July 12, 2019

No Cameras Allowed!

While Shinto shrines regularly welcome people to take photos, this often isn't the case at Buddhist temples and this article explains why.

A Buddhist monk gets ready to do his regular chanting at a temple in Japan

Alright, I’m going to be frank and state that I just really don’t have the free time required to pump out an in-depth area guide this week. While I wish this weren’t the case, life occasionally has a way of intervening with the best laid plans of mice and men (or so they say). Still, with the little tidbits of time that I can cobble together here and there while on the go, I’d like to keep my regular schedule of writing one article per week. As such, we’ll be taking a look at a puzzling question that had long pestered even me; why can you take photos just about anywhere within Shinto shrines yet cannot do so inside Buddhist temples.

Before delving into the expose of why shutterbugs need to stash their cameras, let’s first set the stage for those unfamiliar with Japan. While my readers who have journeyed throughout the country are well aware, future travelers should know that the interior of most Buddhist temples are typically plastered with unsightly signs banning photography. While I am of the mind that such signage ruins the aesthetics, this practice is rather common throughout all of Japan. In fact, a quick Google query in Japanese shows there are only a handful of entries mentioning temples that actually allow photography within their hallowed halls.

Seeing as Shinto is a religion that is so welcoming of photography (honestly, if I see another Fushimi Inari Taisha photo on Instagram, I’m going to vomit), one has to ask what gives when it comes to Buddhism. Here, not even the monks of the temples themselves are of much help. Ask around and you’re bound to hear a confusing hodgepodge of half-truths such as the belief that the camera’s flash will lead to lasting degradation. While I am sure that these statements aren’t entirely inaccurate per say, rules prohibiting the depiction of temple interiors have existed for centuries. In fact, one finds very similar restrictions all across Asia.

While there is certainly no consensus across the entirety of Buddhism, what follows is the best explanation regarding the photography ban. The altars inside most temples contain a principal image of someone from the Buddhist pantheon. Whether it’s the so-called Immovable King” Fudo Myoo, Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy or someone else depends entirely on the temple in question. The important thing is that this principle image is revered as a sacred representation of the divine. In days of yore, pilgrims would travel far and wide to kneel before these Buddhist effigies. As such, temples tried to keep their likeness from being reproduced.

A trio of Buddhist monks recite sutras at a temple in Japan

In addition to the aforementioned rational, one other thing that I’ve been told during my journeys is that the statues themselves are not sacred in Buddhism. After all, they are just manmade objects in the likeness of any of the Buddhas and therefore have no inherent holiness. Instead, the principle images that are being exonerated at these temples become consecrated only through the act of being mindful in their presence (you know, that feeling of awe when you see something that leaves you speechless). Here, the deed is more akin to a dojo than a sports stadium in that one must be a participant in the process which brings forth the icon’s greatness. As you might imagine, a photographic representation simply will not suffice.

For those of you out there who absolutely must document your adventures in Japan, please do everyone a favor and don’t try to sneak an inside shot. Doing so eventually gives way to more drastic countermeasures recently seen at many temples in Kyoto. Quite frankly, nothing ruins a solemn setting more than a gigantic white sign loudly depicting the universal symbol for “no pictures.” Hell, even some of the complexes that haven’t yet been besieged by tourists are taking permeative measures and putting up signage. Either etch the image of the temple interior carefully into your mind or take a few snaps outside to remember the experience.

Lastly, before anyone asks, know that there are occasional exceptions to the “no photography” rule but these allowances almost always entail securing the proper permission from the powers that be. If you aren’t sure you have obtained approval or not, then rest assured, you have not. Simply put, the process will likely require extensive paperwork, completed in Japanese, to obtain the waiver. So, unless you represent a proper media (read: not a random blogger) and have a strong command of the language, you’re probably going to need to accept the fact that your camera remains stowed away. Still, given the endless opportunities across Japan to capture the perfect shot, wannabe cameramen could do a lot worse.