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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A Buddhist Priest's Struggle

Oct. 28, 2016

A young Buddhist priest near Hiroshima is working to help ensure his local temple will still be around for generations to come.

Buddhist temples in Japan have been facing increasing challenges. Of the 76,000 temples in the country, about one in four do not have a resident priest. The trend is partly due to the shrinking population in rural areas.

The neighborhood of Ogusa, about 60 kilometers from Hiroshima city, has a population of roughly 1,000 people. The main industry in the area is farming, and the area is also home to Tokusho-ji Temple, which was founded in around 1700.

Last year, 27-year-old Shunpei Tokumasa left his home in Hokkaido, 1,800 kilometers away, and moved to Ogusa to get married and to train to take over the position as the temple's next priest.

"I want to make sure that the temple will be around for many more years, and that it gets passed on to future generations," he says.

At first, Shunpei thought he was simply training to take over as the next head priest and continue the temple’s legacy. But he soon discovered that there were problems -- namely that the temple needed money to survive.

Shunpei begins his day at 4:30 a.m., but instead of performing morning prayer at the temple he gets in his car and leaves town. Since he can’t support his family on one job alone, he has to work at another temple in Kure City, 70 kilometers away.

Shunpei's main job is at Hosen-ji Temple, which has a large compound with almost 7-times as many parishioners as his home temple.

He makes the rounds of parishioners' homes, where he often sits in front of the family altar and reads the sutra. Each home visit takes about 20 minutes, and on one recent morning he had to visit 11 homes.

"I'm swamped today. It's so busy," he says.

Shunpei attended a Buddhist university in Kyoto because his mother comes from a family of priests. But he found the temptations of city life too great. Instead of studying, he ended up in bars wasting time.

When his father found out about Shunpei's lifestyle, he got angry and ordered his son to quit college and get a job.

But his mother was more sympathetic.

"She said parents shouldn’t meddle in their child's lives or complain to them about money. She started to scold my father instead of me. She said 'You need to spend a lot of money to raise a strong and spirited boy,'" Shunpei says. "After I heard her words, I truly felt sorry and, for the first time, I apologized from the bottom of my heart."

He decided to drop out of college, and signed up to attend a Buddhist seminary where he could pursue his real dream of becoming a priest to help others.

He met Tomoko while at the seminary. The 2 got married and that's when he decided to become the successor to her family's temple, and to dedicate his life to the community.

"I take this commitment really seriously. I’ve burned many bridges in order to do it. I want to keep the temple going at all costs, because the local parishioners have been working hard to preserve its legacy," Shunpei says.

But working at 2 temples has created problems. He spends so much time traveling between the 2 temples that he doesn’t have enough time to interact with the parishioners.

"I don't know what to say about the new priest, because I don't see him as much as I do the other family members," says one parishioner in Ogusa.

Shunpei’s father-in-law, Takamaru Tokumasa, is the head priest of the temple and Shunpei looks up to him as a role model.

Takamaru also married into the Tokumasa family and eventually became head priest. For the past 25 years, he has been serving the spiritual needs of people in his parish and is a revered figure in the community.

Takamaru hopes that Shunpei will foster similar relationships with the locals, too. In 2011, Takamaru founded an NPO so that the temple could organize events not only for the parishioners but also for older people in the community.

The temple has been holding weekly activities and Takamaru hopes that Shunpei will carry on his NPO work.

"Unlike me, he’s a very sociable person -- that's his strength," Takamaru says, referring to Shunpei.

The day before Shunpei's first big gathering, he practices singing and playing guitar. He has been singing in public since his carefree college days.

"I want people to be glad that they came to our event. I hope they’ll remember it," Shunpei says.

About 50 people come to the event ― almost twice as many as usual.

"We're going to exercise through music. I call it musical exercise," Shunpei tells the crowd.

When they hear this unfamiliar phrase, the participants seem a bit worried.

Shunpei came up with the idea of as a way to connect with the parishioners’ bodies and souls.

"Move your other fingers so that they're not touching each other. Next, turn them the other way -- you look way too serious now," Shunpei tells the attendees.

The participants seem confused at first, but they gradually relax and start to smile. When it comes time to sing, Shunpei selects the song "Sukiyaki" because most people know the melody.

Shunpei captivates the audience.

"I want to work hard to keep Ogusa vibrant. I hope to be accepted as a member of the community -- not only by those with ties to the temple, but by the whole community," he says.