lifestyle

Baptism by fire

23 Comments
By Julian Ryall for BCCJ ACUMEN

By now, Victoria Yoshimura expected to have a successful career in public relations or marketing for a multinational in London. Instead, she puts in 18-hour days, seven days a week as bo-mori, or spouse of the head priest, at historic Jodo Shinshu temple in Kyushu.

But, she says, there are quite a lot of similarities between the two careers. “I do a lot of event management here, I am always coming up with ideas on how to market the temple, our mausoleum—where we are selling lots, by the way—and giving speeches”, she said.

Add to that her language classes at nine schools in and around Takachiho-cho, funeral and memorial services, ensuring that the temple and family home are clean and maintained, and caring for their three children, and it is clear why she has to get up at 4:30am most mornings.

Yoshimura, 41, arrived in Japan to teach on the JET programme in July 1992. A former literature student at the University of Southampton, she admits she knew nothing about Japan before she accompanied a friend to a seminar on teaching in Japan. But, two weeks after graduation, she began work in rural Miyazaki Prefecture.

She met her husband, Junsho, in her second year at the local high school, but had to overcome a great deal of opposition to their relationship, both from the community and his family. Part of the problem was that Junsho is the 17th generation of his family to serve as head priest of the 430-year-old temple.

“His family did their utmost to thwart us”, Yoshimura said. “This is an extremely rural area with very narrow thinking, and it was actually suggested that mixing the races would result in a deformed child.

“This area is famous for its beef cattle, so they are obsessed with pedigree and bloodlines”, she explained. “I was told that my foreign blood would sully the Yoshimura blood-line”.

They persevered, however, and eventually married in 1995. One reason her in-laws gave in on the union was that Junsho is 12 years older than his wife and there is a shortage of unmarried women in rural Kyushu.

“And no-one in their right minds wants to marry the oldest son of a temple, even a good-looking one, so the family and the congregation feared that if they said no to me, then no-one else would step forward”, she said.

Seventeen years on, Yoshimura says she still feels the fall-out from not being Japanese, but she has thrown herself into the life of a temple priest’s wife with as much energy as she can muster.

They have three children: Reo, 15, is a member of the high school kendo team and marked as the next chief priest of Jodo Shinshu temple; Renni, 13 is the “spare” heir, and daughter Sahara, 9, is at the village school.

As well as raising a family and handling entrenched local attitudes, things became even more difficult when Yoshimura’s husband was diagnosed with two separate cancers and had to undergo a series of operations.

And while Yoshimura remembers it as a terrible time, she considers herself fortunate to have already passed the qualification to become a priest herself and be able to take on the extra work at the temple.

“It was baptism by fire”, she said. “I had to do my first memorial service when my daughter was two months old, and it was not just one, but three on the same day. As she was breastfed and the memorials were in peoples’ houses, I was rushing around like a headless chicken, running back, ripping off my robes, feeding the baby, then rushing off out again.

“My husband’s illness made me realise that I had to find solutions, I couldn’t just depend on him. I had to step forward and take up the slack. I couldn’t just sit there and feel sorry for myself.

“And I was constantly faced with the reality of [the question,] ‘What would I do if he died?’ Would I throw in the towel and go back to the UK? And the answer would be no. I have a role here, a job, a house and my children only know this way of living. And there is not much call for Jodo Shinshu priests in Peterborough”.

Her husband has recovered, but Yoshimura has continued her studies in case the worst should happen.

She has completed both the basic ordination (tokudo) and the higher kiyoshi level, which makes her roughly the equivalent of a vicar. It is also a very rare qualification for a temple wife. In addition, Yoshimura is considering obtaining the fukiyoshi qualification, which is that of a preacher who specialises in spreading dharma and going to other temples as a guest speaker.

She says she misses pub gardens in the UK, as well as Marmite, sage and onion stuffing, pickled onions, respect for women and hot water in the washing machine, but says the temple has given her opportunities she previously would never have dreamed were possible.

“If I was just a random foreigner, either single or married to a standard salaryman, I don’t think I could have achieved so much”, she said. “I am using the opportunities which have been presented to me.

“Personally, I try and look for a little bit of joy in each day. Who knows, I might be dead tomorrow.

“I think it is important to always have a sense of humour”, she added. “So much madness surrounds us here in Japan—it’s how to learn from this and create a smoother, easier life.

“In Jodo Shinshu, this is focusing on the nenbutsu”, she said. “Nenbutsu, in a nutshell, is the joy of realising that you don’t have to spend your time hitting your head against a brick wall. You cannot change it. If you let it go, then you can refocus on what you can do.

“I have to remind myself of this time and time again”.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


23 Comments
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What a very interesting article! Yoshimura certainly chose a challenging road for herself, but has made a success of it, with a family, a career, and a sense of humour intact. Good luck to her and her family, and even the bloody-minded congregation!

8 ( +9 / -1 )

I agree with Maria. I am impressed with Mrs. Yoshimura and like many of us who are living the "Japanese Dream" - she's doing her best regardless of the obstacles in front of her. I like this kind of story very much. And it may be hard for some to believe, but I am sure she is appreciated by many here in Japan.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

She's one tough cookie. Just so you know, sometimes it's OK to throw in the towel but knowing when is the hardest part. Anyway, ganbatte!

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Great article. This is the reason why I visit japantoday

2 ( +5 / -3 )

She has a great story - what an interesting life. I admire her determination and probably that of her husband as well. It's very hard to keep plugging away, day in, day out, when there is that much resistance around you. But they have stuck to their guns and she shows a genuine commitment to her community. I tip my hat to you.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

"it was actually suggested that mixing the races would result in a deformed child."

And this coming from a so called religious family?! How vulgar their little minds are, far safer to breed with only Japanese, no chance of deformities there, don't mention the royals! If the child is in any way handicapped just keep it indoors until in reaches its forties. God forbid it should have any sort of mental health problems that way there are two options, a life of homelessness or a life of a zombie with quack doctors prescribing endless tranquilisers. Welcome to Japan, keeping racism and prejudice alive in the 21st century.

0 ( +8 / -8 )

What a fascinating lady. Her story would make a good TV show!

1 ( +2 / -1 )

My in-laws are a massive plus to my marriage. I don't think I could have married into a family that said such things as her in-laws. In fact, I would probably be on death row!

The apple does not fall far from the tree you know. Anyone with a family like that must be harboring some issues, even if they did marry a foreigner.

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

@MustardKing -

Anyone with a family like that must be harboring some issues, even if they did marry a foreigner.

I really would have to dispute that - it's a very naive and outdated way of thinking. My parents are bigots, I'm very aware of it, I hate it about them and have always resented and resisted any attempts by them to persuade me that their messed-up opinions are right. Whatever the parents are like, the children grow up, become adults, and form their own ideas, which might resemble the parents' and might not.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Great story. And good luck!

Perserverence paid off - good for you!

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Wow, that woman must be a bundle of energy! Hats off to her.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

Wow, cool. Very interesting, and I have total support for her! Keep it up! :)

2 ( +3 / -1 )

They have three children: Reo, 15, is a member of the high school kendo team and marked as the next chief priest of Jodo Shinshu temple; Renni, 13 is the "spare" heir, and daughter Sahara, 9, is at the village school.

Wonder if there's any deep meaning in her boy's names, i.e. very foreign sounding and even containing an L at the start, while the daughter's name is purely Japanese.

Nonetheless, services held by her should be quite an interesting sight to see.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

One never knows where life will lead you

2 ( +3 / -1 )

“His family did their utmost to thwart us”, Yoshimura said. “This is an extremely rural area with very narrow thinking, and it was actually suggested that mixing the races would result in a deformed child. Hahaha yeah sounds like the rest of Japan not just rural areas. Eventually you can see behind the fake smiles. Not all true but many. Definitely needs more people with courage like her but what did she lose to change her little part of Japan. Bet they said it was her fault for his cancer too.......

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

It's tough what she went through - I have a lot of respect for her perserverance and commitment to what she believes in.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Most important thing is 'Japanese forget - They came from Somewhere too Whether it be China Korea Russia Philipines or where ever. Science has proved Originally we all came from Africa so they came here across land and sea the same as us gaijins now have done so.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

What a tragic article. I'm sorry, but I don't find this inspiring at all. Working 18 hours/day, keeping what, 5 jobs? Plus having to deal with narrow minded people. I don't know...

-1 ( +2 / -3 )

she misses...Marmite, sage and onion stuffing, pickled onions, respect for women and hot water in the washing machine

Respect for women seems such a small thing to miss mixed in there with the marmite and pickled onions.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

Utterly fascinating - there may be women of Chinese or Korean nationalities who've done the same (by far the greatest number of int'l marriages here are between Japanese husbands and Chinese women) but I would imagine she is perhaps the only non-Asian to go through this. Many foreigners become embedded here and become artisans, etc but wow, absolutely nothing in here native culture would prepare her for this life she has chosen. It would make an interesting documentary, I'm sure.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

To clarify my post above - I know there has been hundreds of Buddhist monks (or nuns) of European / North American origin in Japan but she may be unique in helping to run a temple and all the responsibilities that involves.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Great story, thanks!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Six years later... any chance of a update?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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