Japanese Buddhist monks compete in test of skills

Monks stand on stage during a pageant at the Life Ending Industry Expo on Dec 9, 2015.
Monks stand on stage during a pageant at the Life Ending Industry Expo on Dec 9, 2015.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

TOKYO (AFP) - Japanese Buddhist monks strutted their stuff on Wednesday (Dec 9) in a contest highlighting skills in chanting sutras, giving funeral sermons and, surprisingly, loud karate chops.

The contest, held on the sidelines of Japan's first ever expo on the business of death and dying, was aimed at winning back public attention to the services of priests and monks as more people seek alternatives to traditional funeral and burial customs.

Wearing robes coloured in pale gold, purple, or black and white, the eight monks walked calmly onto a stage one by one, bowing to an audience of about 100 people with their palms together.

They then proceeded to give short sermons and also chant solemn sutras and Buddhist songs, key requirements in conducting wakes and funerals according to the rites of the ancient religion.

But one of the contestants, Taigen Yokoyama, showed off a different talent, demonstrating his technique in the Japanese martial art of karate by breaking a pile of 10 tiles with his bare right hand.

"Ha!" he shouted, followed by the cacophonous sound of tiles shattering.

"I'm sorry to have frightened you," he added calmly.

The event was held in conjunction with the Life Ending Industry Expo, which attracted more than 200 companies involved in the business of death and funerals.

It followed another unique competition the previous day that highlighted the work of the declining number of individual specialists who prepare the dead for Buddhist funerals and cremations.

Observers say an increasing number of people are cutting ties with traditional Buddhist temples and avoiding building new tombs in graveyards, citing growing individualism and shortage of family members of the younger generation who can take care of graves.

"It's getting more and more difficult for monks to maintain their temples as a business as the temple memberships are declining, especially in the countryside," said Mayumi Tominaga, a spokeswoman for the event.

"The number of people who die will peak in 2040 in Japan, but many elderly people are choosing to stop using their ancestral tombs," she said.

The winner of the "Beautiful Bozu (monk) Contest" was Shouyo Takiyoshi from a temple in northern Hokkaido, who sang melancholic Buddhist songs.

He was selected the winner based on the votes of audience members as well as a five-judge panel of company managers, a monk and a pianist.

"It was interesting to see monks in a scene different from funerals" usually filled with a solemn atmosphere, said Sae Igarashi, 24, who works for a company offering ceremonial services.

Yokoyama, who performed the karate chop, said he is also pursuing a parallel career as a nurse.

"Priests often meet people for the first time after their death," he said.