finding it tough to survive amid a declining number of parishioners, some are trying new measures to keep going. Shifting away from their traditional dependence on revenue from parishioners, some temples have turned to crowdfunding, or have tried to attract new visitors by sharing information on social media.

Chokyuji temple in Yamazoe, a mountain village in Nara Prefecture, has started to support the activities of enthusiastic fans rooting for their favorite idols and anime.

Prayers for idols

“We were reborn as a temple to support your ‘oshi,’” says a Japanese-language crowdfunding site that Chokyuji temple launched in September. “Oshi” refers to a favorite performer or character that fans like enough to eagerly recommend to others. The word is commonly used by idol or anime fans. Going to related concerts or events is called “oshi-goto” or “oshi-katsu.”

These are especially popular words among young people.

In return for crowdfunding donations, the temple prepares gifts of oshi-themed charms, paper fans and penlights — types of items fans like to bring to concerts and events. To support the love and enthusiasm of supporters for their favorites, the temple prays to imbue the gifts with spirit and then sends them to donors.

According to chief priest Ryuko Hozan, “For an unknown temple to make itself known from scratch, we need to do something no one has done before.” When he was in charge of public relations at a temple in Kyoto, he joined forces with a popular video game and created mutual goods. That experience also helped him start the initiative.

In danger of disappearing

In 2007, when Hozan took over as chief priest from his father, the population of Yamazoe was about 3,300 people, or half of what it had been 40 years earlier. It is estimated that by 2045 the population will be only about 1,600 people. Several hundred parishioner families are needed to maintain a temple, but the community where the temple is located has fewer than 50 households. Buddhist memorial services take place only once a month or so.

Courtesy of Kannonji temple
A stamped goshuin paper with drawing by chief priest Koken Ikarugi of Kannonji temple in Numata, Gunma Prefecture

Hozan thought that he would promote Chokyuji as a “temple to show love or compassion for someone else” and make the temple better known by emphasizing oshi. He plans to use the crowdfunding money to improve the temple’s facilities and build a parking lot, and is considering organizing events. “I really want to hand the temple down to the next generation. With the understanding of parishioner families, I hope that my efforts will also benefit the entire community in the future,” Hozan said.

In 2014, the private research institute Japan Policy Council forecast that many of the nation’s municipalities would eventually fail to maintain basic administrative functions due to population decline.

Kenji Ishii, a professor of the sociology of religion at Kokugakuin University, said that about one-third of the nation’s 75,000 temples across the country are in municipalities that the council identified as being at risk. Temples in such areas face tough situations.

Many temples, mainly in mountain areas, are in danger of fading out of existence because of the declining number of parishioner families, and many chief priests now work for multiple temples due to a shortage of successors. Temples without chief priests are said to face risks such as their cultural assets being stolen and their buildings falling into ruin.

According to the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha Buddhist organization, out of 10,128 affiliate temples, 952 were being taken care of by chief priests of different temples as of March 2020, while 153 had no chief priest at all. Since 2016, the organization has deployed officials to depopulated areas to assist temples with difficulties.

Going for goshuin

One temple has increased its visitors through a priest’s artistic skill.

Kannonji temple in a mountain area of Numata, Gunma Prefecture, is popular for its goshuin, or papers bearing red stamps, plus calligraphy and drawings by chief priest Koken Ikarugi, 66. In the past, just a handful of visitors wanted the temple’s stamps, but now, as many as 500 people a month visit the temple to receive its unique goshuin.

Eleven years ago, when Ikarugi came to the temple, its grounds were derelict and there were only about 60 parishioner families. To revitalize the temple, Ikarugi cleaned up the grounds and used social media to share information. He also organized concerts and allowed people to stay at the temple.

In particular, the goshuin papers he designed attracted attention on social media and elsewhere thanks to his dynamic writing and drawings, including depictions of stone Buddhist images and daruma dolls.

“Temples need to be distinctive. Even though the population declines, there will be ways to survive,” he said.

“In regions where temples are relying on revenue from parishioner families, it will be difficult to make such temples known even though they want to attract more people, unlike temples that can emphasize tourism and other benefits,” Ishii said. “An increasing number of temples are trying new measures, but they must not rely on temporary popularity. The continuous efforts of chief priests and staff are important.”