Dissatisfied Money-makers Becoming Monks

March 17, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

FUNABASHI, JAPAN -- For nearly 50 years, ever since Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity, the closest thing this country has had to a national religion has been work. For legions of managers, long hours in the workplace have been the best demonstration of faith.

But now a small, albeit growing number of white-collar workers is seeking to become Buddhist monks.

They come to a notably quiet institution in this Tokyo suburb. Their work at the Tokyo International Buddhism School revolves around chanting, the study of Buddhist ceremonies and reflections on nothingness -- how nothing is absolute and how nothing lasts.

"For many of these people, work has always been enough," said Okumi Shinji, a priest conducting a recent class. "But they have never learned how to live their lives."

The interest of businessmen is more than just an infatuation, and is anything but materialistic. The contrast between their studies and their workplace lives could hardly be more striking.

Akira Itro, 44, is an insurance executive. Shuichi Nakamura, 36, works for a pharmaceutical company. Each has already logged years at the office, donning starched white shirts and devoting the day to building market share.

"My co-workers think believing in Buddhism is fine, but they find it difficult to understand why someone would actually study it," said Mr. Nakamura, as he studied Chinese lettering in a prayer book. "They are incredulous that someone would take a day off from work to learn."

For most Japanese, religion is something to be nodded at but never actually practiced. There are 89 million Japanese who identify themselves as Buddhist, 118 million as Shinto, 1.5 million as Christian and 11 million as adherents of some other faith -- a total of 220 million -- in a country of only 124 million.

"That all means there is no feeling at all," said Takehiko Yamaguchi, an insurance executive studying at the school for Buddhism. "The Japanese understand religions not as ideas about faith, but only as events."

Except on major holidays, most religious institutions are deserted,or open only to sell good-luck charms.

Buddhism was introduced to Japan during the sixth century and for more than a thousand years was a focus of Japanese life. From 1600 to 1868, adherence to Buddhism was required by law, and the religion -- one promoting self-reflection -- mirrored a country that wanted to remain isolated from the rest of the world.

But Buddhism's honored place began to erode after the country's forced opening to the West, in the mid-19th century, and in place of Buddhism was Shintoism, a state religion headed by a living god -- the emperor. And the authority of Shintoism collapsed Jan. 1, 1946, when Emperor Hirohito -- at the insistence of the United States -- delivered a New Year's message in which he said his divinity was false.

"The Japanese people had been educated to die for the emperor," said Mr. Nakamura, who helps run the Tokyo International Buddhism School.

"They didn't know who to listen to, or who to live for." And in that atmosphere, work became the national religion. "By the 1980s, we had become industrially wealthy, rich in goods, but emotionally, we became lost."

When Ryusho Maetani, 74, came to the school in 1989, he was one of five students. He had run a textile company. "People have realized there is something wrong even though we have more than enough possessions," he said. He has recently become a Buddhist priest.

Noriyji Yasuda, 50, head of a construction machinery company, expresses the same sentiment:

"An admiration for money is the absolute Japanese obsession, and it's terrible. As we've gained cash, we've lost our spirit."

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