In Japan, worry as cults flourish amid wave of faith

Boston Globe/December 30, 1999
By Sharon Moshavi

Tokyo -- First, there was news that a religious group named Ho-no-hana Sampogyo was charging people tens of thousands of dollars to tell their fortunes by reading the soles of their feet. Then, police discovered a four-month-old corpse hidden in a hotel room by another group called Life Space. The cult's guru, a former tax accountant, claimed the man was still alive.

Many Japanese are wondering what's next. More than four years after the Aum Shinrikyo cult released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 and injuring more than 5,000, religious sects of all kinds are flourishing here.

That has some people worried about possible new threats to public safety, concerns that were piqued by yesterday's release of an Aum leader after three years in jail.

In response, the government is starting to crack down on cult activity. Analysts say they are not surprised at the appeal of sects. In today's Japan, a consumerist, secular society facing economic uncertainty, cults and so-called ''new religions'' offer a spiritual balm that many Japanese, especially young people, find attractive.

''People increasingly are looking for something to fill their hearts, and dangerous religious groups are just waiting for them,'' said Toshi Yamakawa, a former bureaucrat turned spiritual writer.

Fed up with what she calls the ''rampant consumerism'' of Japan, Yuko Enomoto joined a group called Place of Truth several years ago. She attended weekend prayer sessions, where members would tell stories of how the group's dead founder, the Great Leader, had cured them of cancer or helped them win a promotion. So-called spiritual mediums would predict the future. Enomoto, now 34, became disillusioned and left after she spotted one of the group's leaders trying on fur coats at a designer sale. But she still feels the group had value.

''I guess they're a cult, but they come with some truth mixed in,'' she said. ''I don't think it was all lies and fabrications.'' The number of registered religious groups in Japan has risen 15 percent during the past decade, to more than 6,500, according to the Japanese government's religion almanac.

Most groups register with the government for tax purposes, but that is little indication of whether their beliefs or activities pose a public threat. Aum Shinrikyo was a registered religious corporation when it carried out the sarin attack.

One of its leaders, Fumihiro Joyu, was released from jail yesterday after serving three years for perjury. His release fueled concerns that the group might stage a comeback.

Authorities have been responding to the growing public alarm. A law designed to curb Aum Shinrikyo's activities went into effect earlier this week. Several weeks ago, police raided Ho-no-hana's offices on suspicion that three former believers were defrauded out of more than $200,000.

The group's leader, Hogen Fukunaga, claims to be able to divine people's fate by examining the soles of their feet. Fukunaga also claims he was instructed by the pope to ''take care of things after I'm gone.'' Police also raided four Life Space centers, looking for evidence to prosecute the group's leaders in connection with the death of Shinichi Kobayashi, 66. According to media reports, Kobayashi, a Life Space member, suffered a brain hemorrhage and was taken to a hotel near Tokyo's international airport. There he died, and the group's guru spent months patting the body in the belief that it could be cured. Many believe Japan's economic malaise is partly responsible for the current spiritual yearnings.

''We have focused on money and materials so much for the past 50 years that we have had it up to here with it all,'' said Yasuko Yamakawa, who translates books on spirituality. ''And so after the bubble economy burst, we began to look for something more in this world.'' The problem, she said, is compounded by the Japanese tendency to seek out group activities rather than individual ones.

Cult watchers are especially concerned about a group called Kenshokai, which is targeting university and high school students. Many have dropped out of school to join, and membership has grown more than threefold, to 670,000, in just a few years.

Japan has for years had an uneasy, often hostile, relationship with religion. Until the end of World War II, Shintoism was the state religion and was used to convince the Japanese that they were fighting a holy war in the name of the emperor, who was considered a deity. After the war, many Japanese became deeply suspicious of all things religious.

Today, most Japanese follow a loose mix of Buddhist, Shinto, and Christian rites, but with little ideology attached. Many Japanese describe themselves as secular.

Specialists say the dearth of organized religion has fueled the popularity of the so-called ''new religions,'' many of which are amalgams of several faiths plus folk beliefs.

''We don't really have any religion here, so Japanese are like blank slates,'' said Seigo Iwatachi, who deprograms cult members. Iwatachi belonged for years to the Buddhist-inspired Sokka Gakkai, Japan's largest religious group and a political force as well. But he says even that group has cultish tendencies - a faith centered around an almost deified leader and, he claims, the use of mind control.

Sokka Gakkai has been controversial for decades, accused of kidnapping, brainwashing, and heavy-handed recruiting. In response, the group said it fears being tarred by the activities of fringe groups.

Yuko Enomoto, a former member of Place of Truth, thinks the government should only interfere if lives are threatened. ''As long as they aren't murdering or maiming anyone, they should be allowed to do what they want,'' she said.

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