Ben Hills, Herald Correspondent

Yokohama, Monday: The bearded priest kneels on his cushion in front of a Buddhist altar. Incense fills the air, as he chants a sutra for the dead, pausing after each verse to strike a small brass gong.

“We are very proud of him,” says Isao Hirata, a hovering acolyte in a navy blue business suit. “He’s so lifelike … one of our finest creations.”

First, they automated the humans out of car-making; now, Japan’s electronic whiz-kids have made an even more daring breakthrough: taking the priests out of religion. Here, on a hillside in a suburb of Japan’s second city, a construction magnate has spent $A18 million marrying the marvels of modern robotics to the mysteries of the world’s oldest religions.

In this high-tech chapel, all glass and stainless steel, computers and hydraulics do the Lord’s work.

Mr Hirata presses a button on his control pad and the priest switches to another prayer routine – all recorded in stereo. The priest bows his head and moves his lips in sync with the chant.

Robo-Priest cost nearly $A500,000. He is programmed to deliver word-perfect prayers according to the rites of seven different Buddhist sects, Shinto and two Christian faiths.

At the push of a button, religious statues are hydraulically pumped into centre-stage … seven different Buddhas, a Catholic Christ on a cross and a slightly more haggard-looking one for the Protestants.

There are two vacant niches to accommodate any Jewish or Hindu Yokohamans who may feel left out.

Robo-Priest is the centrepiece of a chapel built to the design of Mr Hideo Yoshino, 59, the head of a Yokohama construction company who decided last year to get into aging Japan’s lucrative and highly competitive funeral industry.

Behind the chapel is a cemetery where Mr Yoshino hopes to make his profit. There are 1,300 grave sites here (swept and watered daily by a robot caretaker), and buying a perpetual lease on one will set you back $A44,000. Funeral services and rental of the chapel’s many modern facilities, which include tables and benches which can be hydraulically raised and lowered -could cost another $A100,000 or more.

Robo-Priest was built to promote this automated necropolis, says the chapel’s curator, Mr Tohru Sakurai. The date of a client’s death will be programmed into the computer, and every year the priest will descend hydraulically from his attic in the ceiling and say sutras for the soul of the departed for half an hour.

“We are not trying to do live priests out of business,” Mr Sakurai said. “However, the robot never forgets an anniversary, it never makes a mistake and you get the service free.” Since the chapel opened in October, Mr Sakurai says business has been quite brisk – 200 grave sites have been sold.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Tuesday 4 May 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 10
Word count: 626
Keywords: Automation Clergy Religion
Picture: Ben Hills
Portrait: Mr Sakurai
Caption: Lifelike and reliable,  Robo-Priest can deliver prayers according to the rites of seven  different Buddhist sects, Shinto and two Christian faiths.