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'Punished by the gods': Man held over theft of Buddhist statuette from Japanese temple

The Buddhist statuettes, including one from a temple in Toda, far left, that the suspect is said to have stolen and sold on to secondhand shops and other businesses are seen in this image provided by Saitama Prefectural Police.
A Nio statue that was found scattered in pieces near the entrance to the main hall of the temple in Toda, after it was apparently knocked over and broken in the suspected theft, is seen in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Nakagawa)
The broken doorknob on the inside of a door leading into the temple's main hall is seen in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Nakagawa)
The altar from which the Buddhist statuette was stolen is seen at the temple in Toda, Saitama Prefecture, on Nov. 12, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Nakagawa)

SAITAMA -- A man in his 50s believed to have stolen and sold Buddhist items from a number of temples in eastern Japan was arrested on Nov. 17 on suspicion of taking a statuette from an unattended temple in the Saitama Prefecture city of Toda.

    Akiyoshi Fujita, 56, who has no fixed address and is unemployed, was arrested in connection with the theft by the Saitama Prefectural Police's Third Investigation Division. He is also being investigated for the thefts of six statuettes at four temples in Saitama Prefecture and neighboring Tochigi Prefecture. Because the majority of the places of worship Fujita is accused of raiding are unmanned, prefectural police are calling for temples to implement theft prevention measures.

    Fujita is specifically accused of stealing a single statuette from a temple in Toda between Sept. 30 and Oct.1. He is reported to have admitted to the allegations, saying, "I thought that getting arrested this quickly meant I'd been punished by the gods." Police said that Fujita sold a total of six Buddhist figures to antique stores, secondhand shops and other outlets, and they say it appears he was frequently selling stolen goods.

    The temple he allegedly stole from is located on the corner of a residential area in Toda, and has reportedly been unattended for close to 50 years. The incident was discovered when a temple supporter, Kazumi Hagiwara, 71, came to check on the temple's main hall and found the entrance's inside doorknob broken. The statuette that stood at the center of the altar was gone, and a Nio statue that appeared to have fallen amid the robbery was left scattered in pieces. The local said, "Punishment will come for stealing the gods who listen to people's wishes."

    Unattended temples are managed by temple supporters who do the rounds visiting them, but issues have emerged over how to protect them from crime. In the case of the temple in Toda, Hagiwara comes every day to check on it and clear away trash. The inside of the main hall is locked, but he reported that sometimes money offerings have been stolen, and that he has also found people trying to stay the night there. With each adverse experience, the security at the temple has been forced to improve with more locks installed on the hall's sliding doors, among other measures.

    According to figures from the Agency for Cultural Affairs, there are roughly 2,200 temples in Saitama Prefecture, and many of them are believed to be unmanned. An official at the prefectural police's Community Safety and General Affairs Department said, "There is a possibility of theft of offerings, arson and trespassing taking place at temples that are largely out of sight."

    To combat the issue, the official said taking preventative steps is essential, and recommended doing frequent cleaning of the temples, putting fencing all around the properties and locking them, putting out gravel that will make a noise when an individual walks on it, and using lights to keep the grounds illuminated at night.

    (Japanese original by Yuki Nakagawa, Saitama Bureau)

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