Buddhist priests are so desperate for survival that they’re doing e-delivery

Now available on demand.
Now available on demand.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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How do you bring a religion that’s thousands of years old and withering on the vine into the 21st century? With Amazon, of course.

In Japan, where 70% of people don’t identity with a particular religion or consider themselves atheists, they still seek out ancient traditions for significant life events such as funerals or death anniversaries. And because they don’t regularly attend temple, many Japanese are turning to online delivery services to hire priests for those age-old rituals.

Known as obosan-bin, or priest delivery, the service on Amazon Japan is offered in connection with a local start-up that began with a network of 400 priests available for hire on its own website. The company, Minrevi, told the New York Times that it pockets a third of the fees paid by patrons, with the rest going to the priests themselves. Partnering with Amazon has allowed the company to expand its roster by 100 more priests and reach a wider audience. Minrevi expects 12,000 bookings this year, an increase of 20%.

“It’s affordable, and the price is clear,” said Shuichi Kai, whose father used the service to hire a priest to pray on the first anniversary of his wife’s death, a major event for Japanese Buddhists. “You don’t have to worry about how much you’re supposed to give.”

That worry is actually a common concern for people who go through the traditional route, which involves Buddhists giving donations to temples in exchange for a priest performing his services. Critics argue that the traditional process is difficult to navigate, because while donations are required, pricing is unclear and can be prohibitively pricey (given the elaborate rituals involved, funerals in Japan are among the world’s most expensive). On Amazon, the prices are fixed: A basic memorial ceremony with a priest goes for 35,000 yen ($346). Meanwhile, comparable services offered by temples for a memorial can cost around 100,000 yen—and funerals can go for as much as 1 million yen.

“Many people don’t have ties with temples and they have no idea where and how to arrange Buddhist rituals, while monks are increasingly concerned about their declining temple membership,” Minrevi spokesman Jumpei Masano told Mashable. “We can cater to the needs on both sides and hopefully we can bring them together.”

But not everyone is thrilled with a startup disrupting sacred traditions, even as the country’s 75,000 temples continue to lose offerings from people in their communities.

“Such a thing is allowed in no other country in the world. In this regard, we must say we are disappointed by an attitude toward religion by Amazon,” read a statement from Akisato Saito, director of the Japan Buddhist Association.

That’s wishful thinking. Similar services have cropped up in India, allowing worshipers to book pandits, or Hindu priests, for ceremonies online.