NAGANO, Japan — Junshin Hosono says he never thought of himself as a worker, at least not the way Karl Marx or Jimmy Hoffa ever thought of workers. Hosono is a Buddhist monk, and for 28 years he has chanted prayers and offered spiritual guidance at Zenkoji, the prestigious complex of temples that is the soul of this city.
"I always regarded myself as a monk, 24 hours a day," said Hosono, 53, standing under a wooden awning one afternoon last week, trying to keep a cold rain off his shaved head.
But monks have bosses too, and even in a temple the boss can sometimes be a problem. Last fall, Hosono clashed with Gencho Komatsu, the 73-year-old head priest of the Tendai sect at Zenkoji. In short order, the monk found himself banished to a tiny, windowless storage room where he was ordered to spend each day writing out Buddhist sutras until further notice.
Hosono said the head priest also banned him from the main floor of the Daikanjin temple, the sect's headquarters at Zenkoji, and barred him from speaking to other monks and presiding over spiritual matters such as funerals that help provide him with a modest income.
"It was harassment," Hosono said. "I wanted him to stop. I wanted him to release me from that room."
So the monk went out and got himself a union card.
Along with four sympathetic monks and four office workers from the Daikanjin temple, Hosono formed a small but certified union affiliated with Japan's National Confederation of Trade Unions. The organization says it is the first time Japanese monks have ever banded into an affiliate. With overall membership on the wane in Japan, union leaders were only too happy to welcome newcomers, no matter how unconventional the trade.
"As long as they are employed and get paid, they are technically workers," said Yuichi Kizuki, the confederation's secretary-general.
It's not certain what the union can do to help Hosono. He's not looking for a raise, though he'll consider compensation. He laughs at suggestions that there might be a strike at the temple over his case. He doesn't even think he will remain a union member if his grievance is resolved.
Above all, he worries that he has taken the battle with his boss out of the closed world of Zenkoji, where disputes have traditionally been dealt with behind the temple gates. His activism, he fears, could embarrass one of Japan's most revered Buddhist sites.
"I know people might think the idea of a monk joining a union is a joke," he said. "But this is important. It is not funny."
On Nagano's streets, people do shake their heads and chuckle at the tempest in the temple. Hosono has exposed deep rifts among the monks at Zenkoji, a national landmark that has played host to several Buddhist sects over more than 1,400 years.
Zenkoji is older than the city of Nagano and remains its signature landmark. When the Winter Olympics were held here in 1998, CBS TV got permission from the monks to set up its main studio inside the grounds.
But critics say some monks at Zenkoji are now more interested in enrichment than enlightenment.
"The monks are just using the Buddha to do business," said Kiwa Fukushima, a Tendai monk who runs a small inn on a side street just outside Zenkoji's gates. Tendai Buddhism is one of Japan's two main Buddhist sects, but Fukushima fears that shenanigans at Zenkoji have damaged its credibility.
"There is no pure belief at Zenkoji," he says. "People think there is no point going there to pray."
The troubles stem from a struggle between Komatsu and the Tacchu, a group of 25 Tendai temples outside Zenkoji's gates but nominally under the chief priest's sway. The two sides have been engaged in a nasty battle almost since Komatsu took over in 2002.
The Tacchu monks accuse Komatsu of selling writings and drawings under the temple's name for his own benefit. And they are furious over the frequency with which the head priest is seen in the company of women. They were scandalized when a national magazine ran a photo of him socializing with a local TV anchorwoman.
Komatsu's office said the head priest had no comment on either the alleged scandals or the union dispute.
In November, Komatsu seemed in part to be responding to his critics when he punished Hosono, who says he made it clear to his boss that he concurred with the scathing opinions being offered by the Tacchu.
Hosono took his complaints to court, where mediation resulted in Komatsu agreeing to set a date for an end to the punishment. But during the hearing, Hosono says, the head priest referred to him as a "worker who should follow my orders."
That's when Hosono's lawyer suggested that the monk consult with a union. If they are bringing up your working conditions, his lawyer told him, then you have a worker's rights.
"It is a shame for the temple to lose all the trust built up over the years," Hosono said softly at the end of another eight-hour day of writing penance. "At first I thought, since the temple is such a closed world, I should keep quiet. But people depend on the temple. The monks have to be a model for the public, and Komatsu cannot be respected."
The monk is no rabble-rousing shop steward. But he finds himself carrying the standard in a head-on confrontation with his boss, a rarity in Japan, where superiors are seldom contradicted.
"In the temple, people cannot express their feelings to their seniors," Hosono said. "But all the other monks know I have been victimized.
"I am not ashamed of that," he said with a shrug. "I have not done anything wrong."
Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.