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Japanese Queue Up To Buy Expensive Afterlife Names

By Coco Kubota     Mar 14, 2001 in Lifestyle
TOKYO (dpa) - Kazuko Nishimura, a 60-year-old widow, was taken aback when asked by a Buddhist priest to hand over around a million yen (8,600 dollars) for her husband's kaimyo, or afterlife name.

Most Japanese who practice the Buddhist faith are given a kaimyo written on a rectangular black ornament from their Buddhist priest after death.

About 44.8 per cent of Japanese are Buddhist, according to the government. There are about 77,000 Buddhist temples in Japan.

Having a kaimyo means that the deceased has become a disciple of Buddha and has entered heaven. It brings peace of mind for the living.

But this peace of mind doesn't come cheap - indeed, the financial burden for survivors can range from 200,000 yen (1,700 dollars) to more than 10 million yen (86,900 dollars).

"At the funeral the priest offered me a choice of three kaimyo with different price tags. I didn't like it because it felt like a monetary value was being placed on the deceased, but I chose the most expensive one with the title Koji," said Nishimura. Status, it seems, has its place in the afterworld, too."

The title "Shinshi" is applied to true believers of the faith. A "Koji" is one who enjoyed tremendous wealth and status, and has contributed to society. And the highest rank of all, "Ingou" is reserved for those who contributed generously to Buddhism, society and temples.

The monikers are priced accordingly; Shinshi goes for a little over 200,000 yen, while an Ingou starts at 500,000 yen.

"Certainly, as status symbols, Gucci bags and Hermes scarves can hardly hold an incense stick to these titles, at least not in terms of permanency," said Nishimura.

Essentially, a kaimyo name is made up of only two characters. But more characters are added to denote the deceased's "rank", while people who contribute substantially to the temple are often rewarded with additional characters that relate to the temple's history. Some sects add distinctive "brand name" characters, as well.

In its original form, kaimyo was the same as a Christian baptismal name in that it was given to those who officially embraced the faith and as such it was never given posthumously.

However, over the course of time the practice has changed so that today it is mostly assigned posthumously. This makes it a lucrative source of income for temples, where half of their revenues are said to come from ceremonies and related services for the departed.

According to the All Japan Funeral Directors' Cooperation, a nationwide association for funeral service agencies, the average Japanese family spends 2.28 million yen (19,800 dollars) on a funeral which includes meals for guests and donations to temples.

Among the total funeral costs, the average of 498,000 yen (4,300 dollars) is paid to a temple. Some funeral service agents even offer loans for funerals.

Traditionally, Buddhist temples were supported by contributions from parishioners. But the strong trend toward urbanization since the end of World War II has eroded the links between temples and their communities, making temples highly reliant on the funeral fees.

Criticism at the cost of afterlife names is so intense that the Japan Buddhist Federation, comprised of 60 established Buddhist sects, formulated its official position on kaimyo for the first time a year ago.

"Kaimyo is not a commodity to be traded for money," the federation said. "And any money or gift a person gives to a priest or temple is strictly a voluntarily donation."

Analysts said instead of pursuing kaimyo for the sake of prestige, people should turn their attention to the true spirit of Buddhism, which says nothing about expensive funerals.

Mizumaro Ishida, a noted Buddhist scholar, stated in his will that he wanted neither a funeral service nor a tomb. When he died, he did not get his kaimyo either.
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