Supreme and ugly truths

Asahi Evening News, May 7, 2000
By Mami Fukae

Recent arrests of religious cult leaders, prompted by the deaths of several devotees who were refused medical treatment, have underscored the continuing appeal gurus have for many Japanese.

One after another they emerge, snaring followers and swallowing their fortunes, despite the lessons we thought we had learned from the crimes of Aum Shinrikyo.

The book "Kyoso Taiho" (Gurus under arrest) by Kazuhiro Yonemoto, published by Takarajima-sha (1,500 yen), reveals how these self-styled gurus persuade people that they are the saviors of Japan, or the Earth, and entrap them into donating millions of yen to their various cults.

It also touches on family conflict over the issue of separating children from their cult environment and bringing them back home. Detailed investigation by Yonemoto-a free-lance journalist well known for his extensive reports on such cults as Kofuku-no-kagaku and Yamagishikai-demonstrates that financial needs inspired these leaders to act as gurus, and that they regarded their followers as significant sources of income.

For instance, Hogen Fukunaga established his religious group (Ho-no-hana Sampogyo) back in 1980, running it from his four-and-a-half-tatami-room apartment.

He was then 34 and saddled with 500 million yen of debt. Soon he became a household name through the publication of texts (nearly 70 at latest count) penned by ghostwriters.

In 1987 the sect gained offi-cial recognition as a religious corporation. The sect submits new members to a harsh training regimen, part of which requires them to go without sleep for days on end as they roam the streets crying out such messages as: "Kenko afureta tanoshii mainichi-desu" (I am living a happy and healthy life) and "Saiko-desu!" (Fantastic!).

After the training, they would be taken separately into rooms where Fukunaga's henchmen would coerce them into paying large sums of money. The intimidation was often accompanied by a specific threat, according to the author.

Some were asked to donate 10 million yen within 24 hours to save the soul of an aborted baby. Anyone who hesitated about paying up was subject to such torments as: "Your family will commit suicide"; "You will die of cancer"; or "You'll remain single for the rest of your life."

According to the book, Fukunaga has reportedly obtained 60 billion yen from more than 10,000 people over the past 13 years, while he has spent enormous amounts enhancing his reputation as a religious leader by "buying" audiences with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Pope John Paul II.

Life Space, another cult probed by Yonemoto, started out in 1983 as a body offering "self-enlightenment seminars." Over the next 16 years the outfit evolved into a cult until its 61-year-old guru, Koji Takahashi, was arrested late last year in connection with the discovery of a partly mummified body at a hotel in Chiba Prefecture. Takahashi allegedly subjected the man, aged 66, to "therapy" and, when his condition worsened, forbade him access to medical treatment.

The author concludes that Takahashi had no intention of becoming "a guru" at the outset; then, he was just a rather competent businessman.

Life Space was one of many concerns that entered the seminar business in the 1980s, and Takahashi lured clients from his competitors by charging less, until seminars were hard hit by Japan's economic stagnation in the early 1990s.

To revive his business, Takahashi held "deluxe seminars," in which he strove to make the participants more psychologically dependent on him. Takahashi's followers worked at occupations he chose for them, and married the spouses of his choice.

Yonemoto writes: "Takahashi often told his staff members: `I have no hankering to be called a guru.' I would not say that was a lie. ... But, as the participants in his self-enlightenment seminars became dependent on him, Takahashi responded by running their lives for them. And when they grew more serious about seeking a source of perfection in their lives, Takahashi responded by behaving more like a guru."

The author warns that other dangerous groups are still out there-and that, in many cases, their actions are directed at the young. The Kenshokai Buddhist sect, for instance, encourages young people to bring along their friends. Mamoru Taguchi, a senior high school student, told the author he had persuaded more than 100 high school students to join the sect by saying to them: "If you obey the sect's teachings you will gain unforeseen advantages, like getting yourself a girlfriend and extra money." The sect is also known for using violent tactics to bring in recruits.

Adopt misleading namesKenshokai's membership, as outlined in the book, rose from 10,000 in 1980 to 100,000 in 1985, double that in 1990, and to 680,000 by last year. At 550 million yen in 1998, Kenshokai's income was the third largest of all religious organizations, exceeded only by Soka Gakkai's and Meiji Jingu's.

These religious corporations also set their traps at universities, operating under the guise of clubs with such names as Ningen Kagaku Aikokai (Human science lovers' club), Go West and Koten-ni Manabukai (Classical learning club).

A college student, asked why he joined one such group, Jodo-Shinshu Shinrankai (the New Progressive Nature Club), told the author: "It's no fun attending classes. My classmates just waste their time at video arcades and drinking. I could hardly discuss deeper stuff with them, whereas I found the senior members of the Shinrankai club were serious-minded when it came to discussing issues relating to our lives. Also, they treated me okay."

The author maintains that people join cults for various motives but he warns that current social systems, including established religions, have become unable to respond to people's search for meaning in their lives and a common bond with their fellow humans. And this, he writes, partly explains why more cults and cultlike groups continue to be born.

The author is a Tokyo-based free-lance writer.

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