In Japan, robot-for-hire programed to perform Buddhist funeral rites

A 'robot priest' wearing a Buddhist robe chants sutras at it beats a wooden fish during its demonstration at Life Ending Industry EXPO 2017 in Tokyo, Japan August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese company has introduced a new role for SoftBank's humanoid robot "Pepper" - a Buddhist priest for hire at funerals.

Chanting sutras in a computerized voice while tapping a drum, the robot was on display on Wednesday at a funeral industry fair - the Life Ending Industry Expo - in Tokyo.

Nissei Eco Co., an unlisted plastic molding maker, wrote the chanting software for "Pepper", which was introduced by SoftBank Group Corp. in 2014.

With Japan's population ageing and shrinking, many Buddhist priests receive less financial support from their communities, prompting some to find part-time work outside their temple duties, said Michio Inamura, Nissei's executive adviser.

The funeral robot could step in when a priest was not available, he said. It also cost less at 50,000 yen (about $450) per funeral compared to more than 240,000 yen ($2,200) for a human priest.

Buddhist priest Tetsugi Matsuo said he came to the expo to see if Pepper could "impart the 'heart' aspect to a machine because I believe that the 'heart' is the foundation of religion."

The robot has not yet been hired for a funeral.

(Reporting by Megumi Lim, writing by Chehui Peh, editing by Malcolm Foster)