Vietnam Time

9/9/2019 3:23:33 PM

Spiritual place for Vietnamese people in Japan looking for peace

A yellow-colored Buddhist temple adorned with flags and golden dragons on its pointed roofs in a quiet town outside Tokyo presents a stark contrast to the typically somber-looking Buddhist places of worship usually found in rural Japan. It was built by and serves members of the large Vietnamese community in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

(The Vietnam Temple in Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, where a celebration of the Vu Lan festival, known as Mother's Day in Vietnam, was held on Aug. 4, 2019.)

Despite its out-of-the-way location, the Vietnam Temple in Aikawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, located about 50 kilometers from central Tokyo, has become a magnet for many members of the community, drawing them both for the spiritual guidance it offers and the sense of community they find there.

Every Sunday, dozens gather for services while hundreds flock there for major events, with some coming from as far away as central and western Japan.

The temple, whose main building was completed in 2012, attracts a diverse cross-section of the community.

"I enjoy coming here because I can meet many Vietnamese friends," said Vu Thi Trang, 22, who works at a factory making boxed lunches in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture. "I can relax and I feel better."

Trang, who came to Japan in March 2017 to work for three years under the technical internship program sponsored by the Japanese government, is one of some 20 volunteers who help with chores at the temple.

The native of Hai Duong, near Hanoi, said she attended Sunday services at a Buddhist temple back home and was introduced to the Aikawa temple by one of her friends after coming to Japan.

Nguyen Dung Hieu, 22, also a technical intern who works for a construction company in Sagamihara, agreed with Trang, saying he finds "relief from stress at work" through his visits to the temple. Hieu said he learned about the site through a Facebook post by one of his friends.

The two took part in the celebration of the Vu Lan festival, known as Mother's Day in Vietnam, at the temple in August.

In the ceremony, young volunteers clad in blue-gray uniforms distributed artificial flowers to the congregation to express gratitude to their mothers. The flowers were either pink or white depending on whether the worshipper's mother was still alive or had passed on.

The temple was overflowing with visitors including some who had come from as far away as Kobe, and many had to stand outside the main building to observe the ceremony. Some were wearing Vietnamese traditional "ao dai" dress.

The ceremony was followed by a buffet lunch of Vietnamese vegetarian dishes using such ingredients as beans, mushrooms and rice prepared by members of the religious community.

Nguyen Thi Huyen Trang, 28, who first came to Japan as a student in 2012 and began attending the temple last September, said she believes Vietnamese Buddhist followers in general share a strong bond.

"We have the same purpose, which is to serve everyone in the temple. Here we can easily make friends with strangers and I feel as if I am back in my hometown," she said. "This temple has a warm atmosphere and I feel like everyone is family."

(Vietnamese Buddhist priests and followers gather at the Vietnam Temple for a ceremony to mark the Vu Lan festival on Aug. 4, 2019.)

The former student at Kyushu Institute of Information Sciences had also been active in Vietnamese Buddhist gatherings in the southwestern Japan region before coming to the Tokyo area, emceeing a major service hosted two years ago at a Japanese temple because the area had no Vietnamese place of Buddhist worship.

Although the 330,835 Vietnamese residents of Japan form the third-largest group among the 2.73 million foreigners living in the country as of late 2018, following Chinese and South Koreans, there are said to be only about 10 Vietnamese Buddhist temples in Japan.

After moving to Saitama Prefecture, Trang got married to a fellow Vietnamese and the couple had their wedding ceremony at the Aikawa temple in October last year. "We didn't know many people at that time, but even strangers celebrated with us," she said.

The native of Phu Tho, some 80 kilometers from Hanoi in northern Vietnam, jokingly noted the cultural differences that sometimes set her apart from people from the south of her country but said she can nonetheless consult with them about her work or plans for the future.

A worker at a trading company, she said that on one occasion when she discussed her plan to export frozen cakes to Vietnam, a fellow worshipper asked for samples to send to a relative running a coffee chain in the country. Older members of the congregation, meanwhile, gave her advice on whether to buy a home in Japan.

"When our baby is born, I'll definitely come to the temple regularly with the child," she said.

The temple's chief priest, Nhuan An, 41, who arrived in Japan to succeed to the post following the death of his predecessor in 2017, said that Buddhism is a major religion in Vietnam which "people feel close to and is always on their side."

According to official statistics, Buddhists make up about 12 percent of the country's population, followed by Catholics at some 7 percent in the former French colony, but some estimates point to a higher percentage of Buddhist followers.

"Vietnamese followers spiritually rely on Buddhist priests whenever they have troubles as couples, or about children, or economic problems," An said.

The priest, who runs the temple with a Vietnamese nun, said he thinks his compatriots in Japan are "more stressed, nervous and under heavier pressure" compared with worshippers back home.

He pointed out that the number of young followers who come to the temple has been sharply on the rise, attributing it partly to the ease of sharing information on social media. Vietnam sends the most technical trainees to Japan, numbering about 164,500 as of December last year.

"I've been told that they have had a hard time in the workplace, including cases of bullying. I encourage them so they can feel better and hang in there," An said.

(Vietnamese followers at the temple lining up for a buffet lunch of vegetarian dishes.)

Construction company intern Hieu, who works on paving roads, complained about having to work outside under the scorching sun and said he feels homesick for his family in Buon Ma Thuot, a southern highland area which he said is cooler than Japan.

An, who belongs to a Buddhist temple in Dong Nai near Ho Chi Minh City, stressed the significance of the religious site for Vietnamese in Japan, saying it "offers precious opportunities for them to be in touch with Vietnamese culture and become positive by practicing Buddhist teachings in their everyday life."

He noted that some children of expats who grow up in Japan cannot speak much Vietnamese, leading to what he called "internal conflicts and difficulty living in two cultures." He expressed hope that by visiting the temple, they can practice their native language and better adapt to Vietnamese culture.

VNF  ( Kyodo News )
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