Banker-turned-priest leads ancient Buddhist sect to 21st century

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12/13/2020

Located near the defunct Tsukiji Market, once one of the largest fish markets in the world, Tsukiji Hongwanji temple is the icon of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism, which dates back eight centuries. The original temple was erected in the 1600s during the early Edo period. Although it was consumed twice by fire, the main building was reconstructed in 1934 in classical Indian Buddhist style. Despite the closing of the famed fish market, the revered temple is still a huge tourist draw. And it aims to remain so, thanks to its head priest, who is applying 21st-century corporate management techniques to keep alive — and reignite — ancient traditions. Yugen Yasunaga, 66, who has led the temple since 2015, had a long career at a major Japanese bank and his own human resources company before immersing himself in Buddhism. While heading his HR company, he concurrently served as chief priest of a friend’s temple. Widely appreciated for his religious duties, Yasunaga eventually became a councilor of the sect — much like an outside director at a business — before taking charge of Tsukiji Hongwanji at the chief’s request. Upon assuming his duties, Yasunaga was stunned by the appalling business conditions. There were no proper accounting books, not to mention a balance sheet. The only ledger available showed nothing but cash and deposits for assets. Neither fixed assets nor depreciations were booked. “Basic management, such as customer service, was not understood at all,” Yasunaga recalled. Memorial services and other events had been provided to the congregation, but there was little or no effort to improve them. It was as if the congregation was supposed to be grateful for the temple’s charity, no matter how it was provided. “A temple is the same as a corporation. You must consider who are customers, what kinds of services they need, and how much you should charge,” Yasunaga told staff and other stakeholders. “You also must consider how to manage collections for the next investment.” Yasunaga sensed the crisis that religion was undergoing at the time, and that the breakdown of the “danka” parishioner system had weakened the relationship between the temple and home, a situation which held more than 50% of temples in chronic deficit. But stakeholders voiced doubts about Yasunaga’s reforms, citing his corporate zeal as being anathema to the temple’s long history as a nonprofit, spiritual enterprise. Yasunaga laid waste to these outdated ideas. He first made the imposing temple more accessible from surrounding streets then put in a reception counter and cafe — two radical changes that made the edifice feel more inviting.

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