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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Excavated Jericho bones may help Israeli-Palestinian-German team combat tuberculosis

Six-thousand year old bones excavated in Jericho may help a joint Israeli-Palestinian-German research group combat tuberculosis.

According to Prof. Mark Spigelman of the Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is leading the Israeli team, the bones, which were all excavated by Dr. Kathleen Kenyon between fifty and seventy years ago, will be tested for tuberculosis, leprosy, leishmania and malaria. However, the primary focus will be tuberculosis.

Spigelman is known for his pioneering studies of ancient diseases (palaeoepidemiology) found on mummified bodies and human remains from Hungary and Korea to Sudan, in his quest to provide answers to the development of diseases affecting us today, such as tuberculosis, hepatitis and malaria.

'TB still the biggest killer'

Tuberculosis - or TB - is a deadly infectious bacterial disease that usually attacks the lungs. Acknowledged as a disease of crowds, it is transmitted from human to human living in close contact.

Dating back thousands of years, tuberculosis was well known in antiquity. However, according to Spigelman, it is still the biggest killer even today. One-third of the world's current population has been infected by tuberculosis, resulting, in recent years, in approximately three million deaths per year.

Why Jericho?

While the origins of tuberculosis and its evolution remain unclear, it is thought it came from the first villages and small towns in the Fertile Crescent region about 9-10,000 years ago. Jericho is one of the earliest towns on earth, dating back to 9,000 B.C., and so a lot of communicable - or town - diseases would have had a good start in this community.

By examining human and animal bones from this site, the researchers will be able to see how the first people living in a crowded situation developed the diseases of crowds and how this affected the disease through changes in DNA – of both the microbes and the people.

The most significant results of this research will come from a comparison between those data for humans and corresponding animal remains which may allow the identification of animal-human vectors and their interaction.

How can this research help us today?

Preliminary work suggests that there is sufficient DNA in the bone samples to make a contribution to our understanding of the origin and development of microbial disease which could provide crucial information in the evolution of tuberculosis.

Spigelman believes that knowing how a disease developed 6,000 years ago helps us understand what it will do as it continues to evolve, and will ultimately alter the practice of public health officials in combating it.

Where were the bones until now?

Spigelman came across the long-forgotten bones while examining mummies at Sydney University's Nicholson Museum.

"They told me they had lots of boxes of bones and didn't know what they were because they'd been deposited there fifty years earlier by an anthropologist who'd worked with Dr. Kathleen Kenyon who'd been excavating at Jericho. When I examined them, I recognized that these were the bones from Jericho, and I told them not throw them out!"

Some of the bones, which were then brought to Israel by Spigelman while on a Sir Zelman Cowan Fund fellowship, will be studied along with other bones from Jericho that have been contributed by the Duckworth Collection at Cambridge University who have agreed to participate in the project.

Israeli-Palestinian-German cooperation

The research, which is being sponsored by a grant from the German Science Foundation, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), will be conducted by the Hebrew University, Al Quds University and the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich. In Israel, Ph.D. and master's students from both Al-Quds and the Hebrew Universities will devote their time exclusively to this project.

According to Spigelman, the project will also help the Palestinians develop the technology and set up their own ancient DNA lab at Al Quds University.

This is one of eleven trilateral research projects at the Hebrew University involving Palestinian, Israeli and German cooperation.

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Tesla Roadsters now rolling off production line

Posted by Martin LaMonica

The world's hippest eco-chic status symbol--the Tesla Roadster--is finally leaving the factory.

The all-electric Tesla Roadsters, priced around $100,000, are now shipping, company president and CEO Ze'ev Drori told customers on Friday. The letter was reprinted on the company blog on Saturday.


One of the 27 Tesla Roadsters undergoing final assembly in the company's Menlo Park, Calif., outlet.

(Credit: Tesla Motors)

Drori said Tesla has "broken the logjam," beginning to manufacture Roadsters at a low volume, meaning that it will deliver about four a week. There are now about 27 Roadsters in various stages of assembly, he said.

Production, done at a Lotus plant in the United Kingdom, will remain low until September, when the company starts to incorporate its second drivetrain, Powertrain 1.5, designed to give the car better performance.

In December, the goal is to produce 100 Roadsters a week.

It's a dose of good news for Tesla's well-heeled customers, who have had to endure months of delays.

Tesla has had both technological challenges in making an all-electric car that runs on lithium-ion batteries, as well as a management turmoil, detailed in great detail in this recent Fortune report.

Click on the image to see a photo gallery of the first Roadsters in production.

(Credit: Corinne Schulz/CNET Networks)

Tesla's largest investor, PayPal founder Elon Musk, took over control of the company last year and ousted founder Martin Eberhard as the carmaker transitioned from technological development to product shipping.

Tesla also recently named former Chrysler executive Mike Donoughe as executive vice president of vehicle engineering and manufacturing.

Tesla is, perhaps, the most high-profile green-tech company to emerge from a swell of activity in the past four years. Its problems illustrate some of the challenges in energy technology start-ups.

Unlike start-ups trying to sell to, say, electric utilities, Tesla's wealthy, techno-savvy clients are willing to shoulder some of the risk of a new product.

Drori also announced in the company blog that Tesla has opened its second store in Menlo Park, Calif., replicating the high-touch sales environment of its first store in Los Angeles. Showrooms in New York, Chicago, Miami, and Seattle are planned as well.

The Roaster will have a range of 220 miles per charge and the mileage equivalent of 135 mpg. It can go from standing still to 60 mph in less than 4 seconds.

The company is also planning to make an all-electric sedan priced at about $60,000.

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Turning over the keys to the car ... to the car

Why leave all the fun to David Hasslehoff when you could have your very own K.I.T.T. in the next couple of decades or so?

By David Kiley

Imagine the scene: You're driving your car to an office building in New York City, five minutes from a job interview. No worries. You have already dialed into the car's memory the parking garage where it's going to stay, and prepaid the bill. You shut the door. And off it goes. Driverless. And the chances of the car getting into an accident while it travels five or six treacherous city blocks are less than if the hopeful job applicant had tried to park it himself under time pressure.

Does it sound too good to be true? A sign of the end of civilization as we know it? Too far into the future to care? It depends on whom you ask. But some researchers, engineers, and auto companies believe that such automation is not only on the way to becoming commonplace in the next 20 years, but essential to reducing the carbon footprint of vehicles from the U.S. to China and everywhere else. Oh, and as the technology necessary to achieve the "autonomous" car arrives in stages every few years — some of it is already here, in options such as electronic stability control and blind-spot detection — it promises to sharply reduce traffic fatalities.

'Better than humans'
That's why Nady Boules is so enthusiastic about the prospects of putting technology into vehicles that will change the way we drive and even think about personal transportation. He is director of General Motors' electrical and integration laboratory, and thus is at the center of the automaker's research into what technology is possible and how well consumers might embrace it. "All of this will be made possible and practical by use of computers, sensors, and radio transmitters, and I think we are coming to realize that they can operate a vehicle or even a plane better than humans can behind the wheel," says Boules.

For now, GM can claim bragging rights among automakers for advancing autonomous driving. Last November, a Chevy Tahoe nicknamed "Boss," engineered by a team drawn from GM, Continental Teves, Caterpillar, and Carnegie-Mellon University, beat out 85 other teams and entries for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, Urban Challenge. The Pentagon sponsored the competition to develop an autonomous fighting vehicle that will keep as many human war-fighters off the battlefield as possible. You have heard of "drone" fighter and intelligence-gathering planes? The DOD wants tanks and other vehicles that don't even need to be operated by remote control, let alone humans.

How do the vehicles work without even remote control? It takes a combination of technologies.

Electronic stability control: This technology, which now comes or will soon come standard in most vehicles, improves a vehicle's handling by detecting and preventing skids. When ESC detects loss of steering control, the system automatically applies individual brakes to help "steer" the vehicle where the driver wants to go. Braking is automatically applied to individual wheels, such as the outer front wheel to counter oversteer, or the inner rear wheel to counter understeer. Some ESC systems also reduce engine power until control is regained.

Adaptive cruise control: This is similar to standard cruise control in that it maintains the vehicle's preset speed. However, unlike conventional cruise control, ACC can automatically adjust speed in order to maintain a proper distance between vehicles in the same lane. This is achieved through a radar headway sensor, a digital signal processor, and a longitudinal controller. If the vehicle ahead of you slows down, or if another object is detected, the system sends a signal to the engine or braking system to decelerate. Then, when the road is clear, the system accelerates back to the set speed. GM's Cadillac models and Buick Lucerne now offer it as an option, as do Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, and Lexus.

Blind-spot detection: This system — offered by Cadillac, Buick, Volvo, Mercedes, and other makes — watches the surroundings of the car with cameras, sensors, and radar, and lets the driver know by way of a light on the side-view mirror that a car is hovering in the blind spot.

Lane-departure warning: If the car drifts out of the lane, one system will vibrate the steering wheel, alerting the driver, who may be falling asleep. Another kind of system will also send a message to the steering wheel to steer back into the lane. This is expected to be available as early as 2011 as an option offered with other systems, such as adaptive cruise control.

Collision mitigation: This system, like one developed by Honda Motor and offered in Acura models, determines the likelihood of a collision based on driving conditions, distance to the vehicle ahead, and relative speeds. It uses visual and audio warnings to prompt the driver to take preventive action. It also initiates braking to reduce the vehicle's speed. When a collision is anticipated, the seatbelt retracts in anticipation of impact.

Each of these technologies can stand alone. But they're also designed to be added on to and integrated with one another over time, says GM's Boules. The "Boss" SUV was packed with thousands of dollars of advanced equipment and software that's not yet commercially available, such as an enhanced global positioning system, radar and sonar, and radio transmitters. On the test course it had to maneuver around vehicles driven by humans, as well as other driverless vehicles.

At a four-way stop with another autonomous vehicle, the Boss and its fellow "car-bot" communicated with one another, negotiating which would go first. "They are more polite than people," says Boules.

Price dampens consumer enthusiasm
Polite or not, people have to buy into these technologies if they're going to catch on. According to the recently completed Emerging Technologies Study, conducted each year by J.D. Power and Associates, there's a lot of interest in the individual systems that will make autonomous driving possible: 76 percent of those surveyed are interested in blind-spot detection; 74 percent want backup assist; 62 percent want a collision mitigation system; 60 percent want adaptive cruise control, and 46 percent want lane-departure warning. However, those percentages drop a bit when price tags are suggested for each system.

The $1,300 GM "Driver Awareness Package," offered on the Cadillac CTS and DTS and Buick Lucerne, includes lane-departure warning, blind-spot detection, and heads-up instrument-panel display. So far this year, 5 percent of CTS sedan buyers have opted for the package.

J.D. Power's Mike Marshall, who oversees the Power study, says drivers will need time to get used to turning more and more control of the car over to computers and sensors. "Even I held my foot over the brake for a while before I trusted adaptive cruise control to do it for me, and I know more than most about how this stuff works," says Marshall.

The bigger payoff in having drivers spend a few thousand dollars to embrace autonomous vehicles is the huge improvements they promise in safety and fuel economy. About 43,000 people a year are killed in traffic accidents, including motorcycle accidents and pedestrians hit by moving cars. If every car had electronic stability control, for instance, fatalities would drop by about 10,000, according to estimates by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. If all drivers wore safety belts (about 81 percent do today), another 7,000 lives would be saved.

"The number goes down with each system to the point where [fatalities] would be so few that when it happened, it would really be an oddity," says Boules.

Much lighter
How could car-bots that drive themselves be more energy efficient? Vehicles would be so safe that automakers could dramatically reduce the weight of cars and trucks by eliminating a lot of steel, bumpers, etc. Even airbags eventually could be eliminated. Much more of the vehicle could be made from plastics and other synthetics, even recycled paper and other cellulose-based material. With weight reduction comes fuel economy. A minivan that gets about 19 miles per gallon today could be made to weigh less than a Honda Fit, which gets more than 34 mpg. And the Fit could be lightened up enough to get 45 mpg or better.

Here is the kicker: Older people will have the greatest incentive to embrace the newest technology, a reversal of the usual trend with emerging technology. As baby boomers age into their 70s and 80s, living longer thanks to drugs, artificial joints, heart valves, and the like, they will want to continue driving as long as possible. The biggest beef against elderly drivers today is that their reflexes and eyesight deteriorate before their desire to drive their own cars.

With an autonomous car that can be driven safely on autopilot, it's the car's eyesight and reflexes that will matter more than the driver's.

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Top creators call for museums to save nation's modern heritage

Staff writer

Kinnikuman Exhibition Heavyweights: A visitor enjoys the Kinnikuman (Muscle-man) Exhibition (above), which finishes today at Tokyo Anime Center in Akihabara, while Issey Miyake (right in photo, below) says that he, architect Tadao Ando (left) and sculptor Isamu Noguchi (center) discussed the need for a national design museum for Japan during this meeting at Noguchi's show in New York in 1988. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO (above); 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT

What do industrial design, architecture, manga, anime, video games and traditional craft techniques have in common? Well, apart from each having spawned some of Japan's most popular cultural exports, the similarity is this: Japan has no national museums dedicated to their preservation, display and study.

Yet, as many international tourists and foreign residents scratch their heads in wonder that this country could so neglect its cultural treasures, the national government still has no firm plans to rectify the situation.

Now some miffed, big-name commentators have been spurred to action — or at least to talking to The Japan Times. Here are the proposals of three of them.

A National Museum of Manga, Anime and Video Games?

Masakazu Kubo is the executive producer at the Tokyo Anime Center, one of the several private and local-government-funded museums that have sprung up over the last few years in honor of Japan's popular arts of manga and anime. But he nevertheless firmly believes that the national government should establish a new museum for such art forms.

"At the moment, information is spread out around many small institutions. All of the arts — anime, manga and games — are closely related, so they need to be brought together in one national facility," he said.

While Kubo's Tokyo Anime Center focusses on — you guessed it — anime, others, such as the Kyoto International Manga Museum, have proved popular for their huge collections, too.

Kubo said a national facility covering both of these art forms — and video games — would provide a portal for international visitors wanting to learn about these fields in which Japan leads the world. "When people come from overseas now, there is not really anywhere for them to go," he said.

He also made an unusual comparison: "No one knows exactly how the pyramids were built, right?" he asked. So, he suggested, a danger exists that in years to come people will forget how anime and related arts got where they are now. "The connections between traditional and contemporary arts need to be documented clearly in a museum — likewise the connections between technological developments and types of video games," he said. "If those connections are not spelled out now, they will be lost."

One need only remember the case of Japan's Film Center (within the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo) to realize that the threat of loss is real. By the time it got its archive off the ground (in the mid 1980s), 90 percent of Japan's prewar films had vanished, never to be seen again.

A National Museum of Design?

Fashion designer Issey Miyake recalls that the idea of a national design museum first developed in conversations between himself, architect Tadao Ando, graphic designer Ikko Tanaka and the late sculptor Isamu Noguchi way back in the late 1970s and '80s.

"People overseas would ask me where they should go to learn about Japanese design," he recalled at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

In 2003 — a year after Tanaka died — Miyake revived the idea in an Asahi Shimbun article.

Kimono on display at the Crafts Gallery
Crafty work: Kimono on display at the Crafts Gallery in Tokyo's Takebashi district, which is part of the National Museum of Modern Art. CRAFTS GALLERY

"Design museums exist in London, New York, Berlin, Zurich and Helsinki. How much longer must we wait for one in Japan?" he asked.

How long indeed? It's now 2008 and still none is in sight.

Of course, in that time Japanese design has not stood still. Candidates for inclusion in the elusive National Design Museum keep stacking up. To the original classics — the Sony Walkman, the Mazda Eunos, Issey Miyake clothes and Tadao Ando architecture — could now be added dozens of Muji products, AU Design Project mobile phones and countless other items.

Meanwhile, as Miyake's 2003 article was politely ignored by the national government, it was picked up by property developers Mitsui Fudosan, who promptly incorporated a design facility in their Midtown project in Roppongi (which was then in the planning stages) and handed Miyake the reins.

Ando agreed to design a building, and two younger designers — industrial designer Naoto Fukasawa and graphics specialist Taku Satoh — accepted Miyake's invitations to join him as directors of the new 21_21 Design Sight, which opened in March last year.

In Miyake's characteristically evocative words, 21_21 Design Sight is like the "ring in pro wrestling." That means it's a place where designers come together and hold exhibitions and workshops in order to experiment and exchange ideas.

The facility is not, however, a National Museum of Design — as it has neither government funding nor a permanent collection.

At last month's symposium held to commemorate the first anniversary of 21_21's opening, Miyake repeated his plea to the national government.

"There are a lot of good designers still living now who have kept examples of their own work and other records," he said. "If a collection is started now it would still be possible to get access to those things."

A National Center for Traditional Craft Techniques?

Last year, yuzen (resist-paste) dye expert Kunihiko Moriguchi (often described in the West as a "kimono painter") was awarded the status of Living National Treasure. The title added to his already significant clout, and he's now using it to tell the world of his latest vision — one that does not consist of elegant geometric patterns, like his kimono.

Visitors line the corridors of the privately operated Kyoto International Manga Museum
Comic capers: Visitors line the corridors of the privately operated Kyoto International Manga Museum KYOTO INTERNATIONAL MANGA MUSEUM

"Japan needs a center for craft techniques," he told The Japan Times by phone from Kyoto.

"It should collect and exhibit works by Living National Treasures, but it should also be a center for research and study into Japan's many unique craft techniques."

Moriguchi explained that several decades ago, when the Living National Treasure system began, each of the craft sectors was supported by local industries.

"But with the expansion of the economy, a lot of these industries suffered as work was exported to Asia," he said.

That has had a domino effect through related industries, with the result that materials and tools needed to practice traditional crafts are just not being produced anymore.

"There is a real danger that these techniques will be lost forever," he said.

But isn't craft included in the remit of the Crafts Gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo's Takebashi?

"The museum collects works on the basis of their aesthetic merit," he said. "They are not concerned with the technical aspects."

Moriguchi pointed out that, like untapped biodiversity in a rain forest, traditional craft techniques are being lost before their potential applications have been explored.

"The noses of rockets used in the space shuttle program, which are made from a titanium alloy, are shaped using the Japanese shibori technique (which involves hammering a shape on an anvil)," he said. "Conventional steel-casting techniques were incapable of producing a metal that was strong enough."

Moriguchi also explained that only 15 percent of Japan's traditional metallurgy techniques are completely understood by scientists.

A National Center for Traditional Craft Techniques would not only engage in such research, but it would play a role in the global community. "People around the world are interested in Japanese crafts," he said. "This would give them a place to come and learn about them."

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In Japan, Buddhism May Be Dying Out


Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

In Oga, in northern Japan, Ryoko Mori, a Buddhist priest, visited a household, marking the anniversary of a forbear’s death.

OGA, Japan — The Japanese have long taken an easygoing, buffetlike approach to religion, ringing out the old year at Buddhist temples and welcoming the new year, several hours later, at Shinto shrines. Weddings hew to Shinto rituals or, just as easily, to Christian ones.

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Ko Sasaki for The New York Times

A graveyard at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

When it comes to funerals, though, the Japanese have traditionally been inflexibly Buddhist — so much so that Buddhism in Japan is often called “funeral Buddhism,” a reference to the religion’s former near-monopoly on the elaborate, and lucrative, ceremonies surrounding deaths and memorial services.

But that expression also describes a religion that, by appearing to cater more to the needs of the dead than to those of the living, is losing its standing in Japanese society.

“That’s the image of funeral Buddhism: that it doesn’t meet people’s spiritual needs,” said Ryoko Mori, the chief priest at the 700-year-old Zuikoji Temple here in northern Japan. “In Islam or Christianity, they hold sermons on spiritual matters. But in Japan nowadays, very few Buddhist priests do that.”

Mr. Mori, 48, the 21st head priest of the temple, was unsure whether it would survive into the tenure of a 22nd.

“If Japanese Buddhism doesn’t act now, it will die out,” he said. “We can’t afford to wait. We have to do something.”

Across Japan, Buddhism faces a confluence of problems, some familiar to religions in other wealthy nations, others unique to the faith here.

The lack of successors to chief priests is jeopardizing family-run temples nationwide.

While interest in Buddhism is declining in urban areas, the religion’s rural strongholds are being depopulated, with older adherents dying and birthrates remaining low.

Perhaps most significantly, Buddhism is losing its grip on the funeral industry, as more and more Japanese are turning to funeral homes or choosing not to hold funerals at all.

Over the next generation, many temples in the countryside are expected to close, taking centuries of local history with them and adding to the demographic upheaval under way in rural Japan.

Here in Oga, on a peninsula of the same name that faces the Sea of Japan in Akita Prefecture, Buddhist priests are looking at the cold math of a population and local fishing industry in decline.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the population is about half of what it was at its peak and that all businesses have also been reduced by half,” said Giju Sakamoto, 74, the 91st head priest of Akita’s oldest temple, Chorakuji, which was founded around the year 860. “Given that reality, simply insisting that we’re a religion and have a long history — Akita’s longest, in fact — sounds like a fairy tale. It’s meaningless.

“That’s why I think this place is beyond hope,” Mr. Sakamoto said at his temple, which sits atop a promontory overlooking a seaside village.

To survive, Mr. Sakamoto has put his energies into managing a nursing home and a new temple in a growing suburb of Akita City. That temple, however, has drawn only 60 households as members since it opened a couple of years ago, far short of the 300 said to be necessary for a temple to remain financially viable.

For centuries, the average Buddhist temple, whose stewardship was handed down from father to eldest son, served a fixed membership, rarely, if ever, proselytizing. With some 300 households to cater to, the temple’s chief priest and his wife were kept fully occupied.

Not only has the number of temples in Japan been dipping — to 85,994 in 2006, from 86,586 in 2000, according to the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs — but membership at many temples has fallen.

“We have to find other jobs because the temple alone is not enough,” said Kyo Kon, 73, the head priest’s wife at Kogakuin, a temple here with 170 members. She used to work at a day care center while her husband was employed at a local land planning office.

Not far away at Doshoji, a temple whose membership has fallen to 85 elderly households, the chief priest, Jokan Takahashi, 59, was facing a problem familiar to most small family-run businesses in Japan: finding a successor.

His eldest son had undergone the training to become a Buddhist priest, but Mr. Takahashi was ambivalent about asking him to take over the temple.

“My son grew up knowing nothing but this world of the temple, and he told me he did not feel free,” he said, explaining that his son, now 28, was working at a company in a nearby city. “He asked me to let him be free as long as I was working, and said that he would come back and take over by the time he turned 35.

“But considering the future, pressuring a young person to take over a temple like this might be cruel,” Mr. Takahashi said, after giving visitors a tour of his temple’s most important room, an inner chamber with wooden, lockerlike cabinets where, it is said, the spirits of his members’ ancestors are kept.

On a recent morning, Mr. Mori, the priest of the 700-year-old temple, began the day with a visit to a rice farming household marking the 33rd anniversary of a grandfather’s death. Bowing before the home altar, Mr. Mori prayed and chanted sutras. Later, he repeated the rituals at another household, which was commemorating the seventh anniversary of a grandfather’s death.

Increasingly, many Japanese, especially those in urban areas, have eschewed those traditions. Many no longer belong to temples and rely instead on funeral homes when their relatives die. The funeral homes provide Buddhist priests for funerals. According to a 2007 report by the Japan Consumers’ Association, the average cost of a funeral, excluding the cemetery plot, was $21,500, of which $5,100 covered services performed by a Buddhist priest.

As recently as the mid-1980s, almost all Japanese held funerals at home or in temples, with the local Buddhist priest playing a prominent role.

But the move to funeral homes has sharply accelerated in the last decade. In 1999, 62 percent still held funerals at home or in temples, while 30 percent chose funeral homes, according to the Consumers’ Association. But in 2007, the preferences were reversed, with 28 percent selecting funerals at home or in temples, and 61 percent opting for funeral homes.

In addition, an increasing number of Japanese are deciding to have their loved ones cremated without any funeral at all, said Noriyuki Ueda, an anthropologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and an expert on Buddhism.

“Because of that, Buddhist priests and temples will no longer be involved in funerals,” Mr. Ueda said.

He said Japanese Buddhism had been sapped of its spiritual side in great part because it had compromised itself during World War II through its close ties with Japan’s military. After Buddhist priests had glorified fallen soldiers and given them special posthumous Buddhist names, talk of pacifism sounded hollow.

Mr. Mori, the priest here, said that after the war there was a desire for increasingly lavish funerals with prestigious Buddhist names. These names — with the highest ranks traditionally given to those who have led honorable lives — are routinely purchased now, regardless of a dead person’s conduct in life.

“Soldiers, who gave their lives for the country, were given special posthumous Buddhist names, so everybody wanted one after that, and prices went up dramatically,” Mr. Mori said. “Everyone was getting richer, so everyone wanted one.

“But that gave us a bad image,” he said, adding that the price of the top name in Akita was about $3,000 — though that was a small fraction of the price in Tokyo.

Indeed, that image is reinforced by the way the business of funerals and memorial services is conducted. Fees are not stated and are left to the family’s discretion, and the relatives generally feel an unspoken pressure to be quite generous. Money is handed over in envelopes, and receipts are not given. Temples, with their status as religious organizations, pay no taxes.

It was partly to dispel this bad image that Kazuma Hayashi, 41, a Buddhist priest without a temple of his own, said he founded a company, Obohsan.com (obohsan means priest), three years ago in a Tokyo suburb. The company dispatches freelance Buddhist priests to funerals and other services, cutting out funeral homes and other middlemen.

Prices, which are at least a third lower than the average, are listed clearly on the company’s Web site. A 10 percent discount is available for members.

“We even give out receipts,” Mr. Hayashi said.

Mr. Hayashi argued that instead of divorcing Japanese Buddhism further from its spiritual roots, his business attracted more people with its lower prices. The highest-ranking posthumous name went for about $1,500, a rock-bottom price.

“I know that, originally, that’s not what Buddhism was about,” Mr. Hayashi said of the top name. “But it’s a brand that our customers choose. Some really want it, so that means there’s a strong desire there, and we have to respond to it.”

After apologizing for straying from Buddhism’s ideals, Mr. Hayashi said he offered his customers the highest-ranking name, albeit with a warning: “In short, that this is different from going to a shop in town and buying a handbag, you know, a Gucci bag.”

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