Contracting for Compassion in Japanese Buddhism

Harvard Law School John M. Olin Center Discussion Paper No. 1039, 2020

30 Pages Posted: 30 Oct 2020

Date Written: September 10, 2020


In the 1960s, Japanese women began asking temples to perform commemorative ceremonies for the fetuses or children they had aborted. They still do. Physicians have been able to perform abortions legally since 1952, and many women have had them. The ceremonies do not fit within the classic rituals offered by the temples, but many Japanese women find them helpful. They ask for the services. The temples respond.

The temples charge for these memorial services. They rely on such fee-for-service arrangements for an increasingly important segment of their finances. Traditionally, priests had stood ready to offer their parishioners counseling and ritual as needed during the existentially troubling passages in their lives. In exchange, their local communities had effectively kept the temple on retainer. This no longer works. The temples stand in low levels of tension with the surrounding society (as Stark put it). As such, they cannot trust their parishioners to give voluntarily. Instead, they had counted on the constraining power of the tightly intertwined social network within the local community.

Over the course of the 20th century, Japanese migrated out of these tightly structured villages to the often anomic cities. Without a coercive village structure to enforce giving, the low-tension temples found themselves without their effective retainer. With the first-best contract unavailable, many temples have turned to fee-for-service arrangements — of which the abortion-related ritual is merely the most notorious. Ironically, the new environment presents an entirely different challenge: temples now find themselves competing with internet-based priest-dispatch services.

Keywords: Abortion, Fee-for-Service, Buddhism, Japan

JEL Classification: K220, K30, K36, K38

Suggested Citation

Ramseyer, J. Mark, Contracting for Compassion in Japanese Buddhism (September 10, 2020). Harvard Law School John M. Olin Center Discussion Paper No. 1039, 2020, Available at SSRN: or

J. Mark Ramseyer (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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