Sat, Sep 24, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Japan’s newest technology innovation: Priest Delivery

The controversial business is disrupting traditional funeral arrangements, but priests and their backers say it preserves Buddhist traditions by making them accessible to the millions of people who have become estranged from the religion

By Jonathan Soble  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE, SAKAI, Japan

In Japan, a Buddhist priest can now be found just a few mouse clicks away.

Photo: AP/Koji Ueda

The stubble-haired Buddhist priest lit incense at a small, cupboardlike altar just as members of his order have done for centuries. As the priest chanted sutras, Yutaka Kai closed his eyes and prayed for his wife, who died last year of complications from a knee replacement.

Kai, 68, set aside his family’s devout Buddhism when he left his rural hometown decades ago to work in a tire factory. That meant Kai did not have a local temple to turn to for the first anniversary of his wife’s death, a milestone for Japanese Buddhists.

CLICK BAIT

Cue the Internet. In modern Japan, a Buddhist priest can now be found just a few mouse clicks away, on Amazon.com.

“It’s affordable, and the price is clear,” said Kai’s eldest son, Shuichi, 40. “You don’t have to worry about how much you’re supposed to give.”

The priest at Kai’s memorial, Junku Soko, is part of a controversial business that is disrupting traditional funeral arrangements in Japan. In a country where regulations and powerful interests have stymied much of the so-called gig economy — Uber, for instance, is barely a blip here — a network of freelancing priests is making gains in the unlikely sphere of religion.

Their venture is viewed by some as unseemly, and it has drawn condemnation from Buddhist leaders. An umbrella group representing Japan’s many Buddhist sects complained publicly after Amazon began offering obosan-bin — priest delivery — on its Japanese site last year, in partnership with a local startup.

But the priests and their backers say they are addressing real needs. They assert that obosan-bin is helping to preserve Buddhist traditions by making them accessible to the millions of people in Japan who have become estranged from the religion.

“Temples will sell you 10 yen candles for 100 yen,” said Soko, 39. “They’re protecting their own interests.”

Such arguments will be familiar to anyone who has watched e-commerce companies upend other parts of the economy, from book publishing to airlines, taxis and hotels.

In Japan, even in areas far less sensitive than religion, newcomers often receive a chilly reception, and startups are rarer than in other, rich countries. Among the explanations are a scarcity of venture capital, the political clout wielded by established businesses and a culture that values stability over the creative destruction that drives growth in countries like the US.

Yet religion may prove to be an exception. It is so opaque — and so removed from the day-to-day lives of many modern Japanese — that a little technological disruption may prove welcome.

MATERIAL AND SPIRITUAL STAKES

The stakes are material as well as spiritual. As with religious institutions in many other countries, temples in Japan receive generous tax breaks.

“If it becomes a fee for services instead of a donation, and the government says, ‘OK, we’re going to tax you like a regular business,’ how are we supposed to object?” said Hanyu Kakubo, a priest at the Japan Buddhist Federation, which opposes obosan-bin.

As with adherents of many religions, Buddhists typically give donations to priests for their services. Proponents of obosan-bin argue that conventional temples already operate like businesses — ones that put customers at a disadvantage though murky pricing. The amount is left up to the donor, a custom that leads many to overpay, Soko said.

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