A Priestess’ Role in Civil Society
Rev. Eka Shimada is a young 31 year-old Jodo Pure Land denomination priestess and vice-abbot of Kogen-ji Temple in Tokyo, who is one of the early members of the Tokyo priests association. As the only child of a temple family, she decided to become a priestess out of concern for her family and how they would manage when her parents got older and sick. She says that even though she grew up in a temple, she had no real interest in Buddhism as a young girl. Yet after undergoing the study and training for ordination, she found that the teachings became of interest to her. Since then, she has also become increasingly active in applying herself as a Buddhist nun to a variety of social issues, such as helping the homeless, serving the traumatized in the north after the tsunami, and, principally, working with the suicidal and bereaved. Her first real encounter with suicide was during university when a close friend’s father committed suicide. While the family appeared to remain normal from the outside, she noticed that it was totally changed by this incident: her friend struggled to get enough money to continue with school; his mother became sick with trauma; and the grandmother began to blame the mother for the death of her son. In this way, she recounts seeing how the suicide of one person affects the lives of many others.
After graduating university, she entered the professional world working for a real estate company but quickly burned out on the work and quit. Questioning what she should do in the world beyond the funeral and memorial rites of the Buddhist temple, she took a course on counseling using Neuro-Linguistic Programming with a fellow Jodo priest. However, she developed doubts about the modern style of psychological counseling with professionals, who make their living off charging the clients that they help. This experience led to getting involved with the Association of Priests Grappling with the Suicide Problem, which is a purely volunteer organization. She also appreciated that the group is ecumenical and made up of a variety of priests from different denominations. Like other priests who are pioneers in this work, she does not widely advertise it among her parishioners as social taboos on suicide as well as conservative views of the role of the priest not being involved in social activities still exist. She does not hide her work, however, and has had a few parishioners come to her for support.
Rev. Shimada has been one of the 4-5 co-chairs of the Association since 2012 and also has served as an activity coordinator since 2013, the latter involving training new members in the group. This means she participates in the monthly counseling sessions (wakachi-ai) at Tsukiji Hongan-ji Temple. At these gatherings, two priests will sit with 4-5 participants in a circle. They have found that more in a group does not allow for enough participation by each person, while fewer prevents a wider perspective that can help an individual sufferer. When a priest begins this work, he/she must first sit outside the circle as an observer; then can act as an assistant to the main counselor priest; and finally become a head counselor. While Rev. Shimada has extensive experience in working as a telephone counselor for Inochi-no Denwa (いのちの電話 “life call”) and the Center for Suicide Prevention (jisatsu boshi senta 自殺防止センター), she is still only at the first level of observer since many of the senior priests in the Association have years of experience running their own private counseling services.
Rev. Shimada is also working in the public sector with a program hosted by the aforementioned Center to Support Measures Against Suicide, commonly called Life Link. Life Link, as one of the pioneers in the field of suicide prevention, first outlined in 2008 a classic pattern of the suicidal that begins with economic and work related problems, like bankruptcy, overwork and exhaustion, poor worker relationships due to competition, and anxiety around change in the workplace. These strains cause further health problems, mounting debt, and the breakdown of family relationships. The eventual result is various lifestyle hardships, alienation, depression, and eventually suicide. This particular analysis focuses primarily on economic and work related issues, and at the time did not directly address the high rates of suicide in the young and elderly. However, Rev. Shimada reports that Life Link has recently developed further models on different types of persons and their tendencies and stages of becoming suicidal.
In this way, Life Link has attracted the attention of the Japanese government, and the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare is now working with them on a new project, called the Yorisoi (“getting intimate”) Hotline, to better follow up with the people who call for help. In general, such telephone counseling centers have maintained policies of anonymity so as to encourage people to contact them. Rev. Shimada also notes that follow up contact can be fraught with difficulties, such as a dependency that can develop in the caller to have their problems solved by the counseling center. However, new government policy is mandating better follow up care through such activities as calling these people back, arranging for visits to their home or some other location, and offering references to places in their own area where they can get help.
Rev Shimada works for the Yorisoi Hotline at the Life Link offices one to two days per week, specifically checking on the cases that come in from the telephone counselors. With over five years of practice herself as a telephone counselor, she now serves in monitoring and supervising the present group of telephone counselors. In using role playing and acting as the caller with the new trainees, she says that she has learned much in putting herself in the place of the disturbed person.
In terms of the role of Buddhism or religion in general in this field, Rev. Shimada does not work at the Yorisoi Hotline as a Buddhist priest or as a chaplain, yet neither is her identity as a priestess hidden. This is significant as the constitutional article guaranteeing separation between church and state in Japan is taken very literally by government bureaucrats, and government supported projects cannot have any official or visible connections to religious groups. Further, Japanese civil society has tended to look down on Buddhist priests as holders of conservative, “backward” beliefs and rituals from which they gain their livelihood. The leadership role of Rev. Shimada at the Yorisoi Hotline, as neither a religious professional nor with a hidden identity, is significant in the growing respect for the perspective and experience of Buddhist priests in this work.
In reflecting on her work, Rev. Shimada comments that while she may be very idealistic, she hopes in the future that she will not have to engage in these activities, because society will be free of the problem. At the moment, however, she thinks that Japanese have a narrow way of thinking about and looking at life. They are good at simply focusing on what their job or responsibility is, but do not look out for others or become concerned with those who seem to be in trouble. On her visits to the United States, she was surprised at the warmth and casual conversations people had with strangers. She feels this comes from the ethnic diversity of an immigrant nation, and consequently, a sense of needing to mutually support others. Japan is actually known for its ethic of helping and supporting others within one’s group. However, as an isolated island nation, Rev. Shimada feels Japanese have an insular sense of community and are not good at reaching out across communities. She feels Japanese have a very provincial view, not one based on a wider sense of civil society. She reflects that perhaps this was different in the past, but after westernization and the war, Japanese society was rebuilt in a rather strange way. Nowadays, people say about the Japanese that they may have money but are not happy.
 There are many good sources for understanding the problems of Japanese Buddhism in the modern world and its pejorative status as “Funeral Buddhism”; one is: Covell, Stephen G. 2006. Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press.