On the west shore of Japan’s Lake Biwa, near Kyoto, a Zen priest who dwells at the Kitakomatsu Shutoku-ji temple exhibits a sutra to visitors. Photo: Tom Coyner

Since Tom Coyner first made landfall in East Asia – in Tokyo in 1970, weighed down with camera gear – he has built up a photographic archive of life across the region. 

Of particular interest to the American, who now lives in retirement in Seoul, South Korea, has been the role religion plays in the region’s cultures – on both the pompous and pedestrian levels.

While religions are suppressed in some Asian societies – notably China and North Korea – the region boasts a rich tradition of religious activities. Indeed, the continent has birthed the majority of major world religious – Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam – but is also home to multiple little and little-known sects worshipping their very own god, gods, goddesses and spirits.

The gallery below focuses on Asian clergy, and guides us across the continent in a (roughly) east to west progression. Next week’s gallery will refocus from religious people to religious places – the shrines, temples, mosques and other material places – that function of locations for worship across Asia.

To see the full collection of Coyner’s work on Asia religions, please click here

JAPAN: Attired in his summer robes, a priest of Shintoism, Japan’s native religious, strolls out of a jinja, or Shinto shrine, in Kamakura. Photo: Tom Coyner
JAPAN: Volunteer torch bearers lead a procession down the streets of summer Kyoto in front of Yasaka Shrine. The torch purifies the way for the following o-mikoshi – a portable Shinto shrine. Photo: Tom Coyner
SOUTH KOREA: A mudang or shaman, performs an exorcism, or kut in Seoul, and collects 10,000 won donations, which are tucked into her costume. Shamanism is believed to be the oldest extant form of Korean culture, and despite the modernity of their country, many South Koreans still avail themselves of the services of shamans, usually to counter bad luck or gain good luck. Photo: Tom Coyner
SOUTH KOREA: Along the sidewalk outside of Jogye Temple in central Seoul, a monk peruses books being sold by one of the many Buddhist shops of the district. Photo: Tom Coyner
SOUTH KOREA: The Catholic Columban Brothers and Sisters, originally of Ireland, are an overseas aid order which turns over charities and operations to local populations.  Father PJ McGlinchey (1928~2018) arrived in Korea in 1952 and was assigned to Jeju Island where life was barely above subsistence level. He established a farming training center, which, among other accomplishments, introduced New Zealand grass that made grazing practical on Jeju’s volcanic soil for the first time. Photo: Tom Coyner
SOUTH KOREA: The jury is out on whether Confucianism is or is not a religion, but ancestral worship continues to be practiced in South Korea. Here, a Confucian man takes a short phone break during Korea’s last royal funeral – for Prince Yi Gu, on July 25, 2005, at Changgyeonggung Palace in Seoul. Photo: Tom Coyner
TAIWAN: Three Confucian priestesses in Taipei at the large Confucius Temple complex march around the compound, halting occasionally to bow. On seeing this image, some South Koreans, whose Confucian traditions are strongly patriarchal, have been taken aback that women are granted this privilege. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDONESIA: A very different female ritual underway in Bali: A maiden princess performs during the island’s famous monkey dance, which acts out Hindu myth. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDONESIA:  Indonesia hosts the world’s largest Muslim population, but the island of Bali is predominantly Hindu. Here, a relative applies ointments to the body of a Brahman elder who died two weeks earlier, just prior to cremation. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDONESIA: A Hindu priest orchestrates creation rites in Bali. Photo: Tom Coyner
MALAYSIA: Young Muslim boys study and practice their prayers at the grand Putra Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Tom Coyner
CAMBODIA: An elderly, good-natured Buddhist monk – who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era – chuckles to himself in a temple of Siem Reap. Photo: Tom Coyner
THAILAND: A far more youthful monk poses with flaming bowls on the steps of Wat Phan Tao in Chiang Mai. Photo: Tom Coyner
THAILAND: In the early morning, a devotee steps out of her sandals, to make a food offering and pray for blessings from monks in Chiang Mai. Photo: Tom Coyner
THAILAND: On January 2, hundreds of monks march in a procession to a major wat in northern Bangkok. Many of the monks bear sak yan tattoos, believed to be sacred. Skilled monks use a bamboo stick to poke the designs into the skin, and the tattoos are re-empowered each year via special ritual. Photo: Tom Coyner
MYANMAR: A novice Buddhist nun bundles up against the early morning chill near Nyaungswe’s marketplace on the shore of Inle Lake. Photo: Tom Coyner
INDIA: Itinerant Buddhist monks in northern India at the Sahet (Jetavana) ruins of a learning center where the Lord Buddha stayed for 24 or 25 rainy seasons. Photo: Tom Coyner