Reckoning with change and continuity: Socio-economic lives of Buddhist temples in Tokyo

The market has become a pervasive institution whose values have come to challenge non-market norms in nearly every aspect of life, from medicine and education to family life and personal relations. In this commercialisation of contemporary life, cities often lead the way. Urban temples – expected to be explicitly oriented away from the appreciation of the material – thus face particular challenges in maintaining their relevance to the wider public and securing their own continuity. This applies all the more to Buddhist temples in Tokyo, the largest megacity in the world today with a population over 35 million. Tokyo has been subject to enormous redevelopment pressures and land price hikes that did not avoid Buddhist temples operating in the metropolis. While still remaining a political and economic centre with vibrant youth cultures, Tokyo’s economic life is also affected by the ageing and shrinking of population. All these elements pose economic and social challenges for the Buddhist temples. Paradoxically, while the metropolitan area is experiencing a ‘Buddhist boom’ where people are attracted to Buddhist themes and artefacts, the demand for religious services and an engagement with temples is declining.

The project thus explores how, and whether, selected Tokyo temples perceive and act on the need to make themselves meaningful afresh and to justify and financially support their own existence. Through tracing the ways in which the temples are embedded in the wider social, political and economic structures of the metropolis not solely as religious havens but as income-generating enterprises, I consider what it is to run a religious institution in contemporary Japan. Ethnographically, I aim for a comparative perspective including temples that have in recent years developed new outlets for contact with the Tokyoites (such as the bars and cafés established by Buddhist priests, musical performances, conversation evenings, and so on), those that run meditation sessions available to the general public (sometimes for a fee), those that generate at least parts of their income from tourism, as well as small family-run temples that continue to rely on the traditionally sanctioned relationships and financial support from the local community.

A total of 14 months of fieldwork has been conducted between the autumn of 2015 and summer 2017. I am currently working on several publications based on this project. One of them is a monograph ethnographically exploring the ways in which Buddhist priests in Tokyo are redefining how religion should and could be engaged with in a highly commercialized and secularized urban environment. Secondly, I am working on an edited volume titled Sangha Economies (co-edited with Christoph Brumann and Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko) that foregrounds the often neglected economic aspects of contemporary Buddhism. And thirdly, I am also preparing journal articles focusing on such themes as the intersections between religion-inspired ethics and business practices of Tokyo Buddhist priests and the articulations of religious selves in a secularized urban society.

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