Tomomitsu Gashin: The Japanese Techno Buddhist MonkCulture
Today in Japan, the number of art festivals held at or by Buddhist temples is on the rise. One of the pioneer festivals is “Kohgen”, which has been held at a temple in Tokyo annually since 2011. We interviewed Gashin Tomomitsu, the deputy head priest of Jokoji (the temple where the event is held) who runs the festival. Buddhist temples are stereotypically associated with the idea of “Zen”, however, the culture surrounding temples is changing rapidly. Techno, post-rock, and Buddhism coexist in an unusual shared space. From time to time, Tomomitsu even stands behind the DJ booth.
Mixmag (hereinafter, M): Please tell us how you first got into club culture.
Tomomitsu (hereinafter, T): I discovered Denki Groove when I was in 4th grade or so, and that was my gateway into music other than J-POP. By the time I was in middle school, I knew about Jeff Mills and Aphex Twin. I was also in a brass band and listened to some jazz as well.
Ko Kimura used to play house sets on J-WAVE (radio station) and I really loved those. So, I listened to quite a variety of music.
M: So, you were introduced to club music before Buddhism? What is your history with Buddhism?
T: I really had no knowledge of Buddhism. I wasn’t particularly drawn to temples or anything. I would visit one once a year at most. I wasn’t any good at calligraphy, either. Before I entered Taisho University, a school accredited by the Tendai-shu (a sect of Mahayana Buddhism), I really knew nothing. I studied the basics there and then went to Hieizan (the head temple of the Tendai-shu) for training.
M: And the path took you to “Kogen”?
T: I returned from Hieizan and married my wife in 2010. My first child was born a year later, on February 12, 2011, just one month before the big earthquake. It happened on the day that we were talking about “going to the 1-month checkup”. I really thought, “Japan is finished”. I looked at my child and wondered what was to become of its life. I was religious, but I wanted to be able to do something in that situation. I thought, I can't answer “nothing in particular” when my child one day asks me, “Daddy, what were you doing on that day in 2011?” I couldn't sit still, but I had just become a monk and had nothing. All that I had were some DJ equipment and a couple of buddies to throw a party together with. So, I thought, how about combining the temple and music?
M: I think people see temples in a new light after the earthquake.
T: I agree. I hear people say things like “temples are calming”. So, I thought it would be a good idea to make the temple available as a place to calm down. The kids that went to Tohoku from Tokyo to volunteer saw the terrible reality and came back. Dead bodies everywhere, the smell of decomposition… But a short ride on the bullet train brings you back to everyday life in Tokyo. The difference was overwhelming for them. Not only them, but others that stayed in Tokyo were also scared. People lost track of what they wanted out of life. That's when I started “Kogen”. The Chinese characters for Kogen mean “heading to the source”. I wanted to symbolize the effort to rediscover one's center during times of hardship.
M: Kogen has become a huge event that features many famous artists like Haruka Nakamura (Japan’s leading electronica artist) and Tenniscoats (Japanese pop group). It has become more complex as well, holding Buddhist workshops and the like. I assume it was not a simple task to bring the event to this scale, considering the conservative and strict nature of temple culture.
T: It was tough. Especially when I held the event at Zojoji (one of the seven major temples of the Jodo-shu, another sect of Mahayana Buddhism) for the first time. After Zojoji, people started saying “if Kogen and Zojoji are doing events, we should too” and started similar events here and there; however, prior to that, it was not even common for monks from different sects to get together. Maybe for some magazine or online feature, but that was it. So, someone borrowing a temple to throw a party where monks from several sects gather was quite unthinkable – let alone Zojoji. After all, it’s the main temple of the Jodo-shu; for a new monk, from a different sect, to use Zojoji for an event is very abnormal. Imagine doing an event for a new Mercedes at a BMW showroom. The key was that I was not trying to spread the words of Tendai-shu, my sect; nor was the event for some purpose of Zojoji. The fundamental teaching of Buddhism is about how to live in the present moment. I pushed this idea when I negotiated with the relevant parties.
M: I think Kogen is quite different from the run-of-the-mill temple culture, even from the eyes of a foreigner. Are you actively promoting the event abroad?
T: We were on a quest for expansion until about 3 years ago and were trying to bring in new attendees, even from abroad. We started out with a crowd of about 70 people, which later grew to 15,000. The problem was that, when we gathered so many people, the purpose of the event had changed. With 15,000 attendees, the corporations and organizations that helped us now wanted a return. We realized that we were no longer “heading to the source” but simply chasing numbers, or more specifically, money.
M: So, you downsized?
T: Yes. We downsized to 1,000 the year after we gathered 15,000. We did not ask for help from the big companies that wanted a return and decided to do it on our own. Then, Niconico Chokaigi (an event held by a Japanese video streaming site that has over 60 million registered users; the event for 2018 was held at Makuhari Messe) reached out to us. This event attracts 150,000 visitors in 2 days - meaning we can attract 10 times more visitors than before. As an added bonus, they will give us a location for the event, meaning operation will be easier. What more could we ask for?
M: The “Techno-Buddhist service” given at the Kogen booth gathered an overwhelming amount of attention among the numerous live performances that were featured in the event. It even became a Twitter trend.
T: “Techno-Buddhist service” is a show by Gyosen Asakura, the chief priest of Jouonji in Fukui. Originally, that show was just for the stage, but we thought we could make more out of it. A workshop where the visitors could speak with monks before and after the show seemed like a good idea. So, we reached out to Asakura-san and asked if he wanted to do it at our booth as well. Since then, we’ve even gone to Burning Man together.
M: You showed the “Techno-Buddhist service” in the United States?
T: Yes [laugh]. We got some pretty interesting feedback from US citizens. Since many of them are descendants of immigrants, they really don’t have roots in America. For example, there are many people of Japanese descent that cannot speak Japanese and are not familiar with Buddhism; however, when they heard the “Techno-Buddhist service”, they say they felt drawn to it. They realized that there was something Buddhist inside them.
M: Japanese entertainment is often regarded as being highly conceptual in international society, but I think there is a lot of potential in Buddhism and the temple culture. There's something about it that does not require an explanation. Something that appeals to almost everyone.
T: I agree. But I don't think it's important that people see this and think, “wow, Japan is great”. I want the attendees to realize how special they are. I want them to realize that the world is made possible, not because “Kogen is great” or “Buddhism is great”, but because each and every one of them is great. When you meditate and find salvation, it is not because of Kogen or Buddhism - it is because you found what was inside of you from the beginning.