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Is religion in Japan in irreversible decline?

"For many families, encounters with priests at Buddhist temples are confined only to funerals. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, funeral services became streamlined, exacerbating people's disengagement with temples. As the role of religion in Japan continues to fade, does this spell their demise?" 

With the above lead-in, business weekly Shukan Tokyo Keizai (June 10) launches into a 32-page section of reports covering the crisis that organized religion now faces in Japan. Ultimately, it writes, Buddhism here is in the process of confronting what might be described as a life-or-death struggle. 

The writing has been on the wall for some time already. Back in 2015, Kenji Ishii, professor of Shinto studies at Kokugakuin University, projected that more than one-third of the nation's shukyo hojin (incorporated religious bodies) will have ceased to exist by 2040.

Those under greatest threat belonged to the Jinja Honcho, headquarters of the Shinto religion, and two Buddhist sects: Koyazan Shingon-shu and Sotoshu, with all three looking at a decline of over 40%. Even the listed denomination with the lowest attrition, the Protestant-based United Church of Christ in Japan (with claimed membership of only 160,000), was still projected to lose over 20% of its organizations.

It was from 2005 that the number of annual deaths in Japan began surpassing that of live births. With deaths climbing to 1.58 million in 2022 and members of the huge postwar baby boom generation expected to shuffle off this mortal coil, deaths are projected to incrementally increase at least until 2040. It would appear therefore appear that religious groups, which obtain much of their revenues from funerals, burials and related activities, could expect a windfall in income.

That, however, is not necessarily the case. For one thing, while conventional practices call for a Buddhist otsuya (wake) followed by a funeral, the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the adoption of "single ceremony" events. 

Still another factor affecting costs is that according to a survey undertaken by one funeral service business, conventional family graves are only planned by 19.1% of individuals, with an overwhelming 71.8% opting for low- or no-maintenance graves: The two responses were broken down as 51.6% opting for arboricultural burials and 20.2% to be laid to rest in a columbarium. 

Buddhist organizations in particular have often been the target of derision for basically operating as "funerary businesses." This is borne out by another survey conducted jointly by the Japan Buddhist Federation and Daiwa Securities, which shows how infrequently priests are called upon to cater to parishioners' spiritual needs.

Even for practicing Buddhists, opportunities for encounters between temple parishioners and priests at family temples tend to be few and far between. Only for funerals and memorial services did the figure exceeded 50%. Such occasions as the summer Obon (Festival of the Dead) was 26.8% and when visiting family graves, 25.8%. In contrast, consultations over personal or spiritual matters was a remarkably low 0.7%.

The coronavirus pandemic clearly exacerbated the downward spiral of funeral costs, with internet-based operators as Kamakura Shinsho (with annual revenue of ¥5 billion) and others grabbing larger shares from the temples. They've been joined by such groups as Japan Agricultural Cooperatives (JA); four private railway companies (Keikyu, Keio, Hankyu and Nankai); and three hotel groups (Imperial, Okura and New Otani).

As of 2020, the total number of firms operating funeral services is believed to have increased fivefold, to 2,544, making the business much more competitive. And as competition heats up, the quality of services cannot help but decline. As one veteran operator put told the magazine, "If rates keep dropping like this, instead of funeral services, we'll wind up as no more than 'corpse processors.'"

Part 2 of Toyo Keizai's special section examines the decline of so-called "new religions," with separate articles devoted to the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai, the Unification Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses and Happy Science.

Of current interest was Toyo Keizai's make on Happy Science, as its founder, Ryuho Okawa, passed away suddenly last March at the age of 66.

From its establishment in 1986, growth in membership had been steady and it has claimed as many as 11 million adherents.

Okawa, however, died without an heir apparent; his eldest son severed all ties with the group. Although the possibility of succession by Ryuho's second wife, the former Shio Kondo, has been raised, at the moment the organization is effectively leaderless.

A former Happy Science member was quoted as saying, "Shio lacks charisma and spiritual power. She might be the most likely successor to Okawa, but I don't think she's capable of exerting his kind of leadership."

With no viable successor to its absolute leader, the writer observes, Happy Science's momentum appears to have come to a screeching halt.

© Japan Today