New Cults Flourish In a Changed Japan

Washington Post/March 27, 1995
By T.R. Reid

Tokyo -- The generation of Japanese who survived World War II, the chief faith was the Religion of Hard Work. They rolled up their sleeves and set to the task of achieving Japan's "postwar miracle" -- transformation of a shattered, impoverished nation into an economic superpower.

For the current generation of Japanese, who live in a nation with the world's highest per capita income, that economic miracle has been a basic fact of life. And for some, it was not enough. Amid the French fashions, foreign vacations, four-star restaurants and flashy cars that mark today's Japan, millions of young people have found themselves searching for some form of spiritual wealth to match their material well-being.

The result in the past two decades or so has been a boom in various sorts of "new religions." Some are full-fledged religious organizations with their own temples, sacred texts and priestly hierarchies. Others are cults, built around the personal beliefs, or whims, of a single charismatic leader.

It was one of those newly minted Japanese cults, Aum Supreme Truth, that came to the attention of the world last week after a poison gas attack on Tokyo's subway that left 10 people dead, thousands injured and a nation fearful.

Although charges have yet to be brought, a massive police investigation has found that the Aum cult held vast stores of chemicals needed to make the nerve gas sarin, the chemical that was released in the subway during last Monday morning's rush hour. Aum members have also been charged with violent acts in the past.

Many of Japan's new cults are loosely based on the traditional Shinto and Buddhist faiths, with heavy doses of the occult thrown in. "Young people who have grown up bombarded by television images and simulated environments created by computer," notes psychologist Susumu Oda, are "more ready to accept occult messages."

Aum's spiritual underpinnings are nominally Buddhist. The cult is the personal creation of a portly, bearded Buddhist guru, Shoko Asahara, an admirer of Adolf Hitler. Asahara's frequently illogical writings borrow heavily from the occult, asserting, among much else, that true faith will permit believers to fly and to meditate underwater for hours without taking a breath.

Asahara, who has styled himself "Venerated Master," apparently won over thousands of believers -- he calls them "my disciples" -- who left jobs and families to give their lives and what wealth they had to the cult.

Police have estimated the group's membership at 8,000; the cult has issued figures ranging from 10,000 to 30,000, including membership in Russia, the United States and a few other countries.

But even that is small compared with some other cult-like sects in Japan today. Another often controversial Buddhist sect, the Science of Happiness, has to ration tickets when it holds services in 50,000-seat stadiums.

The emergence of such groups is not uncommon among nations that safeguard religious freedoms; it is not hard for Americans watching Asahara and his followers to remember such U.S.-bred cults as Jim Jones's People's Temple or David Koresh's Branch Davidians in Texas. But in Japan the concept of devotion to a single religious faith runs counter to thousands of years of culture.

Since the dawn of their long history, the people of Japan have regularly embraced a number of differing religious faiths, practicing two or three or more with no qualms or sense of sacrilege. The theologians' term for this is syncretism, and Japan is one of the world's most syncretic societies.

"The Japanese never developed the idea that a person had to adhere exclusively to one religion or the other," noted Asian scholar Edwin O. Reischauer, a former U.S. ambassador here.

Government surveys show most Japanese homes have both a kamidama, a sort of altar for the Shinto religion, and a butsudan, or "Buddha shelf." Japanese families mark a birth with a ceremony at a Shinto shrine and a death with one at a Buddhist temple. Almost half the weddings in Japan today are held in Christian-style churches, complete with minister and choir, even though bride and groom may never go to church again.

In contrast, the new religions tend to be exclusive faiths demanding more focused devotion. The first wave of new religions in Japan flourished after World War II. Some are still going strong today -- most notably, the Sokka Gakkai, or Value-Creation Society, an offshoot of a 750-year-old Buddhist sect.

Sokka Gakkai today has an estimated 6 million well-organized members in Japan and reports millions more in the United States and elsewhere. It runs a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 3 million, larger than any U.S. newspaper. Its political offshoot, the Komeito, or Clean Government Party, has a sizable bloc of members in parliament.

A graduate of a Sokka Gakkai college, asked to explain the appeal of the faith, replied by quoting, in English, a passage from American poet Wallace Stevens: "But in contentment I still feel the need of some imperishable bliss."

That need for something imperishable, for something more satisfying than a job and a bank account, seems to be a major impulse behind the glut of faiths that have sprung up since 1980 or so -- the "new religions."

"As Japan grew rich, many Japanese were perfectly satisfied doing their jobs and building careers," said Douglas Fox, professor of religion at Colorado College. "But others had a yearning for something more mysterious, more eternal. And therefore you seek the new religions to find it."

The shock and controversy surrounding Aum Supreme Truth may prove a setback to the current crop of new religions. There have been news reports here that believers are leaving Aum in light of the incriminating information in the newspapers every day about Asahara.

But there are obviously many Aum members who still see him as a divine and trustworthy figure. At Tokyo's Shibuya Station, a young woman pleaded with commuters today to take and read the sect's newspaper. It includes Aum's claim that it was the U.S. military that released the nerve gas in the subways. Asked if she believed this, the woman calmly replied, "The Venerated Master has said so. So it is true."

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