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Japanese put new spin on funeral, mourn passing of pinball machine

SHARE Japanese put new spin on funeral, mourn passing of pinball machine

TOKYO (AP) — The funeral incense curled in delicate wisps as Buddhist monks in purple and orange robes chanted sutras. Mourners in black suits bowed their heads.

On the altar before them was the dearly departed: a pinball machine.

The wildly popular Japanese version of pinball — called pachinko — was honored last week at the Sensoji temple in eastern Tokyo in a ceremony organized by a leading machine maker, Heiwa Corp.

The funeral rites were aimed at bidding farewell to the estimated 500,000 Heiwa-made pachinko machines that are put to rest every year in Japan to make way for new ones.

"As a manufacturer of pachinko machines, we want to offer our thanks to machines that have completed their work," said Takayuki Uchiyama, head of Heiwa's general affairs department.

But the ceremony was also a lesson in Japan's flexible, everything-goes approach to religion — and the powerful economic punch of the $100 billion pachinko industry.

The Japanese take on religion is rarely dogmatic. Most people here engage in both native Shinto rites and Buddhism. Church weddings are increasing in popularity, even though less than 1 percent of Japanese are Christian.

The pachinko ceremony is part of a wide range of Buddhist funeral rites in Japan for inanimate objects. Needles, dolls and even automobiles are honored for their connection to people's lives.

If there is any industry in Japan that touches regular people, it's pachinko.

The game, a vertical form of a precursor to modern pinball, is immensely popular. Japan's 17,000 noisy, smoky and garishly lit gaming parlors took in an estimated $230 billion in sales last year, government and industry reports say.

Last week's ceremony — the seventh held in Japan for Heiwa pachinko machines — was as solemn as any funeral.

Monks in robes, many with their heads shaved, walked quietly in front of an altar arrayed with chalices holding flowers and an urn with burning incense. One of the monks knelt before the altar and led chanting from a prayer book.

Above him on the altar, where a photo of the deceased would normally be displayed, was a golden-colored pachinko machine meant to symbolize all retired machines. Beside it was a framed scroll reading, "For the spirits of the dead and everything related to Heiwa."

The temple, Sensoji, is one of Tokyo's most popular, and even on weekdays it is crowded with visitors and tourists who stroll along the lengthy shopping arcade leading from the street to the temple grounds.

Company officials said that they treat the machines with respect to the very end.

Retired machines are stripped of working parts for use in new ones, and the rest is used for other industrial purposes, such as raw material for cement.

"They're not thrown away," said Uchiyama.

Of course, the ceremony was also an occasion for Heiwa to advertise. Company executives described in speeches their efforts to come up with new machine designs and attract new fans to the game.

The priests, however, had a more spiritual approach.

Shojo Tanaka, an apprentice monk at Sensoji, said the rite was meant to honor not necessarily the machines, but the now-deceased who once used them, worked with them or made them.

"It's a way of praying for all the people who are dead who were involved in pachinko," he said.