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Opinion: Nara temple near Abe assassination site burdened with Japan-wide notoriety

Saidaiji priests sprinkle Buddhist sand for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the site where he was assassinated in Nara, on July 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Keiko Shioji)

It appears that recently, dark clouds are covering the city of Nara, and hanging heavy over residents in the ancient Japanese capital. The severe summer heat and the prolonged COVID-19 crisis are two factors in this, but the major reason, I believe, is the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that took place in the city in July. Regardless of residents' political beliefs, the fact that the attack was carried out in their hometown apparently remains deeply lodged in many people's hearts.

    In this sense, the local Buddhist temple Saidaiji has perhaps been most affected by the incident. Readers may have heard the name of the temple repeatedly in news reports on the attack. It is the head temple of the Shingon Risshu sect, and its name is part of the Kintetsu Railway's Yamato-Saidaiji Station, near the site of the assassination.

    The temple was built in the Nara period in the eighth century following a request from Empress Shotoku, and the historic structure is home to many national treasures and important cultural assets. However, it is not the most well-known temple in Nara, where multiple World Heritage Sites including the Todaiji and Kohfukuji temples are located. In fact, many locals previously only recognized the temple as part of a train station name. The recent attack has given the temple unexpected notoriety.

    Buddhist temple Saidaiji's main hall is seen in the city of Nara, on July 26, 2022. The structure, built in the Edo period (1603-1867), is designated as an important cultural asset. (Mainichi/Shigeto Hanazawa)

    "I thought at first it didn't concern us," said Taihan Tsujimura, the temple's 74-year-old steward. He had said the same thing to a reporter from a newspaper covering religious topics, who visited the temple for comments on the afternoon of July 8, after the former prime minister was shot.

    "They asked me, 'How do you feel about the attack taking place right nearby?' And I thought, 'I'm not sure how I should feel; it's not like it happened at the temple grounds,'" Tsujimura recalled.

    As time passed, however, he felt restless. He said, "Come to think of it, in the Nara period there was a temple called Sairyuji with close ties to Saidaiji in the area around the station's north exit, where the incident occurred." Saidaiji was a temple restricted to male priests, whereas Sairyuji was a nun-only temple -- one could call them a pair.

    "A sad incident happened at a place where we are historically connected, albeit indirectly. Aside from (the fact that the victim was) a former prime minister, we shouldn't just leave the sorrow of a person who passed in a terrible way unattended," Tsujimura said.

    Tsujimura called on his temple colleagues "to do something," though he did have concerns that their actions could be received as sucking up to powerful politicians or as a performance to get attention.

    On July 12, four days after the attack, Saidaiji chief priest Ryuyo Matsumura and five others visited the assassination site to recite Buddhist sutras and sprinkle special sand believed to let the deceased reach nirvana.

    Though Tsujimura was sure that the temple would receive criticism over the religious performance, he says the majority of the responses were favorable. Even so, he appeared hesitant to declare everything all right.

    "Was this really the best way? Couldn't we have done something else?" Tsujimura asked himself.

    Following the assassination, controversy surrounding the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, a religious group commonly known as the Unification Church, has come under a renewed spotlight. Tsujimura doesn't see this as someone else's problem. He commented, "This should serve as an opportunity to think about how religions should exist."

    Media coverage and reviews of the attack will likely continue. When people hear the name "Saidaiji" amidst such reports, I hope they will remember that the temple's priests prayed for the deceased and continue to work on coming to terms with their standing.

    (Japanese original by Shigeto Hanazawa, Osaka Cultural News Department)

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