It is a truism that Buddhism in Japan today is a tradition under pressure. Whereas in earlier centuries Buddhism represented a comprehensive cosmological, political, and literary worldview that was shared by people of all classes across the archipelago, today it is not uncommon to hear priests lamenting the decline of lay support and worrying about how the tradition can survive.

Even as many temples in rural Japan prove the Buddhist dictum that nothing is eternally abiding by shutting their doors forever, others exemplify the Buddhist tenet of incessant change by ingeniously concocting new ways to weave the tradition into the daily lives of Japan’s citizens. This innovative trend is evident in a promotional campaign now six years in the running at Ryohoji, a tiny Nichiren sect temple in Hachioji, a suburb of Tokyo.

In May 2009, the resident priest installed a large “Welcome to Ryohoji!” sign just inside the temple’s main gate. The billboard, which was initially intended to foster children’s interest in Buddhism, features the kawaii (cute) aesthetic that is commonly associated with Japanese manga (comics) and anime (animation). Each of the temple’s enshrined deities is portrayed here in a stylized cartoon format, with several of the characters visually protruding out of the “frame” of the sign in a way that gives the static 2D images an eyecatching dynamism. QR codes next to individual characters take visitors to a mobile-friendly website, separate from but affiliated with Ryohoji’s official site, that offers information about each of the deities.

© Hachifuku
© Hachifuku

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Ryohoji’s sign immediately attracted the attention of Tokyo geeks (otaku), a population notoriously fascinated by lovable illustrated characters that “bud” or “sprout,” and Ryohoji was quickly dubbed the “moe temple” (from the verb moeru, “to bud or sprout”). Sensing a business opportunity, the grandson of a temple parishioner established a company called Hachifuku that promptly began selling trinkets emblazoned with the temple’s proprietary characters and organizing Ryohoji-themed events on the temple grounds and elsewhere in Tokyo.

In 2010, Hachifuku released a temple theme song video, “Tera Zukkyun!” on Ahodera Records (“Foolish Temple Records,” a pun on Ryohoji’s name), featuring a pastiche of crudely animated images from the illustrated sign and original lyrics by its illustrator, Toromi. The illustrator herself also appears in costume as Toro-Benten and urges viewers to hurry to the temple to have their prayers for love answered. A second theme song video was released in 2011 (“Namu X Cyun,” Ahodera Records), introducing the pornography star Kikoden Misa as the goddess Kichijoten under the moniker KissYouTen Misa, sporting a sexy outfit and a coquettish demeanor to match the suggestive lyrics of the chorus: “Hurry and take refuge in me right now / let’s become, let’s become one!”

Hachifuku’s merchandise, the promotional songs, a biweekly program broadcast on YouTube, and video games for iOS and Android now form an integral part of Ryohoji’s institutional identity. As a result, the temple has become dependent on the talents of lay promoters who are probably motivated by profit at least as much as they exemplify Buddhist piety. Newspaper reporters, television variety shows, and YouTube commenters have responded to the promotional campaign critically, treating the temple’s capitalization on audiences’ interest in cute cosplay celebrities as a lamentable departure from Buddhist tradition.

But is it really? Just as Japanese Buddhists in the past deployed cutting-edge media technology such as picture scrolls and charismatic performers such as wandering raconteurs to entice people to visit pilgrimage sites, Hachifuku has used the aesthetics of Japan’s thriving anime industry and the sex appeal of talented cosplayers to lure a new generation to the temple. Judging from the number of @ryohoji followers on Twitter (4,475 as of February 2015) and the number of YouTube views of the temple’s animated theme songs (580,537 views of “Tera Zukkyun!” and 102,138 views of “Namu X Cyun”), Ryohoji’s partnership with Hachifuku seems to be paying off.

Tera Zukkyun

Namu X Cyun

Over the long term, however, the immutable fact of impermanence will ultimately prevail: Cosplay goddesses will age and retire. Talented illustrators may not be easily replaced if they move on to other projects. Fickle fans may eventually direct their attention elsewhere. But while the cute characters and skillful means appropriate to Tokyo in the 2010s may be ephemeral, the idea that Japanese Buddhism is in decline serves as both the motivation and explanation for innovative collaborations between priests and performers who draw on tradition while sketching new approaches to the teaching. Decline is the engine that keeps Buddhism alive.

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