First union for Japanese temple workers

A buddhist monk from the Zenkoji temple in Nagano has formed the first ever union for temple workers in Japan.

Submitted by Steven. on February 18, 2006

The following slightly edited report is from the Australian:

An aggrieved monk and his band of truculent acolytes have formed the first Japanese union for temple workers.

The fledgling union, comprising a handful of monks and other workers from the famous Zenkoji temple in Nagano, is sending a chilling message to Buddhist priests across Japan.

They may all eventually be forced to view their shaven-headed flock as employees, rather than as devotees. Set up with a view to collective bargaining for pay rises and better employment conditions, the Zenkoji Daikanjin Bunkai is a first in Japanese labour relations.

Trade union leaders believe the Nagano monks' display of shop-floor activism will spread quickly, because disputes between monks and senior religious leaders are far from uncommon.

Like many other workers' movements, the unionising of the Zenkoji temple exploded out of a single instance of perceived management abuse.

A 52-year-old monk who belonged to Zenkoji was caught in the middle of a power struggle between the main temple authorities - the Daikanjin - and those of the associated temples under its wing - the Tatchu.

The monk, a follower of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, made the mistake of criticising one of the high priests and was punished as a Japanese office worker might be in similar circumstances.

He was separated from his co-workers and ordered to perform a laborious and meaningless task: copying out Buddhist sutras in a tiny room for two months.

His fellow monks were enraged, and a lawsuit was filed on his behalf in which the temple authorities were accused of treating him in a way that fell outside his contract.

The monk approached the local Nagano branch of Zenroren, the National Confederation of Trade Unions, which studied the contract under which he was working and decided there were grounds to form a union.

The chairman of the Nagano Zenroren, Toshio Sugata, said the monks had a clear case.

"This is the first time monks have been unionised," he said. "We learned that they were employed by Daikanjin, the main temple of the Tendai sect, under labour regulations in which their payment and working hours were formally laid out. In that sense, monks have the same employment status as salarymen."

And Mr Sugata said one of his colleagues in an allied branch of the confederation had received an inquiry from junior monks, who were undergoing their notoriously ascetic training, about whether they had the same payroll rights as general workers.