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Monks venture into bars, and rap

Meet "Mr. Happiness," and other monks trying to bring a little more music, and a lot more life, to Japanese religion.

Mr. Happiness Kansho Tagai, a monk who raps. Here he is rapping at an event at his temple. (Source: Kansho Tagai)

TOKYO — Once a month this tiny music club in downtown Tokyo sidelines its usual bossa nova or jazz musicians and hosts performers from a more enlightened realm — Buddhist monks.

Dressed in their burgundy and black robes, accompanied by brass bells, the monks intersperse chants of sutras with quick lectures on Buddhist music and teachings. A few devout grandmothers hold their palms together in reverence while the monks chant. But others just nurse their beers and Johnny Walkers, talking throughout the show.

The performance illustrates the surprising efforts Japanese Buddhist monks are now taking — one monk has taken to setting Buddhist sutras to rap music — to fill their empty worship halls and secure a future for themselves in an increasingly disinterested Japan.

The religious preferences of the Japanese have always been a bit complicated — and to a western eye — conflicted. Most people here have both Buddhist and Shinto shrines in their homes. They typically attend Buddhist temples for funerals and at year’s end, Shinto temples to welcome the new year, and Christian churches to tie the knot in organ-accompanied ceremonies — all without a thought to the contradictions.

But with the rise in funeral parlors in Japan cutting into what had been a Buddhist monopoly, coupled with decreasing interest in Buddhism in general, Buddhist monks are worried about their future. Each year, lack of financial support shutters about 1,000 of Japan’s 80,000 Buddhist temples, some of them with vibrant histories stretching back centuries.

To counter this trend, Buddhist monks have taken to the airwaves, the stage and even to the club scene in an advertising effort that is as cutting-edge as it is astonishing.

Buddhist monk Hogen Natori, a jazz fan and longtime patron of the Sound Music Bar Chippy (the music club), first asked the club’s owner if she would give him and a few fellow monks the mic one night six years ago. The first few performances prompted a number of bewildered customers to leave. But they also created a monthly tradition that has developed a following.

Natori has grandmotherly groupies like 66-year-old Sachiko Tomisawa. The bespectacled retiree with orange-tinted hair said she comes every month, barring health problems. She has convinced her children and grandchildren to come with her for next month’s performance.

“We can feel their love,” said an excited Tomisawa. “It is so great.”

Natori signs autographs before and after the performance and answers questions about his recently published book.

His inspiration, he said, is his performance 25 years ago at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. He performed there with 80 other monks from Japan as part of a celebration of Japanese Buddhism.

“The New York Times said we were ‘splendid,’” Natori said with a wink. “People can feel the power of the music, even if they don’t understand the words ... Nowadays everybody in Japan loves karaoke. They understand the power of that music. I can use the power of Buddhist music to reach people... to expose them to the idea that there is a another way in life. A loving, smiling way.”