Perhaps you missed this article in The New York Times, titled “Japan’s Newest Technology Innovation: Priest Delivery.” (Read it here: Priest Delivery) Basically, the story explained how you can now order the services of a Buddhist priest online, from Amazon.com–“Users click on one of several options and add it to a virtual shopping cart, the same way they would a juicer or a pair of shoes.” (The practice is called “obosan-bin”) This “network of freelancing priests” is disrupting the traditional order of things, and many Buddhist leaders are critical; however, the priests themselves argue that they are serving a real need in a society where many people no longer have regular contact with a temple, but still want a Buddhist funeral service, or to have a memorial service to mark the anniversary of the death of a loved one. According to the article, 70% of Japanese self-identify as nonreligious or atheist, but many still participate in traditional religious customs, particularly those that have to do with death and ancestors.
So, of course, as a Christian, I have been thinking about the ramifications of this–and, more broadly, what religion is “for” in a society: that is, what purpose it serves in the lives of individuals. Of course, the ritual aspects of marking time are very important, and I appreciate the deep need people feel to commemorate both death and life with religious ceremony. (The Christian parallel I can imagine here is “renting” a pastor to perform a baptism.) But, I also feel like religion is about more than discrete acts: it’s about the very connections the Japanese individuals interviewed in this article are lacking, and it’s about a larger way of viewing oneself and the world that is meant to undergird and shape the everyday, not just the “special” days.
It will be interesting to see how this trend in Japan develops, and also how the Buddhist temples and temple priests respond. Is this practice a way of perpetuating the survival of Buddhism in Japan, or is it hastening its demise?