It can be difficult to get people excited about religion in Japan. No doubt, Japan’s culture and its religions are deeply intertwined, but the vast majority of Japanese people say that aren’t very religious.
With membership in religions across Japan in free fall, many are trying to make themselves more appealing to attract more followers. How do you get people excited about religion? Do you pull a Pope John Paul II and get some sweet-ass breakdancers to get the kids all excited about God?
Japanese Buddhists have found their weapon of choice: hunks. Not just any hunks, but hunky monks. Earlier this year, a book was released in Japan called 美坊主図鑑, or the Beautiful Monk Encyclopedia, and it’s gotten quite a few people excited about Buddhism.
Think of Beautiful Monk Encyclopedia like a Tiger Beat for Buddhist monks — the Encyclopedia has pictures and little bios of all of the 40+ monks featured in the book. The Encyclopedia’s first print run of 10,000 copies sold out quickly.
Why would Buddhist monks put out what ultimately amount to be a book full of personal ads? Aren’t monks supposed to be chaste and all that? It turns out that unlike Catholic monks, some Buddhists monks are not only allowed to marry, but may need to marry in order to carry on the lineage.
Some monks have even turned to matchmaking parties to meet potential mates. It’s funny to me to imagine a bunch of Buddhist monks essentially speed dating. So tell me about yourself. Wait, you think that life is suffering too? We should go back to my place and talk about the Noble Truths.
Japanese Buddhist have other ways of luring in new faithful. For example, rapping monks. It seems to me that Buddhists are a little late to the party by just getting into rapping, but I suppose when your religion is thousands of years old, being a few decades late seems pretty insignificant.
Rapping monks certainly isn’t a widespread phenomenon, but a monk by the name Kansho Tagai took up the cause on behalf of Buddhism in Japan and began rapping and performing at his temple under the moniker “MC Happiness.”
“Getting the young people back to religion is key to Buddhism’s survival,” MC Happiness has said, and his performances have done just that. More and more visitors and devotees have shown up to his temple since MC Happiness began rapping.
If rapping doesn’t appeal to you, then Japanese Buddhists know something that has universal appeal — booze.
As temples continue to close down across Japan, Buddhist monks are trying to get back to their roots. Once upon a time, Buddhist temples were the centers of towns; now, lay people don’t visit unless for a Japanese funeral or some other sort of traditional service.
For better or worse, bars are central locations for many communities around Japan (where everybody knows your name and all that). Vow’s Bar in Tokyo is trying to leverage the bar’s central place in modern life to better serve Buddhism.
Can Buddhism in Japan be Saved?
Will all of these efforts stem Buddhism’s decline in Japan, or will they simply be a bandage on a fatal wound? I suspect it’s the latter but for now, I’ll kick back a super dry beer or two with a rapping monk.