By: Chu Yang
Edited by: Alex Stuckey
For five years in the 400-year-old Kyoouji Temple, in central Tokyo, softly chanted prayers accompanied by traditional bell chimes have not been the only tempo — hip hop beats have joined the sounds of the temple as well.
The temple is mixing pop culture with Buddhism to attract young followers.
Kansho Tagai’s lyrical rap, “Okay, baby, no problem. It is hard to live in this world. Hey, hey, bro, listen to me!” is heard throughout the temple. Tagai is no hip hop star, but a 50-year-old monk and the head the Kyoouji Temple.
Tagai raps Buddhist sutra to hip hop beats to draw younger people to his temple, where he performs once or twice a month in his traditional monk robes.
His efforts have won him a lot of young followers, who call him Mr. Happiness because of positive outlook. Since he began incorporating rap at his temple, the number of people who visit his temple is double.
Kurara Nakano is one of the young fans.
Nakano lives in Handa, west of Tokyo. She said the hip-hop monk sounded interesting and she would like to see it, although she didn’t think she would ever convert to Buddhism.
“I am interested in studying Buddhism thinking,” Nakano said. “But we have few chances to meet and talk to monks, even though there are so many temples all over Japan.”
Toshie Tanaka, a 52-year-old housewife in Fukui, a city close to Kyoto, agrees with Nakano. Tanaka is a Buddhism follower and still keeps the ritual of visiting temples and shrines several times a year.
“When I was growing up, Buddhism always closely connects to my life,” Tanaka said. “But now it is far away from young people, except funerals.”
Funerals are the primary way of getting in touch with Buddhism in Japan. Most Japanese learn about Buddhism only after someone in their families dies, Tagai said. But because funerals are just customs many people do not think deeper, he added.
Because people now live longer, it is harder to expose religions to the younger generations. This concept challenges the survival of Buddhism in Japan.
Since 2000, hundres of the 75,000 temples in Japan have been closing every year, according to a Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs news release.
Some even worry that religions in Japan will cease to exist.
Mark Schumacher, a 52-year-old American who has lived in Japan for 20 years, operates a Buddhism website, the “A-to-Z Photo Dictionary of Japanese Buddhism.”
He believes traditional Buddhism is on the decline, but that Japan is still a religious country.
“Buddhism is declining because it could not answer new spiritual needs,” said Schumacher. “A lot of Japanese are unhappy with Buddhism or monks because they think the monks or priests are lazy and corrupt.”
Tagai said he realizes this dilemma, so five years ago he broke the traditional way of teaching and tried to build a new image for monks.
“Hip-hop is a good way to communicate with youths, and I have built a good relationship with them,” Tagai said. “They told me that they have never met such an easy and friendly monk.”
Despite his popularity among many young followers, even among older generations, some still do not give him credit for his offbeat innovation.
Ohio University graduate student Yusuke Kusunoki is one of these people.
“Buddhism is a spiritual training, not an advertisement,” Kusunoki said. “In this way, young people might be interested for temporary fun, but that won’t be long-lasting. By doing this, (Tagai) could be extremely famous in a short time, but people will forget him soon, just like the pop stars.”
John Leneskie, a 23-year-old American who has studied abroad in Japan, is studying Buddhism. He is opposed to checking out the temple, but purely in an intellectual fashion.
“The monk proliferated a more easily learnt and practiced version of religious doctrine and belief, so it could be good,” Leneskie said. “But it also might be dangerous if the spreading morals and values are manipulated by secular or religious leaders for personal ends.”
Keiichi Higuchi, a 54-year-old engineer in Japan, is a traditional Japanese man but he is a supporter of Tagai to a certain extend.
“The rapping monk is not really a matter,” Higuchi said. “The point is if he teaches Buddhism or not. There is no need to mix Buddhism with hip-hop. However, Buddhism is very flexible, so it could differ. If he can create the environment to learn about Buddhism, other things are not really important.”
The same as Higuchi, who carried on the concept of Buddhism from ancestors and tried to keep it as a tradition, Tanaka seems like this idea even better.
“No matter what reason, if Buddhism could be popular, again,” Tanaka said. “That is good.”
Schumacher said he understands Tagai’s efforts and is open to this change. However, he also said he doesn’t think Tagai could reverse this crisis.
In Schumacher’s opinion, the decline results from booming new religions that focus more on contemporary issues and daily life.
“Sake used to be Japan’s national alcoholic drink. Today the number of breweries continues to tumble, and the beverage has fallen from the first place to the third place in popularity,” Schumacher said. “Why? Japanese have a greater variety of alcohol to choose from. Can not the same be said about religions and spirituality? Will sake die? No, so do the religions.”