Nun in Japan speaks out over Tendai priest sexual abuse allegations (Pt. 1)

Mainichi, Japan/May 9, 2024

By Rino Yoshida

Takamatsu, Kyodo -- A Japanese Buddhist nun has stepped forward to allege that she was brainwashed and sexually violated by the chief priest of a major sect's temple for over a decade, shocking the country's religious establishment.

The news made big headlines and was all the more shocking as the alleged abuser had been mentored by a top-ranking priest of the traditional Tendai sect, which has roots in China with a history dating back 1,200 years in Japan and a significant following with close to 3 million believers nationwide.

Details of the allegations by Eicho (the woman's Buddhist name) emerged in an exclusive interview with Kyodo News. She spoke of her feeling of betrayal and the way her faith had been abused to sexually exploit her and the complex post-traumatic stress disorder she is now dealing with.

What happened in this cloistered world in the name of faith?

The woman and her legal counsel have petitioned the Tendai sect to have the accused abbot in his 60s stripped of his priesthood and for the same step to be taken against the man's mentor, another abbot in his 80s who holds the top priestly rank in Japanese Buddhism of "daisojo," whom the woman alleges facilitated his disciple's unlawful behavior. Eicho has taken the action as a last resort after making an unsuccessful criminal complaint against the abbot.

Despite struggling with painful flashbacks, Eicho, who unveiled the allegations at a Jan. 31 Tokyo press conference, told Kyodo she came forward to "restore my dignity, which has been stamped from existence for 14 years. I spent my days like a caged bird. My identity had been stolen and erased."

Eicho hopes to raise awareness about sexual violence against women, especially in the context of religion where victims might find it all but impossible to speak out against their assailants for fear of religious retribution.

The following is based on Eicho's account, as the Tendai sect and its priests would not respond to requests for interviews regarding the facts of the case.

Brought up in faith

Eicho's maternal grandfather was a high-ranking Tendai priest in Kagawa Prefecture, western Japan, and she grew up praying to "the Buddha" from an early age, becoming very fond of the teachings as she began cleaning the temple halls with her grandmother as a girl.

Her temple visits were a source of strength, and "the Buddha," she recalls, was "a great presence that gently enveloped" her.

When Eicho was in grade school, the daisojo, who is her mother's cousin, was bestowed the title "Great Acharya" for becoming one of the few to successfully complete the "1,000-day kaihogyo," an arduous ascetic practice performed over seven years that involves repeated walking of a route on Mt. Hiei, which straddles Shiga and Kyoto prefectures and is the location of Enryakuji Temple, the headquarters of the Tendai sect.

Eicho says she was told by her relatives at the time that with the achievement, the high-ranking priest had become "the closest thing to the Buddha", and that she herself came to revere him as a "living Buddha."

Eicho married at age 26. She began living with her husband, but when she needed to care for her ailing parents, she quit her job and devoted herself to their care for nearly a decade.

In July 2009, Eicho's mother passed away (her father had died earlier), and as requested before their deaths, a memorial service was held the following month at a temple in Otsu headed by the high-ranking priest.

At that time, she was instructed by the daisojo to visit his disciple, the abbot at another temple in the Shikoku region. Eicho had not become a nun at this stage but was simply a follower of the Tendai faith.

According to Eicho, shortly after their first meeting, the abbot began making advances to her with persistent phone calls and also stalked her. She consulted the daisojo but was told, "You should assume that whatever the abbot says are words that come from me."

Out of respect for the daisojo, Eicho says, she felt unable even to consult her husband or any other relatives about what was occurring.

Mind control using faith

Eicho says the first time she was forced to have sex with the abbot was in October 2009. Claiming he was unwell, he called her to the temple. But once she arrived, she says, he proceeded to rape her.

After this, Eicho says, the abbot frequently took her to hotels unwillingly where he repeatedly sexually assaulted her. While she was being sexually abused, the abbot instructed her to chant Buddhist mantras, such as namu-kanzeon-bosatsu, an invocation of the Kannon bodhisattva.

Eicho says the abbot would tell her "the Buddha said you need this (sex), so I'm doing it for you instead of him."

Eventually, Eicho was forced to live at the temple with the abbot and forbidden to go outside the compound without permission. She was sexually and verbally abused on a daily basis, she says.

Eicho says the abbot repeatedly intimidated her with threats such as "The Buddha will abandon you" and "You will fall into hell if you disobey me." She says she could never defy the abbot as he told her to "Consider my words to be the words of Kannon himself." Kannon, a popular and frequently depicted deity in Japanese Buddhism, is known as the bodhisattva of compassion.

As the situation grew progressively worse, Eicho says, the abbot often began referring to her as a "dog" or "tick" or "walking genitalia." She says he called her another nickname -- "vagi-chan" -- a portmanteau using the English word for the female genitalia and the suffix "chan," a term of endearment in Japanese.

In March 2010, the abbot cut off the long hair that Eicho had "cherished as a symbol of myself." She says from that day onward for almost four years, she was not able to look at herself in the mirror.

"It was mind control and psychological imprisonment done by taking advantage of my religious beliefs. My existence had been wiped out," she recalled.

Forced to live in the cloistered confines of the temple, she was completely unaware of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster that had devastated the Tohoku region. She says her husband and other family members believed she was undergoing ascetic practices at the temple, explaining why there had been no family interventions.

Eicho tried writing letters to consult with the daisojo but says he did not believe her and never reached out to help her. Since that was the response of the "living Buddha," she says, she had no option but to "continue to be ruled" by the abbot.

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