FANTASTIC VOYAGE: The process of becoming a better minister


Jeff Asai. photo by Kenzo Kawabe

Jeff Asai. photo by Kenzo Kawabe

Happy New Year! It has been two years since I last wrote, and in that time I finished my Buddhist training and have become an assistant minister in my village. It’s pretty difficult because as I was told: Being a minister is not a job, it’s a lifestyle; there’s no clocking out. But it is also a great chance to meet many people and learn from their life experiences.

Buddhism in Japan

The ‘system’ for Jodo-sect Buddhism here is different than in America. Historically, Buddhism became popular through the ‘Danka system,’ where citizens had to register with the local temples. The Tokugawa Shogunate promoted it to stop the spread of Christianity in the 1600s. In effect, the government used temples as a way to monitor and control the population. The system ended after the second world war, and the power and role of Buddhism in society has decreased since.

Many families in my village have been here for generations. It is unlike the big city where populations shift, and people move from place to place according to rent or work. As such, many members of my temple have been members for a long time. My primary duty is to go to their houses and give a monthly service. We do not hold a service at the temple on Sunday, like many temples in America.

Of course there are advantages and disadvantages to this system. The best thing about it for me is that I get to talk to the families and they can ask me questions easily. The biggest disadvantage is that you lose the sense of community.

The question that I am asked the most often is: “Have you gotten used to being a minister?” I haven’t really, and I’m still struggling with speaking Japanese. But almost everyone has said: “Take your time. Nobody is perfect on the first day of the job.” Those words have helped me a lot, through the times I’ve stepped on my robes trying to stand up, or burned my forehead by bowing into a stick of lit incense.

Minding your manners
One thing that I haven’t gotten used to is the mass amount of peripheral knowledge a minister is supposed to have. I have a couple books about etiquette because in addition to knowing about Buddhism, we are also expected to know and act with a certain dignity. (Makes sense, I suppose). But I was surprised at the level of detail the books went into.

For example, when making a house visit, you should take off your coat at the porch before you ring the doorbell so you don’t accidently drop lint/dirt/dust inside the house when taking off your coat. When taking your shoes off, you should not turn your back to the host, you should take your shoes off, then kneel down and turn your shoes around so the points face out toward the door.

When you give money for New Year’s, or any celebratory occasion,  you have to give crisp new bills. But when you give money for a funeral (koden) you should give old bills because a) it is not a celebratory occasion. And b) it shows that you were surprised to hear about the death, and did not have time to go to the bank and get new bills.

These books were packed with simple things: Don’t step on the edges of the tatami mat. Don’t stand on the zabuton (Japanese cushion). Sit and use both hands when opening a fusuma sliding door. Bow 15 degrees for daily greetings, 30 degrees for more formal occasions, and 45 degrees for very important customers and formal apologies, etc.
There was so much to absorb, which actually leads me to my next topic …

Making a New Year’s resolution is nice and all, but I think nowadays there is too much emphasis on the outcome. “What is the result? Be result-oriented. Help the bottom-line.” There is not enough emphasis placed on the process, which is equally as important. There is not enough emphasis on the times you will fail, or won’t get the results.

The key to improving anything you do is time. You need to make your actions natural; a habit, rather than a behavior. You have to turn knowledge into practice. You may not succeed in your goal, but if you persevere, you will almost certainly improve.

My goal of becoming a better minister, or at least getting to the point where I am “used to being a minister” is not an overnight goal. It’s not something I can accomplish in a year, five years, or maybe even 10 years. But if I work at it long enough, there is nothing that can’t be accomplished! Good luck to everyone and their resolutions!

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan, where he is serves as an assistant minister, teaches English and resides with his wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka and Yui. He can be reached via e-mail at

5 responses to “FANTASTIC VOYAGE: The process of becoming a better minister”

  1. Hiroshi Deguchi Avatar
    Hiroshi Deguchi

    well come to your root country. I am so happy to wellcome you.

  2. Sue Sakai-McClure Avatar
    Sue Sakai-McClure

    Sensei – It has always been and honor to know you! Joanne and I often shared our joy that you were assigned to our cub den to mentor and guide the kids (us too!) I wish you the very best in your life journey. In gassho, Sue

  3. Tom Nishikawa Avatar
    Tom Nishikawa

    Sensei Jeff,
    My how time flies! Its been over 2 yrs since we’ve communicated. Its great 2 hear you’re now a Buddhist minister. I’ve always wondered if a San Jose kid would become a minister. Gives me hope & encouragement that SJ Betsuin can teach and reach young people about Shin Buddhism.

    I believe you were about the same age as my son Kelvin (or maybe it was Kimi?). They both still live in in Bay Area. I, on the other hand, have retired 2 the Central Cal coast (Los Osos, CA) in 2013.

    Hope 2 hear more about your live adventures!

    In gassho, Tom Nishikawa (

  4. Joanne Mock Avatar
    Joanne Mock

    Sensei – What a pleasure to read about your ministry and all that you do for your village. I still remember how much the cubs enjoyed having you in our class. The cubs, Sue and I enjoyed having you in our class. I wish you the very best in your new role as assistant minister. In gassho, Joanne.

  5. Jeff Asai Avatar
    Jeff Asai

    -Thank you Mr. Deguchi, going back to my roots was one of the main motivations for my trip to Japan in the first place; It has been a pleasure to learn more about Japanese culture and language. (although there is still much more to learn!)

    – Thank you Ms. McClure and Ms. Mock, I really enjoyed being a Den Chief! The kids (I guess they’re no longer ‘kids’ anymore, huh?) were great; I hope everyone is doing fine. Your encouragement means a lot to me, thanks!

    -Mr. Nishikawa, thanks for your comment! The SJBC has been very fortunate to have such great ministers and role-models. Reverend Hirano, Reverend Sakamoto, Rinban Inoue, and Rinban Ohata were the main ministers when I was growing up, and they always had time to answer my questions. The Boy Scouts also gave us more time to interact with Rev. Sakamoto in particular, through his help and work with the Metta and Dharma awards. I hope I can live up to the example they always gave us.

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