Japan's rush hour of the gods

The Australian Magazine/September 28, 1996
By Robert Garran

Even before Aum Supreme Truth launched its deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway last year, many in Japan were concerned about the power of the country's religious sects. Now with the largest claiming l0 million adherents, there is growing alarm about Japan's spiritual climate.

The Japanese sometimes say they are born Shinto, married Christian and die Buddhist. It is a sign of their practical approach to religion that there have long been Shinto rituals that go with birth, and Buddhist rituals for funerals. The Christian marriage ceremony, captivating and glamorous, is a more recent innovation.

Yet even as they often claim allegiance to several traditional religious and ardently join in the rites of passage and festivals like New Year, many Japanese complain that the old religions are stale and worn out. Buddhism is sometimes called the religion of death --- useful for funerals, but little else. The decline of the old religions has left a gap. To fill it, the so-called "new religions" are booming --- the myriad of religions that have sprung forth since the epochal Meiji Restoration of 1868, the revolution that sent Japan leaping into the modern world. From the viewpoint of the West, where religion is usually regarded as an exclusive set of doctrines about the deepest meanings of life, this is strange. But the recent behavior of some of the new religions is stranger still. It is estimated there are 3000 new religions in Japan, population 125 million, ranging from the tiny to the politically potent to the murderous Aum Supreme Truth. These new religions are thought to claim the allegiance of up to one in five Japanese.

Last year's subway gas attack in Tokyo shocked Japan. Before the March attack, there had been growing questions about Japan's propensity to generate new religions. But the stream of news about the horrors perpetrated by Shoko Asahara's cult, Aum Supreme Truth, suggested a more deeply-rooted problem.

What is it about Japan that led to the growth of the mad, sadistic Aum cult, with the brutal treatment of its members, its crazy plans for world domination? Was Aum just an aberration, the rotten fruit of a few social misfits? Or does it foretell a broader, deeper malaise in this most affluent of nations? And what does Aum, which had 10,000 members before the subway attack, have in common with any of the other of the abundance of new religions?

The biggest is Soka Gakkai. It claims to have 10 million members --- almost one in 12 Japanese --- who are active in seeking new recruits and doing good works. It operates numerous educational institutions and international cultural exchanges. It is also much maligned and feared by many Japanese.

To its members it is only path to true happiness, but Soka Gakkai's efforts over the years to portray itself as a benign and benevolent institution have failed dismally: it is widely reviled for what many outsiders regard as its malevolent responses to its critics and deserters. Those who try to leave, especially the more senior members, are frequently harassed, and there are stories that opponents have been murdered.

Soka Gakkai was formed in 1930 as a lay arm of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, one of the 30 groups following the teachings of Nichiren, a monk who lived from 1222 to 1282. Thousands of members left Soka Gakkai in 1991, complaining that the group was being taken over by its leader, Daisaku Ikeda, for his own political purposes. The split led to bitter recriminations between remaining and former members.

One former member, Tomiichi Yamada, claimed he was harassed for two years after he left. "I was an executive responsible for looking after 4000 members," he says. "After I quit, I received phone calls every day. They either hung up without speaking or said, 'You will be killed'. Early on the calls came every day, morning and night; later they became intermittent. It wasn't just me, it happens to all former members. Sometimes they followed me home from work, or left frightening messages saying, 'Watch out what happens to your kids'. I had Soka Gakkai members piss on me. Others have had dead cats, rats and dogs thrown over the fence into their gardens, or fires set against their houses."

Soka Gakkai denies all this, saying such stories are the invention of irresponsible tabloid journalists. "I can categorically deny that any kind of pressure like that exists in our organisation, because people can come and go," says Yoko Kaitani, 46, a member for 40 years. "There is absolutely no pressure from the organisation."

"In this group we don't want human relationship to be based on gains and interest. However, there may be members who are there because of self-interest, selfish motives, and they can't keep up with the practice and the philosophy. They feel out of it, and they don't want to stay. Those people, they are free to leave if they want to. But unfortunately some of them do not really understand what the group stands for, and in order to defend themselves will criticise Soka Gakkai."

Michiko Watanabe (as did Yamada, she asked that her real names not be used), also left at the time of the split, after being a member since her birth 32 years before. "When I left, my family and I were harassed by members of the Soka Gakkai division," she says. "They tried to chase us when my sisters went out. They came to our home to try to harass us. My former friends told lies to get my phone number. When they called, they said, 'You will go to hell, you will be unhappy'. Some were subjected to physical violence. There was an order by Ikeda to harass members who leave the cult."

Neither the accusations nor the evidence suggest Soka Gakkai's behaviour is as extreme as that of Aum Supreme Truth. What they do share is a propensity for self-righteousness and intolerance of their critics.

In the main courtroom at Tokyo District Court on April 24, Shoko Asahara faced the world for the first time since his arrest a year before. Squinting, round- faced, with a dark ragged beard and long black hair, it was hard to imagine him as a guru.

Yet Asahara's cult in recent years has been the fastest-growing in Japan. "No," Asahara told the court, he would not plead one way or the other to the charges : the murder of 11 people and attempted murder of 3796 others in the March 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack, the 1994 killing of a cult member, and the illegal production of thiopental, a "true scrim" (sic, "truth serum"). More charges are pending.

"Before and since my arrest, I have kept one important purpose in mind. I have tried to help people grasp absolute truth, absolute freedom and absolute happiness," Asahara told the court.

This from a man who routinely called on his followers to murder critics and deserters from the cult, who had built up an enormous cache of weapons of mass murder, including chemical and biological agents, and who with the subway gas attack showed he was well on the way to using them to try to fulfill his prophecies of Armageddon.

What Soka Gakkai and Aum Supreme Truth share is doctrines that make a sharp distinction between good and evil, between heaven and hell. By following Ikeda's precepts, or Asahara's, the followers will be led to enlightenment, and eventually to heaven. Where they differ is in how prescriptive their moral codes are, how strictly they are enforced, and how much freedom their members have to make their own judgements.

What makes Aum Supreme Truth especially reprehensible are the techniques it used to enforce its code. After enticing members through promise of salvation using "special techniques" --- for which they were charged vast sums --- their minds were numbed with drugs, sleeping-deprivation and poor diets, and they were kept isolated. Critics or malcontents were tortured and murdered.

Academic Kelvin Crawley of The University of Iowa lists some of the indoctrination techniques that mark cults from other groups: subjection to stress and fatigue; social disruption, isolation and pressure; self-criticism and humiliation; fear, anxiety and paranoia; control of information; escalating levels of commitment; and use of auto-hypnosis to induce "peak" experiences. Aum Supreme Truth probably qualifies under every one of those headings, Soka Gakkai under most of them, and another of the cults, Happiness Science (see box above), under a few.

Another theme common to Japan's new religions is their polarised view of society, the division into good and evil. Others are evil, we are good. This polarisation, this strict division into good and bad, permeates Soka Gakkai's view of politics and education. It gives its members a zeal that other political groups envy. It also makes them a potent weapon in what critics say is the personal quest for power by Soka Gakkai leader Ikeda.

"Soka Gakkai is always the key force in Japanese politics," says one senior Japanese political journalist. "Once I heard a story from a parliamentarian who quit the LDP and switched to Shinshinto. When he was a member of the LDP he was a weak candidate who had a hard time raising money and gathering supporters ... But with the support of Soka Gakkai, I gathered thousands of people to a campaign rally. When I went onto the stage, it was exciting. But I am afraid. I am frightened that this party will dominate Japanese politics'."

The journalist quotes figures showing that Soka Gakkai's de facto political party Komeito, now a key faction in the main opposition party Shinshinto, has a consistently better record than any other at winning the seats it contests. "We have no hard evidence," says the journalist, "but we have heard from many politicians that Soka Gakkai shifts members from one district to another so as to maximise the vote for a candidate who is in favour."

Soka Gakkai's influence reaches into the Japanese media. Late last year the Japan Times Weekly, an English-language newspaper, which had been running articles on the cult, stopped the stories. Its management says the change had nothing to do with Soka Gakkai.

Hirohisa Kitano, Professor of Law at Nihon University, Tokyo, claims Soka Gakkai leader Ikeda wants to take over Japanese politics: "This could lead to a kind of Nazism; he could be another Hitler."

Soka Gakkai members are furious at this kind of talk. Spokeswoman Rie Tsumura uses another analogy. Soka Gakkai, she says, suffers the same sort of persecution and intolerance as the Jews in pre-war Germany.

Says member Hirokazu Shimizu, 34, an accountant, "I know there are many negative criticisms about Soka Gakkai and Ikeda in the media. But my question is, how much evidence is there in those stories? It's very true that the reason that Soka Gakkai is heavily criticised in society is because of our involvement in politics, which is understandable because Soka Gakkai has grown to become a very large organisation with many members, and we do endorse political parties.

"But I really would like to clarify any misunderstanding. This kind of participation in politics is not coerced or enforced upon the members. Only those who feel motivated to participate will participate. My view is that established parties fear ordinary people becoming empowered. Ordinary people are becoming wiser because of Soka Gakkai's teachings, and because Soka Gakkai stands for common people and their happiness it will make it more and more difficult for authority to keep control of the masses. In other words, empowered individuals will start to question the politicians."

"Soka Gakkai is just a gathering of ordinary people," says long-term member Yoko Kaitani. "And we believe that to be responsible citizens we have to keep an eye on politics. I can say with pride that as an individual I am proud to be involved in politics, because I want politics to improve. However, there are people who can't understand and grasp these kind of ideals. It's is too lofty for some people."

Kaitani joined Soka Gakkai with her parents at age seven, amid the strains of building a new Japan after the end of World War II. "Those were the pioneering days of Soka Gakkai. Japan was going through turmoil. There were many poor people and a lot of confusion in society. This was also reflected in Soka Gakkai, which had many poor people and sick people. My parents were not well-off, but as a child I would match them in running around, encouraging other members and caring for them. I thought to myself, maybe Soka Gakkai is a great organisation. Its principle is contributing to other people's happiness, to society, then I thought that the way my parents are living their lives was a truly noble way of life."

Soka Gakkai says its goal is to save mankind in an age when the true Buddhist Dharma, or teaching, has been forgotten. It campaigns aggressively to eradicate all vestiges of false religions --- and for Soka Gakkai, all other religions are false religions.

"The extermination of false beliefs --- which misguided the people, plunged the nation into despair, and ultimately brought about the country's defeat in World War II --- is the battle cry of Soka Gakkai members as it was of Nichiren himself," Noah Brannen, formerly associate Professor of Linguistics at the International Christian University in Tokyo, wrote in his book on Soka Gakkai published in 1968.

Tomiichi Yamada says nothing has changed since Brannen wrote his book. "The strength of Soka Gakkai comes from its organisation into many local branches. Its ethos of shakubuku means to tell people to abandon bad, wrong messages and accept Nichiren's correct message," he says.

Shintoism gained a distinct doctrine when the leaders of the Meiji Restoration remoulded it to provide an ideology for the developmental nationalism they needed to transform Japan into a modern society. It did not win universal appeal. Dissatisfied with the ossified traditional religions, new religions sprang up, most of them based on the officially sanctioned Shinto practices and on Buddhism. With the growth of militarism in the thirties the new religions were increasingly persecuted and Shintoism was again promoted as a tool of the State, this time to support the military effort by elevating the emperor as the symbol of Japan's nationhood and to help demand unquestioned loyalty.

After World War II the American occupying forces were determined to suppress the ultra-nationalism they regarded as a key factor behind the growth of militarism. They dissolved State-sponsored Shintoism and imposed freedom of religion.

Shintoism declined, but did not disappear. For many Japanese it was replaced by the philosophy of developmentalism, a pre-occupation with economic growth above all else. Yet development was not a universal panacea either. Those left behind or alienated by the Japanese miracle formed the first wave of post-war new religions amid the social and cultural tumult of post-war reconstruction, a time called the "rush hour of the gods". This was the period of Soka Gakkai's fastest growth.

Japan's rapid industrialisation brought the collapse of the traditional extended family --- large families and their relatives all working together in the highly cooperative business of rice growing. It was replaced with small nuclear families of the cities, with the loss of extended family worship at Buddhist and Shinto shrines, with all their festivals and routines.

The seventies brought a new breed of so-called "new religions." It was a time of growing affluence, a time of growing urbanisation and a decline in the old rural lifestyle. Journalist Shoichi Okawa says the appeal of the "new" religions stems from the disintegration of the nuclear family that came with Japan's rapid economic growth.

"Both parents and children are still living under the same roof, but their lives have become separate: workaholic father leaves house early in the morning and comes back late after kids are gone to sleep; mother takes a part-time job to supplement family income to pay for the housing loan; and children go to cram school to enter a better school or for a better job. They live together, but no longer share the time together."

"About 30 years ago," says Professor Kitano, "when Japan achieved strong economic growth, ordinary people lost their sense of purpose. People's incomes are high, people are well educated, but their hearts are empty. This is the point Asahara and Ikeda have utilised."

Michio Ochi, Professor of English at Meiji University in Tokyo, says the spiritual vacuum is the result of Japan's high-tech society. "Because of high technology, making use of fax and telephones and watching TV, we no longer have direct relationships with other people ... In Japan we have been used to a group culture. Because rice-growing involves community cooperation, we are very good at doing things with a group. At first, when Japan modernised, we just loved to be able to live in the highly industrialised society because of its indirect relationships. We were fed up with the direct relationships of rural communities --- when you were always being watched by other people you couldn't feel free."

"When we had children we suddenly found that they were seriously lacking in community spirit. But we couldn't do anything to stop it. Some hippies and New Left people tried to stop it in the sixties and towards the end of the Vietnam War but the counter-culture collapsed. The appeal of the new religions is that they meet the need for a sense of community."

Susuma Oda, Professor of Psychiatry at Tsukuba University in Chiba, says new religions serve as surrogate families and their leaders as substitute fathers in the "fatherless" society of modern Japan, "where the paternal authority of the past has been eroded."

Another view is that science and rationalism have failed in their quest to answer people's deepest questions. If religion is seen in its broadest sense, as a way of explaining fundamental truths, then the religion of modernity is science, with rationalism its creed. The growth of cults in Japan, that most modern of States, seems to be telling us that rationalism and science don't fully satisfy the human need for ultimate answers.

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