Japan’s temples, shrines increasingly eyed as evacuation shelters

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shinichiro Iseri, chief priest at Kitaoka Shrine in Nishi Ward, Kumamoto, recalls how people were accommodated at the shrine following the Kumamoto Earthquake in April 2016.

Temples, shrines and other religious facilities across the nation are increasingly being eyed as possible evacuation shelters in the event of disasters.

Buildings owned by religious organizations are often located on higher ground near residential areas, and many have large spaces and cooking facilities. Many people impacted by such disasters as the Great East Japan Earthquake and the Kumamoto Earthquake sheltered inside religious facilities.

More and more local governments are signing cooperation accords with religious facilities to help mitigate the effects of possible cataclysms. For example, if an epicentral earthquake were to occur over the Kego fault belt, it is estimated that about 190,000 Fukuoka residents would be unable to continue living in their respective homes.

Kokunji, a Buddhist temple in the city’s Hakata Ward, is preparing to set up manhole toilets, which, in the case of an emergency, would be connected directly to the sewerage system.

The temple signed a contract with the city government in 2018, allowing the temple to be used as a temporary accommodation facility for people around JR Hakata Station. If an emergency were to occur, the temple could accommodate 144 people for up to three days in its hall and guest rooms. “We’ve been stocking up on drinking water and preserved foods to prepare for an emergency,” said 51-year-old Shinsui Kobayashi, the temple’s chief priest.

In a survey conducted on municipalities across the nation in 2019 and 2020 by Osaka University Prof. Keishin Inaba — an expert in coexistent society — 661 religious facilities had signed cooperation accords with local governments in the event of disasters.

The number of religious facilities inking similar deals increased 2.4-fold from 2014; the figure for local governments rose, too, increasing by 30% to 121 from 2014.

In Nogata, Fukuoka Prefecture, six of the city’s 50 designated evacuation shelters are religious facilities, including temples and shrines. Onga River flows through the city, and there are many public facilities along its banks. Residents of the city have long evacuated to temples in times of disaster, prompting the city government to designate such religious facilities for that purpose, ex-post facto.

The Great East Japan Earthquake triggered moves to utilize temples and shrines as evacuation sites. Those affected by the quake could not all be accommodated in school gyms, town halls and other designated conventional buildings, and more than 100 locations were pressed into service as evacuations sites.

In a 2021 opinion survey conducted by the Japan Buddhist Federation — primarily comprising traditional Buddhism organizations — and Daiwa Securities Co., about 60% of respondents said they hoped temples would serve as evacuation shelters in the event of a disaster, as temple activities contribute to society.

“Temples are usually located in elevated areas, and many have ample parking space and rooms with tatami-covered floors, so people seem to expect they will work as evacuation shelters,” said federation board member Yoshiharu Tomatsu, 69.

At Kitaoka Shrine in Nishi Ward, Kumamoto, a concrete-built hall housing Japanese-style rooms and a kitchen was used as an evacuation shelter following the Kumamoto Earthquake in April 2016.

About 20 people, including elderly individuals, stayed at the hall for up to about 10 days. The temple’s chief priest, 58-year-old Shinichiro Iseri, said, “If a large-scale disaster occurs in the future, we’ll do our utmost to make aid available.”

For its part, the central government is requesting local governments to cooperate with religious facilities to prepare for possible disasters. The Cabinet Office’s guideline on evacuation-shelter management encourages local governments to consider designating temples, shrines and other religious facilities as evacuation shelters.

However, there are hurdles to clear in this regard. For example, many old temple and shrine buildings lack sufficient quake resilience, and there are concerns about compensation if the act of accepting evacuees resulted in damage to cultural assets.

In past disasters, some local governments erroneously believed they were unable to cooperate with religious organizations and that aid supplies would not reach religious facilities used as shelters.

Inaba emphasized the importance of cooperation accords in which disaster-related responses are set out in advance to avoid trouble. “The central and local governments should formulate aid measures, including budget allocations,” he said. “For example, they could set up lights and handrails along routes leading to evacuation shelters.”