Connect with us

Kansai Scene Magazine

Zen Nuptials for Gay Couples


Zen Nuptials for Gay Couples

A Kyoto Buddhist monk is doing his part to promote marriage equality by being the first in Japan to offer marriage ceremonies at his temple to gay and lesbian couples.

As a kid growing up in Kyoto, Reverend Takafumi Kawakami never thought he would follow in the footsteps of his forefathers and become a Zen Buddhist priest. He also never imagined that same-sex couples would play any part in his life, let alone that he would one day be personally advocating for their equal marriage rights.

Now, he is the Deputy Head Priest at Kyoto’s Shunkoin temple in Hanazono. On the records as a fifth-generation monk there, he works closely with his head-priest father, and lives on the temple grounds with his wife and three-year-old daughter.

He welcomes foreign visitors to his mindfulness and meditation classes in English, and also holds LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) wedding ceremonies, even though marriage for gay couples is still not legally recognized in Japan. Shunkoin Temple is the first Buddhist temple in the country to offer wedding ceremonies to couples of the same gender.

IMG_8091Despite being born into a family that has produced Shunkoin head priests for generations, Kawakami began his post-high school years on quite a different path. After graduating from the Hanazono School (which is affiliated with Rinzai Buddhism’s Myoshinji temple), he went to the U.S. and studied English at Rice University in Texas, and then enrolled in economics and psychology at Arizona State University.

“I was an only child but my father, my parents, never forced me to take over his position. That’s why I studied psychology at first. I was not intending to take over this temple. And I thought psychology was the complete opposite from religion in a way. I was separating them, putting religion on one side and science on the other side of the spectrum.”

A turning point occurred, however, after the September 11th terrorist attacks when he decided to switch his major to religious studies. “Nine-eleven happened and a professor asked me for some advice for John McCain, who was a senator in Arizona and had a lot to do with national security. At that point I thought it’s interesting because religious studies scholars can be involved in many things. It’s not just about studying bibles and sutras,” Kawakami explained.

It was also in the U.S. that Kawakami had a realization of another kind. The priest admits he was prejudiced against sexual minorities when he was younger, and only came to understand that ignorance through his experiences with friends and acquaintances in the States.

“I was more conservative before I went to the U.S. I was anti-LGBT originally. But I had encountered racism in the southern [U.S.] states and learned what it felt like to be judged for being in a minority.

“One of my friends came out and I had a kind of negative reaction at first, but he said ‘you know, it’s really similar to racism. You’ve faced judgement because you’re of a different race, so can you understand how I feel when people judge me for having a different sexual orientation?’ I thought ‘Wow, that’s true,’ and I changed my mind 180 degrees,” he explained.

In 2004, after living in the States for around eight years, Kawakami returned to Japan to start his ascetic training at the Zuiganji temple in the northern Miyagi prefecture, as having experience as a priest would help prepare him for graduate school.

In 2006, he finished his training and was intending to return to the U.S. for grad school. But he first returned to Shunkoin, where he had the opportunity to give an American acquaintance zazen meditation classes in English. Word got out about the classes, and tourists started calling. In 2007, Kawakami officially became deputy head priest at Shunkoin, and started offering meditation classes to more and more English speakers.IMG_8021

“I started teaching meditation classes and meeting more interesting people here and I thought ‘maybe I can meet more people here doing this than by going to grad school or becoming a professor.’ Nobody was teaching meditation in English, and temples weren’t really open to foreign visitors. Of course, tons of priests can speak English, but not many actually have experience in the U.S. or other countries, so I can do the cross-cultural, cross-religious thing. I thought I can be a good person to be here in a way. So that’s why, since then, I’ve been here,” he explained.

The first person to ask about same-sex wedding ceremonies was a woman from Spain who had visited Shunkoin many times to learn about zazen meditation. “She asked me, ‘Can we have our wedding here?’ and she asked me, ‘Is it ok because my partner is also a woman?” I said ‘Why not?’ I didn’t really need to think or anything, because that was normal for me in the U.S.”

In 2010, the Spanish couple held a public wedding ceremony at Shunkoin. Kawakami says he holds about 20 weddings each year, and last year, eight of those 20 were gay and lesbian couples.

“Two of the couples were Japanese, two men and two women, the others – at least one partner was from another country. We’ve had two Chinese couples. 2015 was the first year we had a couple where both individuals were Japanese, which made me happy. I hope we get more couples like them in the future,” he said.

Kawakami’s liberal stance on marriage, it isn’t something he considers exclusive or specialized at the temple. “I’m not really specializing in LGBT weddings. In my case, it doesn’t matter, a wedding is a wedding. I don’t want to use labels like ‘same-sex marriage’ and ‘LGBT wedding’ because it’s labelling. It’s separating these couples from heterosexual couples, but for me, a wedding is a wedding.”

Japan allows same-sex unions within its borders, though they are not legally binding, hence these couples aren’t given the legal rights and privileges that heterosexual couples have. While Kawakami’s ceremonies do not afford the couples the legal rights that a traditional heterosexual marriage certificate does, he is glad the ceremonies are making LGBT issues more visible in Japan.

“The issue about Japan, if you are a minority then the majority of people really don’t care in a way. You have to make this issue visible here. Five years ago nobody was talking about LGBT. Still people don’t know what LGBT is. They think those are issues happening overseas. Europe, United States, not in Japan. People say that. I get phone calls like that sometimes. People ask, ‘Why do you try to bring overseas issues to Japan?’ I have to say ‘No, it’s not like that.’”

“Dentsu, the company, they did a survey, I think in 2012, which found that 7.9 percent of people here in Japan, as far as we know, they are part of the LGBT community. That means about seven percent of the people in Japan don’t have the option to get married. This cannot lead to happiness in Japan.”

Kawakami also believes it’s not just about LGBT rights, but striving to become a society where immigrants, people with disabilities, women, and other minority groups can be happy. This is the path to happiness for the whole country, he says.

Since the same-sex wedding ceremonies started at Shunkoin, he has given lectures at General Electric and the University of Tokyo, and has been invited to speak at other institutions. With the increasing awareness and acceptance of LGBT couples in Japan, like the recent official certificates issued to same-sex couples in Shibuya and Setagaya wards in Tokyo, Kawakami believes the country is slowly making steps in the right direction.

“I want my daughter to live in a better society, a more equal society,” he says, “But this will take continuous effort on everyone’s behalf.” For Reverend Kawakami, the quest for equality is all in a life’s work.

“I was more conservative before I went to the U.S. I was anti-LGBT originally. But I had encountered racism in the southern [U.S.] states and learned what it felt like to be judged for being in a minority.”


More Details

Shunkoin Temple
•Open: 8am–8pm
•Access: JR Sagano Line from Kyoto Stn to Hanazono Stn (12 mins), 10-min walk from Hanazono Stn to the temple
•Address: 42 Myoshinji-Cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-Ku, Kyoto 616-8035
•Tel: 07-5462-5488

To watch Rev. Kawakami’s Kyoto TED Talk on mindfulness and meditation, visit YouTube and search: “How mindfulness can help you to live in the present | Rev. Takafumi Kawakami”





03-Kawakami 川上全龍(隆史)さんは、京都の寺院で生まれ育った。それでも先祖代々の家業を継いで禅僧になるつもりはなかったのだという。同性カップルと深く関わる人生となることも、ましてや婚姻の平等を提唱する活動を始めることも、まったく予想はできなかった。











「ここで結婚式ができますか? 相手は女性ですが大丈夫ですか? と聞かれて、私は『もちろん』と答えました。ほとんど考えるまでもありませんでした。アメリカではごく普通のことでしたから」











Continue Reading

More in Feature



To Top