No change at the shrine? Offerings with electronic money

It’s the first business day of the year, and the air at Atago Shrine in Tokyo is filled with the familiar jingling of coins landing in the offering box. But something about this shrine is different – the metallic jingle is sometimes interrupted by another, more electronic sound: the chime of a completed transaction at a Rakuten Edy terminal.

Offering money (osaisen) at a shrine is an essential part of New Year’s tradition for many around Japan. It’s a custom that has been around as long as shrines themselves, which began with offerings of rice and sake to the priests at the time.

Atago Shrine, home to the very steep stone “stairway of success,” has sat on the highest natural mountain in Tokyo’s 23 wards for over 400 years. Due to its location in the vicinity of Rakuten’s first office back in 1997, Rakuten executives have paid annual visits to the shrine at the opening of every New Year since the beginning of the company. And, since 2014, Rakuten has worked with Atago Shrine to help bring the offering process into the 21st century – by letting users pay with electronic money via Rakuten Edy.

Inspired by Abe Monju-in temple in Nara, which began accepting Edy and other electronic money services as payment for omamori, ema and other items of religious significance back in 2007, Masataka Yoshida of Rakuten Edy set about bringing the idea together for the New Year’s ceremony some four years ago.

“The shrine was initially reluctant when I first proposed it,” Yoshida recalls. “They weren’t excited about having an electronic Edy terminal in the open next to the donation box … nor about the extension cords that would need to run across the grounds.”

Yoshida countered that the osaisen culture originated with donations of rice before evolving to coins and notes, and that electronic money was simply the next step in the evolution of currency, but the shrine continued to decline his proposal. It was only after Yoshida built a rudimentary wooden housing for the terminal and hid a portable outdoor battery underneath for power that the shrine eventually came on board.

His handmade improvisation was immediately picked up on Japanese social media, sending scores of intrigued and amused visitors to see the spectacle for themselves.

This tweet amassed 15,000 retweets and pictures of the donation box spread rapidly through social media.
This tweet amassed 15,000 retweets and pictures of the donation box spread rapidly through social media.

“I had to be on standby to change the battery every three or four hours, but it worked well,” Yoshida explained, lamenting the attention given to his less-than-perfect handwriting.

The terminal was upgraded after the second year to make it fit in a little more with its surroundings.The following year saw an upgrade to Yoshida’s hand-built terminal, and for good reason: “From the second year we started to see people who had made their way to Atago Shrine just because they wanted to try out Edy osaisen.”

Atago Shrine, atop its leafy mountain surrounded by Tokyo high-rises, is visited by businessmen from throughout the city seeking good luck with technology and their work. While 400 years of offering coins and notes isn’t a culture that will change overnight, Atago Shrine seems like a good place to start embracing the age of digital currency.

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