Japan from the inside out

Less than zero

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, January 24, 2010

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW what’s happening in Japan, don’t go looking for the answers in the news media. Here’s yet another example, this time from CNN, which now–understandably–is the least watched of the four American cable TV news networks.

Their latest story on Japan starts with this headline:

“Japanese monks serve up alcohol and hip hop music to lure in followers”

How many monks? Read the story and you’ll find out they cite one who serves alcohol and one who performs sutra raps, for a total of two—the threshold needed to permit CNN’s use of the plural.

To put it another way, more men bit dogs in the greater Atlanta area last year.

“The Buddhist religion has largely remained the same over the past few centuries, but a group of monks in Japan are spicing things up by turning to alcohol and rap music to lure in followers.”

Suddenly, the number “two” has now taken on the meaning of a “group”.

Kansho Tagai…a Buddhist monk, believes it’s time to change for the future and doesn’t mind if it means dropping the chants and bringing on the rap music.
Tagai also prefers to go by his street name — Mr. Happiness.

Some questions for Mr. Tagai:

1. What will you do when rap music loses its image of hipness and becomes a thing of the past? It won’t be too much longer now.

2. Just what is this thing referred to as a “street name”, and how many people—if any—actually call you Mr. Happiness?

“Getting the young people back to religion is key to Buddhism’s survival,” Tagai told CNN. “In Japan, it’s a religion in crisis.”

What CNN doesn’t tell you is that you are unlikely to see any Japanese person at a traditional Buddhist temple, other than the monk or his family, for anything other than a funeral service. (When people have a religious or semi-religious wedding ceremony, they usually choose Shinto.)

All of my residences in Japan during the nearly 26 years I’ve been here have been across the street from a Buddhist temple. I could throw a rock from the front yard of my house into the graveyard of a Buddhist temple across the street, were I so inclined. I could also have pitched one underhand into the entrance of another temple from the front steps of my previous apartment. The only people I’ve seen visiting those temples for a reason other than to attend a memorial service were there to clean and pray at the family gravesite.

“Each year, hundreds of temples close in Japan and it’s a similar struggle seen by other religions around the world.”

What CNN doesn’t tell you is that Buddhist temples are even more neighborhood-based than churches in the U.S., and that temples sometimes close for reasons other than a lack of religious faith. Temples in rural areas that have lost population to the cities are not going to survive. Neither are some temples in urban areas that have become primarily business or commercial districts.

Nevertheless, there were roughly 76,000 Buddhist temples of all sects in Japan as of last year to serve a population of 127 million. Meanwhile, there were roughly 68,000 Christian churches of all denominations in the United States three years ago to serve a population of more than 300 million.

Of Japan’s 127 million people, 96 million identify as Buddhist. Those numbers, however, don’t translate into regular traditional religious practices, and haven’t for some time.

“Another idea that monks hope will help get more young people involved is mixing faith with fun at something called the Monk Bar. This modern day bar serves up alcoholic drinks while teaching the Buddhist mantra, according to Zenshin Fujioka. ‘This is closer to what Buddhism was intended to be,’ Zenshin said.”

One of the Five Moral Precepts of traditional Buddhism was the prohibition of intoxicants, so Mr. Fujioka’s conception of what Buddhism was intended to be may not be the consensus opinion. It might instead be just a clever way for Mr. Fujioka to indulge his favorite recreational pastime. I was once shown a very small, exclusive drinking establishment set back from the other shops on a narrow side street. My guide told me the prices were so high only doctors and Buddhist priests could afford to drink there.

“While many traditionalists may criticize both the Monk Bar and hip hop rapping styles, it seems their ideas are paying off. ‘Twice as many people, especially the young, are now visiting the temple,’ Tagai said.”

Zero doubled is still zero, though Mr. Tagai likely gets a few more visitors, if only out of curiosity to see a rapping monk once or twice.

Really, this is past the point of absurdity. The network is wasting its enormous resources to generate for its dwindling number of viewers a story that is a waste of time to watch. If anyone thinks they’re learning something about Japan by following any print or broadcast media outlet, I honestly feel sorry for them.

The tragedy in today’s Wiki-age is that such vapid ignorance is the standard rather than the exception.

For example, a Google search will occasionally throw up such detritus as the website that claims to offer the general reader basic information. Here’s what it says about religion in Japan:

“In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are combined into a single religion, with Buddhist temples being built at the sites of important Shinto shrines.”

Here’s what it should say:

“In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are not combined into a single religion, and Buddhist temples have been prohibited from occupying the same building as Shinto shrines by government order since March 1868. The contiguity on some sites does not mean they are syncretic in function.”

The most puzzling aspect of these misleading news reports and websites peddling inanity instead of knowledge is why they exist at all. Discovering the truth is so easy to do.

But being this stupid is difficult. People have to go out of their way and work at it.

Afterwords: A Japanese woman in her mid-60s once told me that she was married in a Buddhist temple wearing a Western-style wedding dress, which is an unlikely combination even for this country. I asked her how that happened, and the other Japanese in the group were just as interested in her answer as I was. Unfortunately, she just laughed and said it was a long story. I’ll bet!

5 Responses to “Less than zero”

  1. James said

    On the “In Japan, Shinto and Buddhist practices are combined into a single religion, with Buddhist temples being built at the sites of important Shinto shrines.” bit. It may very well be illegal, I don’t know the laws, but it does happen. The most famous example I can think of off the top of my head is the en-musubi shrine on the grounds and inside the ticket gates of Kiyomizu temple in Kyoto. So kind of the opposite order of the above statement, a shrine built at the site of an important temple. Of course, I don’t know which was there first.

  2. Joe Jones said

    But temples and shrines *are* often on the same site. How many have been built since 1868?

    That said, agreed that Kyung Lah of CNN is a disgrace. I wish they would send her back to LA local news where she belongs.

    I read that statement in the context of saying that Shinto and Buddhism are syncretic and combined into a single religion. They aren’t. Also, some shrines and temples were at one time in the same building, which the 1868 law changed. I was coming at it from that perspective.

    But I didn’t know that some combinations still exist on the same property. Learn something new every day.

    – A

  3. M-Bone said

    Many of the famous Shikoku pilgrimage temples have Shinto shrines on their premises, as do the major mountain temple complexes like Koya and Hiei. I think that there is one inside the grounds of Todaiji as well. As I understand it, it is almost always in that order – you won’t see a small Buddhist temple thrown up inside a major Shrine.

    But general point – Kyung Lah isn’t good – is well taken.

    This “rapping monk” business is particularly silly as there IS an example of youth culture and Buddhism being mixed in an interesting way and winning popularity – the manga series “Saint Young Men” follows Buddha (and his friend Jesus) living a Freeter lifestyle in Tokyo. The 4 volumes of the series have sold several million copies so far. Obviously not as significant as those two monks in the CNN piece, however.

  4. […] Good point on the poor journalism at CNN in regards to this Japan story. […]

  5. mac said

    It is also another really old story … so old, I cant remember when it was first wheeled out.

    The bottomline is that Japan is seen as being so unimportant that they pay the foreign correspondents nothing and get what they pay for plus for those correspondents, Japanese is just a minor stepping stone to a ‘real’ post somewhere else in some first world nation somewhere else.

    So they have no brains, little integrity and just recycle each others stories as we read time and time again … why should they care when they get paid peanuts and are given little support? It is not even as if the Japanese politicians have good tag team wrestling matches, or punch ups, like the Koreans or Taiwanese to report … “Nothing happened again today in Japan, so here is some whacky drivel we dug up off the internet again!

    A more interesting story could have been pulled out of the tendency for temples to be “family businesses” passed down father to son and questioning whether “enlightenment” can also be passed down through the genes in the same way. It isn’t. I agree with those who feel the priest families are mostly just not rocking the boat and milking society’s superstitions which means, mainly, milking the elderly … and that cannot feel very cool, never mind enlightened.

    But … business is waning, first sons have greater future securities on their mind, and temples are shutting down all over the place.

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