Cult Shock

Yearning for spiritual leadership, Japan has spawned a rash of apocalyptic religions and ominously popular sects

Time Asia/July 8, 2002
By Tim Larimer

Tokyo -- During a thundershower of biblical proportions, hundreds of people dash from a train station in the Tokyo suburb of Kawaguchi, across a bricked plaza and into a modern civic center. Inside, there are English lessons on the 11th floor, "welcome to kabuki world" on the first floor, a seminar on working at home on the sixth floor. It's a busy night for the self-improvement crowd. But the main attraction on this Tuesday night in late June is holding forth in the auditorium. There, more than 2,000 people have gathered to see a man whom they believe possesses unsurpassed wisdom and power. In their eyes, Shoei Asai, the 70-year-old leader of a religious sect called Nichiren Kenshokai, is a healer and a prophet who envisions a looming calamity for Japan that he alone can avert. "Asai sensei understands" says Kazuhito Suzuki, a disillusioned, young construction worker who professes nothing but disdain for Japan's establishment and despair for the future. "He has the answers."

Everybody else in this comfortably wealthy country seems lost. Things that matter - family, safety, community, aesthetics, money -appear to be slipping away, and the sense of alienation and desperation deepens with every headline decrying the nation's unemployment rate or senseless schoolyard violence. The collective yearning for someone - anyone - to check the country's spiritual drift is palpable. "People are seeking mental healing during this time of continuous bad news," says Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of religious studies at Tokyo's Kokugakuin University.

In spiritual matters, as in economics, supply rises to meet demand. Into the country's leadership vacuum has stepped an eccentric mix of charismatic characters professing to have a hot line to God or a shortcut to enlightenment. According to religious scholars, there are some 2,000 "new religions" in Japan. They include Ho No Hana Sanpogyo, which urges the worship of feet, and Life Space, a group whose leader claims that he doesn't need to eat, bathe or sleep because of his superhuman powers. He is now serving a 15-year prison sentence for murdering a follower and keeping the mummified corpse in a hotel room.

Some of the groups may be little more than bizarre clubs or innocuous doctrinal offshoots of traditional Buddhism and Shintoism, Japan's most common faiths. But religious scholars and the police are nonetheless alarmed by what they see as the proliferation of doomsday cults. Mystics consumed with signs of the apocalypse have a tendency to bring their visions horrifically to life. Japanese need no reminder of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that staged a deadly chemical gas attack on commuters in Tokyo's subway system seven years ago, allegedly masterminded by Aum's Shoko Asahara. Last week, one of Asahara's top henchmen, Tomomitsu Niimi, became the eighth Aum member to be sentenced to death in connection with the chemical attack.

Aum still exists, but another movement has eclipsed it. Asai's Nichiren Kenshokai sect, which drew throngs to the Kawaguchi civic center, claims to have 881,865 followers. "Kenshokai is the biggest of the new religions," says Taro Takimoto, a lawyer who helped in 1995 to organize a group comprising family members trying to rescue relatives from cults. "There are many high school students quitting school, people quitting their jobs, to join Kenshokai." Kenshokai's nationalistic appeal is particularly popular among young men, including members of Japan's Self-Defense Force. The cult claims to have attracted 11,000 new adherents in June alone.

Little has been written about this religion in the mainstream media, and its leader, Asai, has never talked with the press. His eldest son, 39-year-old Katsue Asai, serves as a kind of general manager for the group and does agree to meet the first time, he says, he has given an interview to a journalist. A serious man in a business suit, he explains how the movement was started by his grandfather in 1957, when he and his acolytes splintered from the centuries-old Nichiren sect of Buddhism. Kenshokai differs from other Nichiren sects, especially the politically powerful Soka Gakkai, in that its practitioners see it as destined to become the national religion of Japan. "We still believe that," says Katsue Asai.

Indeed, the leader's son talks of ultimately attracting every living Japanese soul - all 130 million of them - to the fold. "I'm sure it will happen," says Katsue Asai, matter-of-factly. How long will it take? "A bit more than 10 years. At the most, 20 years. This might sound strange," he says, "but we think this is not only about Japan, but the whole universe. A huge power is coming, sometime soon. Society is getting really confused these days. There are problems with education, all the political scandals. Then there will be a big natural disaster, like an earthquake. Then China will come to invade us, to take advantage of our problems. When that happens, people will feel that whatever it was they believed in is inadequate. That's when they'll come to us."

Using a similar appeal, Aum Shinrikyo drew tens of thousands of followers during the 1990s, and even ran political candidates in national elections. Aum's godhead was its founder, Asahara, an intelligent misfit who claimed he could levitate and who appeared regularly on TV talk shows. Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, preached distorted versions of Buddhism and Hinduism steeped in apocalyptic theology.

For a dozen Tokyo commuters, dire prophecy came true. On a sunny March morning in 1995, Aum members, in an apparent attempt to create mayhem and distract a police investigation into their operations, used the tips of umbrellas to puncture plastic bags filled with liquid sarin, which they left behind on five subway trains. A poisonous, invisible cloud spread through the carriages and stations. Thousands of people were made sick, and 12 died.

Asahara, now 47, has spent the past seven years in a Tokyo jail cell. In court one day recently, facing murder charges in connection with, among other crimes, the gas attack, he bobs his head up and down, looking tired and confused. His hair, once wild and frizzy, is now cut short, his Rasputin-like beard trimmed respectably. Every move he makes is closely watched by his remaining disciples - wide-eyed men and women who flock to the courtroom to bask in the aura of the man they still consider their spiritual father. "He never did what you expected him to," says one of them, Hiroki Araki. "But we are grateful for what he has given us."

Remaining members, who number in the hundreds, changed the group's name two years ago from Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) to Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Japan's Public Security Investigation Agency assigns about 50 agents to keep tabs on them. The cult has seven main facilities throughout Japan and 20 smaller branches where followers can practice meditation; it also organizes yoga classes, computer seminars and student clubs on university campuses. These activities attract recruits like Ai Ozaki, 25. A shy, thoughtful woman, Ozaki (her cult name) joined Aum after the sarin attack, drawn in part by its promise of life after death in a reincarnated form. "I was afraid of dying," she says, "so I liked their creed." She knows in her heart, she says, that Asahara must have had something to do with the subway murders, "but there is a part of me that still hopes he can save me. I still want to believe in him."

So many people flock to see Shoei Asai in Kawaguchi that dozens of latecomers must wait outside in the lobby because there isn't room for them in the auditorium. Black-suited men with walkie-talkies and earplugs roam through the crowd, reminding people to turn off their cell phones. Two of these guards, surprised to see a foreign visitor, stop me from entering before another explains that I was invited. It's the first time a journalist has been allowed to witness a Nichiren Kenshokai meeting.

On the stage, there are 11 rows of chairs, with 24 people per row, each person sitting straight-backed, hands neatly placed on their legs. The men all wear black suits with white shirts and ties. They all sit silently, until Asai himself appears, walking briskly across the platform to his chair, front and center. He says not a word and sits down. Moments later, one of the men onstage stands up, removes his jacket and walks forward. His legs positioned in a kendo stance, he whisks out a golden fan emblazoned with the red circle of the Japanese flag. He briskly waves the fan in deliberate downward strokes as a militaristic march plays in the background. The audience claps along, one solid clap every three seconds, while they sing in unison:

  • The sound of footsteps roar the earth
  • A grand marching of the missionaries
  • In the midst of evil and eternal damnation
  • Buddha's army rises to save the suffering
  • Over the next two-and-a-quarter hours, a dozen or so members of this Buddha's army rise to deliver emotional testimonials to the power of their religion and their leader. A young woman describes a litany of health woes - debilitating skin disease, a broken leg suffered while snowboarding, stomach problems - that all miraculously disappeared one month after joining Kenshokai. Another woman speaks of how her son was born with a hole in his heart but was cured by the powers of Kenshokai. She adds exultantly: "We must all help Asai for the rest of our lives."

    Finally, it is Asai sensei's time to talk. He wears a gray business suit and glasses and has thinning gray hair. He doesn't quote scriptures or recite Buddhist chants. His short speech is delivered in warm, avuncular, soothing tones. Yet his words conjure up pictures of doom as he talks about last year's terrorist attacks on the U.S., about al-Qaeda and the threat of dirty bombs. "A big country like America couldn't even crush al-Qaeda completely," he says. "Because of this technology, these dirty bombs, even a small group can ruin America."

    It is somehow proof, he suggests, that salvation can be found only in the teachings of his religion. "The most important thing is to teach all Japanese people, seriously and strongly. Even if they don't believe in the beginning, it is important that they know." After Asai leaves the stage, the crowd disperses. The black-suited guards swoop down on me as I try to introduce myself to members. Outside, a middle-aged woman clutching a tape recorder offers to explain her beliefs. "There will be a big disaster in Japan, and Asai sensei will become the leader," she says. "You never know from one year to the next who will be the Prime Minister," she adds. "It is always uncertain. But Asai sensei is always with us. He is the only one who talks about Buddhism for the nation. He is the only one who can save us."

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