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Thursday, June 7, 2012

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Peace of mind: Monks and a group made up mostly of women gather to chat about religion, life and death, and other topics at a discussion session in Tokyo's Ginza district in April. KYODO

Monks taking on more active roles since disasters


Since the March 2011 disasters, Buddhist monks have boosted their presence beyond funerals and memorial services, lending a hand in all walks of life through a variety of channels.

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Lending an ear: Taio Kaneda, chief priest at Tsudaiji Temple in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, listens as a woman speaks about losing her home in the March 2011 disasters, at a temporary housing facility in April. KYODO

In Tokyo's posh Ginza district, young women gathered on a rainy day in late April for a discussion session with young monks. Sitting in a circle, they chatted about religion, life and death, and various other topics.

In between the serious discussions, one of the monks noted there are monks who collect Buddhist rosaries as a hobby. "Isn't that a worldly desire then?" asked one of the participants, drawing a burst of laughter.

Art gallery owner Yukari Torii, 30, said speaking with a monk in the immediate aftermath of the disasters helped her regain her composure — and prompted her to initiate the gatherings in April last year.

Since then, the sessions have been held regularly, with three to four monks in their 20s and 30s attending. Most of the participants have been women, and more than 600 people have taken part in the discussions so far.

The events have proven popular, according to Torii, as participants feel the monks are very attentive and sincere in the discussions.

"I wish I had come here earlier," said a 39-year-old female participant who felt overwhelmed by anxiety after the disasters.

A 20-year-old female college student said she attended the sessions because she liked the monks' personalities.

Monk Yuzen Hirai, 37, who joined the chats, said a participant had once consulted him about the fear of dying alone.

His answer was: "Human beings are born alone, and they die alone. That is why we should be grateful for destiny that brings us together with others."

Monks in the disaster-hit Tohoku region have also been reaching out in various ways.

Soon after the disasters that triggered the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the deputy chief priest of Shingyoji Temple in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, began testing food for radioactive contamination using equipment bought with donations and other funds.

Priest Michinori Sasaki, 39, said many mothers in the neighborhood consulted him.

"I am worried as I see that the mothers are exhausted," he said, apparently referring to widespread concerns, especially among parents, about the effects of radiation on children.

To give locals some peace of mind, Sasaki said he also plans to buy equipment for testing internal radiation exposure.

Farther north in Kurihara, Miyagi Prefecture, Tsudaiji Temple's chief priest, Taio Kaneda, has been operating a cafe-on-wheels since May last year.

With a pickup truck and simple furniture, his Cafe de Monk has visited temporary housing complexes and other places 60 times to serve residents while listening to their troubles and complaints.

"It wasn't until early this year that I started to see smiles on people's faces," the 56-year-old priest said. "It is our job (as monks) to help those who survived to come to terms with their memories of those who died so that the living can take a step forward."

Tokyo Institute of Technology professor Noriyuki Ueda, an expert in the anthropology of religion, said of the recent trend that people have always turned to religion for salvation in times of hardship.

"In the wake of the quake disaster, Japan is now at such a stage for the first time since the end of World War II," said Ueda.

"Even among the monks themselves, there had always been the intention to engage in more social activities instead of just playing a role in funerals," he added. "The disaster helped transform that into a more visible form and their important roles are being felt once again in society."

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