SAKAI, Japan — The stubble-haired Buddhist priest lit incense at a small, cupboardlike altar just as members of his order have done for centuries. As the priest chanted sutras, Yutaka Kai closed his eyes and prayed for his wife, who died last year of complications from a knee replacement.
Mr. Kai, 68, set aside his family’s devout Buddhism when he left his rural hometown decades ago to work in a tire factory. That meant Mr. Kai did not have a local temple to turn to for the first anniversary of his wife’s death, a milestone for Japanese Buddhists.
Cue the internet. In modern Japan, a Buddhist priest can now be found just a few mouse clicks away, on Amazon.com.
“It’s affordable, and the price is clear,” said Mr. Kai’s eldest son, Shuichi, 40. “You don’t have to worry about how much you’re supposed to give.”
The priest at Mrs. Kai’s memorial, Junku Soko, is part of a controversial business that is disrupting traditional funeral arrangements in Japan. In a country where regulations and powerful interests have stymied much of the so-called gig economy — Uber, for instance, is barely a blip here — a network of freelancing priests is making gains in the unlikely sphere of religion.
Their venture is viewed by some as unseemly, and it has drawn condemnation from Buddhist leaders. An umbrella group representing Japan’s many Buddhist sects complained publicly after Amazon began offering obosan-bin — priest delivery — on its Japanese site last year, in partnership with a local start-up.
But the priests and their backers say they are addressing real needs. They assert that obosan-bin is helping to preserve Buddhist traditions by making them accessible to the millions of people in Japan who have become estranged from the religion.