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Sutra-Chanting Doll Becomes Temple Mascot

May 28, 1999

The Hotoku-ji monk hard at work. (Friday, April 23, 1999)

Being a devout Buddhist has never been especially easy. The dedication required by the religion is exemplified by the henro, a rigorous pilgrimage around the entire island of Shikoku with stops at 88 famous temples founded in the late eighth century. But now automation has crept even into this world of physical and spiritual devotion, with the introduction of a robot that may very well be one of the world's first mechanical priests.

Automated Monk Welcomes Worshippers
The robot monk resides at Hotoku-ji, a temple in Kakogawa City, Hyogo Prefecture. Fixed in a kneeling position, it features a smoothly shaven head and prominent ears, just like its human counterparts. Clad in priestly robes, it grasps a string of juzu (Buddhist prayer beads) in its left hand.

So what does Hotoku-ji's robot priest do? Most of the time it sits absolutely still--one could say it meditates. When its sensors detect a worshipper approaching the altar, however, the robot goes into action. It begins to chant a sutra (Buddhist prayer) while the shumoku (clapper) in its right hand rhythmically strikes a mokugyo, a hollow wooden object something like a gong and a drum.

This particular robot is the creation of Yoshihiro Motooka, a 65-year-old former railway technician. Most interesting is that the creator, in line with Buddhist precepts against wasteful excess, made the robot with discarded items, including parts from a bicycle, a cassette tape recorder, and a washing machine motor. "The face was the most difficult," Motooka grins.

More Cyborg Chanters to Come
While the robot's debut may have initially caused a few double-takes among visitors to the temple, it is now accepted as a natural part of the religious experience. "When worshippers drop by to chant sutras, they seem to enjoy seeing the robot there too," says Kyojun Hanafusa, Hotoku-ji's resident priest. "They've come to regard him as our temple's mascot. If we take him away to make repairs, people even ask me 'What's wrong? Why isn't he here today?'"

Hotoku-ji does not claim its mechanical priest is the first of its kind, and in fact a Belgian photographer reported a similar robot being used to conduct a funeral ceremony in a cemetery near Yokohama earlier this decade. Nonetheless, the robot is gaining fame as a unique addition to the Kakogawa temple grounds, and the idea appears to be taking off. A neighboring temple and Shinto shrine have also sought Motooka's services and have already installed robots of their own. Some observers credit this success story to the vitality of people in the Kansai region, who have a well-deserved reputation for humor and creativity.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.