No. 10 — March 10, 2000

Feature Article


Barbara Wanner

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The deadly sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 horrified Japan and, indeed, the rest of the world. Although postwar Japan had experienced incidents of political terrorism and spiritual conflict, this was the first time that a religious group — Aum Shinrikyo, then 10,000-strong — had orchestrated such a large-scale, indiscriminate assault on the Japanese state. Shoko Asahara, the cult's leader and the suspected mastermind behind the gassing, and 12 of his top aides now are on trial for murder.

In addition to relying on Japan's criminal justice system to punish the alleged perpetrators, the Diet enacted legislation late last year to enable authorities to crack down on Aum Shinrikyo's activities. Public antipathy for the group remains strong even five years later, as evidenced by the spate of anti-Aum demonstrations triggered by the December release from jail of the cult's former spokesperson. Moreover, several municipalities have refused to allow Aum devotees to register as residents.

In view of the still-strong visceral reaction to the group, many observers are astonished that Aum Shinrikyo — which now calls itself Aleph, a name that signifies renewal for many Japanese — once again appears to be attracting new members and rebuilding its businesses. Other religious sects still flourish, notwithstanding reports that they engage in the same coercion, brainwashing, fraud and outright criminal conduct that Aum employs.

The key to understanding the persistence of the cult phenomenon in Japan lies in the factors that gave rise to these Neo-New Religions, as Aum and other nonmainstream faiths are known. While Shinto festivals and Buddhist rites create a sense of community for many Japanese, the so-called Old Religions increasingly have failed to provide a philosophy or a moral guide with which to deal with the pressures of modern society. Led by charismatic, guru-like figures who preach a gospel that usually is an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western spiritual doctrines, the Neo-New Religions offer a worldview and a regimen aimed at answering age-old questions about the meaning of life.

Analysts attribute the growth spurt of cults over the past 20 years to increased disillusionment, particularly among educated urban youth, whose world is one of high-pressure exams, forced conformity and intense competition for entry-level positions. Japan's prolonged economic slump and related worries about job security also have created a sense of desperation that the Neo-New Religions, with their emphasis on miracles and the supernatural, promise to relieve.

Tokyo's challenge is to develop laws that allow authorities to intervene when there is evidence that a cult could harm society while continuing to uphold the religious freedoms protected by the Japanese constitution. At the same time, experts emphasize, the government must undertake educational reforms aimed at producing a more inquisitive and less stressed-out student body, one that is not quite so vulnerable to the promises made by cults.


"New Religions" Attempt To Fill Spiritual Void

Stories about religious fanaticism long have been a staple of the modern media. Thanks to the breadth and the scope of today's television coverage, viewers the world over have witnessed everything from self-immolation by Hindu priests for some "higher purpose" to the bloated corpses of 914 followers of Rev. Jim Jones who, under his orders, took their lives ostensibly to find salvation. Yet, Aum Shinrikyo's March 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 commuters and injured about 5,500 others, disturbed Japanese and foreign observers alike as had no other previous action by a religious cult.

For one thing, Aum Shinrikyo's violence was directed outward — a sharp contrast to the self-destructiveness of Hindu zealots, the People's Temple in Jonestown, Guyana or the 1997 mass suicide of comet-obsessed members of the Heaven's Gate cult in California. Simply put, Aum was bent on destroying the Japanese nation.

Under the direction of their leader, Shoko Asahara — who, before his self-proclaimed enlightenment, was arrested for peddling phony herbal remedies, among other secular sidelines — devotees stopped at nothing to bring on Armageddon. Members of Aum, according Mr. Asahara, would emerge unscathed and spiritually transformed. Nine months before the subway attack, Aum devotees, with no compunction, had killed seven people who lived in Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture and injured 200 others in order to test their poisonous sarin-gas brew. In 1990, the group, at Mr. Asahara's urging, had attempted to wipe out the entire population of Tokyo by dispersing through the lower atmosphere the bacteria that causes botulism.

Equally disconcerting, according to experts on terrorism, is the precedent set by Aum for wholesale violence. The group demonstrated that, if sufficiently motivated and possessing a technologically educated "work force," an organization could, without state patronage or protection, produce instruments of mass destruction on a wide scale. Never before had a subnational group gained access to such an extensive arsenal of both conventional and biochemical weapons. That, in the view of these analysts, is the shape of things to come in a post-Cold War order, where the rules of mutually assured destruction no longer prevail. "Aum was merely one example — a case study — of what may be the most dominant emerging threat to our national security," the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations concluded in a 1995 analysis of the cult.1

Given Aum's horrific propensity for violence, some pundits initially tried to explain the cult as an aberration. The group's transformation from a small society devoted to yoga and meditation to a criminal cult, which, at its peak, had nearly 10,000 members, was fueled entirely by Mr. Asahara's megalomania and was unrelated to modern Japanese society, they argued.

As will be examined below, the guru's progressive grandiosity and paranoia converted the cult's spiritual mission into a deadly one. However, experts on Japanese religion maintain that the Aum phenomenon cannot be fully understood without considering the historical, cultural, societal and other forces that gave rise not only to this group but also to the array of other religious movements found in modern Japan.


Modern Pressures

Shinto and Buddhism are Japan's mainstream religions. The former is not so much a religious system as a complex set of beliefs and observances that lacks an overarching organization or a clear moral doctrine. Originally based on local folk beliefs, Shinto is highly ritualistic, featuring celebrations and offerings to deities representing virtually everything related to life. In 1940, the government organized these beliefs into a state religion centered around the adoration of the emperor as the descendent of the Sun Goddess, the supreme deity of the Shinto religion.

Buddhism, which was imported in the middle of the fifth century from China by way of Korea, emphasizes the unity of all beings and respect for the dignity of all life; it stresses the spiritual communion pervading the whole universe.2 A more organized form of worship than Shinto, Buddhism teaches that meditation and other ascetic practices are the means of realizing universality and liberation from the suffering inherent in worldly life.

As Japan began to modernize in the 19th century, however, people increasingly found themselves without the spiritual resources they needed to cope with the pressures of a faster-paced world. The gap widened considerably between the new class of wealthy entrepreneurs and laborers, farmers and fishermen. For the downtrodden in particular, neither Shinto rituals nor Buddhist ceremonies seemed to provide adequate solace for their adverse circumstances or to offer them hope for a better future. In one analyst's words, "most [Shinto] shrines and [Buddhist] temples are more concerned about assisting members to fulfill their religious obligations to kith and kin than they are with developing an articulate worldview."3

As a consequence, from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, a wave of shinshukyo, or New Religions, emerged — some derived from Shinto and others from Buddhism (see Table) — offering relief from suffering and poverty with the promise of enlightenment and individual salvation. These religious organizations basically reworked and reshaped traditional beliefs, rituals and symbols to make them relevant to the social, cultural and spiritual needs of the time.4

Japan's Major New Religions

Year Founded



1994 Membership

Shinshukyo (New Religions)


























Perfect Liberty








Soka Gakkai







Shinshinshukyo (Neo-New Religions)










Unification Church
















Life Space








Aum Shinrikyo




Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo







*Current figure.

Sources: Daniel A. Metraux, "Religious Terrorism In Japan: The Fatal Appeal Of Aum Shinrikyo," Asian Survey, XXXV, No. 12, December 1995, p. 1143; "Ho-no-Hana Founder, 10 Top Members To Be Grilled," Kyodo Wire Service, December 29, 1999; "Ex-Life Space Leader Held," Asahi Shimbun, February 22, 2000 (available at; and "AUM Report Says Cult Has 935 Followers, 26 Properties," Kyodo Wire Service, March 2, 2000.

The largest of the shinshukyo is Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist-based group founded in 1930. Soka Gakkai followers embrace the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th-century religious reformer who maintained that the only way to save Japan from misery would be to convert all its people to his worldview.

Presaging the controversy that would befall Aum and many other new movements, Soka Gakkai — which claims that more than 10 percent of Japan's population make up its ranks — developed a certain amount of notoriety due to its often-vigorous recruitment of members. Some families of followers complained of losing to the sect not only one or more of their relatives but also substantial portions of their personal fortunes. Nevertheless, Soka Gakkai believers, who, over the years, have proved to be the most loyal of shinshukyo devotees, profess to have happier inner lives as a result of the Soka Gakkai teachings and to enjoy the sense of belonging afforded by the tight-knit, supportive group.

Soka Gakkai also distinguished itself as one of the few, if not the only, New Religions to make a successful foray into politics. Devotees regarded government leaders who suppressed or otherwise interfered with the spread of the Nichiren gospel as extending the "misery" of the people. Komeito (translated Clean Government Party) was formed in 1964 as the agent that enabled Soka Gakkai to seek expression in government policy of its Buddhist-influenced, pacifist principles and its concern for the less fortunate. Although the religion eventually severed formal ties with the party — now called the New Komeito — it is common knowledge that the political group's main supporters are members of Soka Gakkai.

The fact that Soka Gakkai adherents have proved themselves to be a loyal, reliable and active voting bloc has enabled the New Komeito to withstand periods of political turmoil and to remain one of the largest parties in the Diet. These assets were attractive to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which last October invited the New Komeito to join a governing coalition that included the Liberal Party (see JEI Report No. 39B, October 15, 1999). At the same time, though, the New Komeito's Soka Gakkai connection has been a political liability to the government of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. Critics have charged that the New Komeito's presence in the coalition violates in effect the constitution's separation of church and state.

Students of Japanese religion identify a second surge of new faiths — shinshinshukyo (Neo-New Religions) — that began during Japan's rapid growth and emergence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a global economic power. While the New Religions responded to the needs of those of lesser means, the Neo-New Religions tended to attract better-educated and wealthier followers. Experts say that this shift reflected a change from the older demands on religion — that is, solace in poverty and suffering — to the more "spiritual and mystical desires" of financially secure people who seek new answers to questions about life's purpose or who feel in need of self-awareness in a control-oriented society.5

The new faiths that emerged during the 1980s, in particular, were a response to urban youth increasingly dissatisfied with the apparent spiritual desolation that scientific and technological progress had brought to modern society. Young people were becoming more and more alienated and disenchanted with a life of stress and hard work that brought only empty material rewards — rewards that, during recessionary times, also were unreliable.

At the same time, however, members of this demographic group were shaped by the very technical advances they criticized. Having created their own fantasy worlds through computer games, a not-insignificant segment of Japan's youth became fascinated with the occult, space travel and extraterrestrials as well as with the acquisition of mystical powers. According to sociologist Ito Takashi, "[t]he current trend of new religious groups seems to reflect young people's interest in psychic powers, which may have sprung from their anxieties about life." Another expert adds to this observation, suggesting that "once youths become aware of the sources of their anxiety, they are eager to find a quick fix. And that's exactly what the new religions offer them."6

Thus, in adapting to the emergence of a new social and cultural milieu, the doctrines espoused by shinshinshukyo often depicted contemporary society as having lost its way in a material world. These religious groups invariably promised devotees a means of rising above earthly pressures through the development of supernatural powers. As described by Winston Davis, an expert on Japanese religions at Washington and Lee University, "New Religions often give [Japanese young people] the opportunity to criticize the materialism of the modern world while satisfying their interest in UFOs, parapsychology and the world of miracles."7

Certainly, this must explain why the blind and rather homely Mr. Asahara was so compelling to his legion of youthful followers: he claimed to have supernatural and levitational powers. For instance, an early recruitment brochure depicted him crossed-legged in the yoga lotus position an inch or so above the floor. He promised followers that if they followed his teachings and rigorous regimen of ascetic practices, they, too, could achieve the same feat. The fact that Mr. Asahara "flew" simply by using a yoga technique that for an instant lifted him off the floor and that the camera had captured him in that airborne split second was not of interest or concern to followers who craved mysticism in their lives.



The increasing secularization of Japanese society following World War II also fertilized the ground for Neo-New Religions by creating a spiritual void. Various comparative surveys undertaken in the mid-1990s put the United States at the top of industrial societies as far as the importance of religion in the lives of its citizens; Japan was at the other extreme.8 In contrast to Judeo-Christian or Islamic countries, in Japan, religion is not a priority in people's day-to-day lives. Nor does it appear to influence their way of thinking very much.9 For most Japanese, age-old Shinto festivities and Buddhist rites serve more of a social function than a spiritual one by creating a sense of community. In the postwar era, members of the nation's vast middle class generally have been ambivalent in terms of commitment to religious institutions or spiritual ideals.

This apparent aversion to adopting an organized set of beliefs may in part be a reaction to the pre-1945 period when the militarist government established Shinto as the religion of the state. The Japanese people, whose emperor was said to have descended from the Sun Goddess, had a sacred mission to bring the world under one Japanese roof to worship at Shinto shrines. That, at least, was how Tokyo attempted to use the indigenous faith as a tool of national ideology and thought-control.

The militarist government also strictly controlled the formation and the activities of the New Religions. Its aggressive persecution of Omotokyo, a Shinto-derived shinshukyo whose membership numbered about 2 million in the 1920s and the 1930s, often is cited as an example of the military establishment's intolerance for perspectives on life that differed from its Japan-first orthodoxy.

Not surprisingly, among the first changes that American occupation authorities made were to sever the ties between Shinto and the state and to include an article protecting freedom of religion in the new constitution. No religion would be officially propagated; conversely, no sect or cult, however bizarre, would be forbidden.

Today, the principle of freedom of religion is valued so highly that once a group is licensed as a religious organization, the government tends to adopt a hands-off approach rather than risk running afoul of the constitution and the law. Registration under the postwar Religious Corporations Law confers a number of benefits, including tax privileges, the right to own property and protection from state or other external interference.

Thus, the younger generation's longing for spiritual sustenance and law enforcement's tendency to look the other way in matters concerning religious organizations have created conditions ripe for the emergence of gurus like Mr. Asahara who claim to possess mystical powers. By the same token, as evidenced by the subway attack and other violent acts perpetrated by Aum, the laissez-faire attitude toward religious groups allowed Mr. Asahara and his followers to engage in outright criminal behavior under the guise of spiritual practices.



Another characteristic of Neo-New Religions that has made them attractive to dogma-wary but spiritually questing Japanese is their syncretism. This term refers to the liberal borrowing of doctrines from various faiths, which then are interwoven to create a new gospel aimed at addressing current societal and cultural challenges. According to some religious scholars, this proclivity — which comes from the nation's roots in Shinto — is uniquely Japanese. A very unstructured faith, Shinto typically was adapted to serve local interests; each village basically invented whatever deities it needed for its protection. Buddhism, in its early days in Japan, also often was amalgamated with local religious customs.

Washington and Lee University's Mr. Davis views the fuzzy lines between these ancient religions as an imperative for Japan's coalescence as a nation. Unlike Judeo-Christian traditions in which social integration rested on a belief in one God, one faith and one system of religious practices, the political and social integration of Japan traditionally has been based on a multiplicity of gods and faiths, he maintains. To avoid conflict with the religious establishment of a community, a new faith — say, a Buddhist sect — generally was treated as a supplement to the traditional devoirs of village and family. In the West, pluralism seemed to threaten the unity of Christendom. In Japan, however, it was monopraxis — the emphasis on a single religious practice — that posed the greatest spiritual menace to the integration of society, Mr. Davis concludes.10

The propensity of the Japanese to graft one religion onto another for the sake of societal cohesion may provide an explanation for the failure of the dogged efforts of Christian missionaries. However, in keeping with the syncretistic tradition, many Japanese embrace certain Christian rituals, particularly the marriage ceremony. Buddhist rites typically are used for funerals. Shinto festivities usher in new seasons or other celebrations of life.

Thus, some pundits propose that young Japanese searching for a vision naturally may gravitate toward a syncretistic doctrine rather than flock to Christian denominations or other established faiths because the nation's unique religious heritage and postwar legal framework have created a more tolerant climate for religious experimentation. Both mainstream and alternative spiritual paths offer promises of individual salvation and enlightenment, but the messages of the shinshinshukyo gurus often strike a responsive chord because they are tailored to the needs of modern society.

Although many of the New and Neo-New Religions are based on Shinto or Buddhism, Aum's ascetic practices drew heavily from the Hindu philosophy of yoga. Its teachings borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity — in particular, the Book of Revelations' discussion of Armageddon — and even the prophecies of 16th-century French astrologer Nostradamus, who predicted the world's end.

Soka Gakkai, in particular, objected to Aum's claim that its doctrine was based on Buddhism, arguing that the cult had "perverted them [Buddhist tenets] and has resorted to a level of violence that is absolutely opposite Buddhism's respect for the dignity of life."11 Aum devotees apparently dismissed this criticism. Not unlike Islamic fundamentalists who commit acts of terrorism to further the jihad, Mr. Ashara's followers believed that the murders, kidnappings and other violent acts they performed were sacramental rites in service to a higher calling.

In reality, Aum's worldview was not unlike those of other shinshinshukyo. Eyeing with great suspicion and fear the approach of the millennium, many other Neo-New Religions that had emerged in the 1980s and the 1990s shared Aum's opinion that new paradigms were needed to cope with modernity; otherwise, the world would end in a disaster caused by its inhabitants' spiritual failure. These faiths invariably depicted an end to civilization from which their followers would emerge on a higher spiritual plane to establish an advanced, utopian world. The big difference between Aum and other new faiths, however, was that the former believed that it had a divine right to bring on doomsday. Devotees of competing shinshinshukyo typically argued that they could save the world from the coming crisis through their own metaphysical powers and those of their leaders.12


Educational System

Experts suggest that Japan's educational system may be one reason that Aum and other Neo-New Religions have tended to attract a generally well-educated, reasonably affluent group of followers. The rigorous examinations required of Japanese high school students to enter college create such a pressure-packed life that teenage suicide has reached record highs. It is no surprise, then, that for some university students, the guru's condemnation of the material world and his promise of enlightenment might have served as a much-needed balm for the wounds they incurred making their way through "examination hell."

Equally significant, the Japanese method of instruction, which emphasizes rote learning and, particularly in the sciences, the framing of questions in stark black-and-white terms, does not, in the opinion of some researchers, foster an ability to think critically.13 Moreover, given the cultural importance of deferring to authority, students are not encouraged to challenge the information put forth by their instructors. The end result is that Japan trains its young people without really educating them.14

It also means that some youth become so lost in terms of knowing who they are and what they want from life that they tend to latch on to any sect that provides a clear game plan and structured regimen — not unlike what they knew in school. Once they find a spiritual leader who gives them something absolute to hang on to, they can live comfortably and at peace simply by following the cult's preachings; they no longer have to make their own judgments.15 In other words, the Japanese educational system may create the ideal passive flock for a cult leader.

Sociologists and cultural pundits have speculated endlessly as to why Aum attracted such a large number of technicians and engineers, many of whom had advanced degrees from top Japanese universities. Some analysts suggest that the techies and the scientists who knowingly developed biochemical weapons of mass destruction saw Aum as a way to advance their careers. In the "real world," many of them held entry-level positions and, therefore, were no more than small cogs in a big machine. The delusional Mr. Asahara provided his scientists and engineers with a rare opportunity to experiment and conduct research in an open environment with cutting-edge equipment and no corporate higher-ups breathing down their necks.

After a restrictive and dogmatic education in the sciences, the prospect of a boring and limited career in industry made the Aum leader's false promise of scientific freedom appealing.16 More disturbing, in Mr. Davis's view, is that while these technicians had the training and the native intelligence to develop the deadly sarin brew, they did not possess the common sense to realize that what their guru was asking of them had nothing to do with spirituality. Rather, it was unethical, criminal lunacy.17


Aum Shinrikyo Breaks The Mold

As the above suggests, Aum Shinrikyo shared many characteristics with the plethora of Neo-New Religions in Japan. The group was led by a shamanistic figure who preached a syncretistic doctrine and professed to have supernatural powers that devotees, too, could possess. Keying into the growing malaise among Japanese youth, Aum not only tailored its message to appeal to this age group but also provided initiates with a familiar way of life.18

Like Soka Gakkai, Aum tried to become politically active. In 1990, Mr. Asahara and 25 of his followers ran in the elections for the Diet's lower house. All the cult members were defeated soundly, due in no small part to the fact that they made no effort to appeal to mainstream voters. For example, rather than campaigning in conventional street clothes, the Aum candidates paraded around in white robes and masks of their leader's face. Unfortunately, the magnitude of this rejection seemed to intensify Mr. Asahara's paranoid view of the world.



Some commentators speculate that the public humiliation of the 1990 lower house polls may have been the proverbial last straw that pushed Aum's leadership to the conclusion that society was damned and should be abandoned.19 Retreating to the closed world of their communes, the guru and his followers became further estranged from society. Even worse, Mr. Asahara began to stockpile conventional weaponry and to develop the biochemical means needed to fulfill his doomsday prophecy.

The expert consensus is that it was Mr. Asahara's peculiar fascination with death and destruction that set Aum apart from other shinshinshukyo and established a frightening precedent for wide-scale terrorist attacks in Japan, the United States and almost anywhere else in the world. Reflecting the demented guru's no-holds-barred approach to "arm for Armageddon," in the early 1990s, he began to spread his gospel in Russia as part of a plan to tap that country's biochemical arsenal. Mr. Asahara also took advantage of the fact that the cash-strapped former Soviet Union had become a veritable marketplace for Cold War-era weapons, acquiring a million-dollar Mil-17 military helicopter as well as purchasing AK-47 rifles.20



Perhaps owing to the poverty in which he was raised, Mr. Asahara had an insatiable appetite for money. In fact, he proved to be quite entrepreneurial in a diabolical sense. Again, other shinshinshukyo and religious movements the world over have been accused of fleecing their followers, but as with his preoccupation with acquiring arms, the Aum leader went over the top in this area as well.

For one thing, Aum devotees were nickled and dimed for their training and initiation into the sect. Many followers reportedly were willing to pay the equivalent of as much as $250 to drink Mr. Asahara's dirty bath water. A "mind-expanding" potion purportedly made from droplets of his blood went for $11,000. Perhaps the most bizarre invention of Aum's earnest scientists was a helmet with electrodes that was said to synchronize the wearer's brain waves with those of the master. Monthly rentals of this device were about $10,000.

With revenues raised from training — as well as the life savings that many adherents signed over to the guru — Mr. Asahara established various businesses that, by virtue of Aum's registration under the Religious Corporations Law, enjoyed tax breaks. These included cheap restaurants, a fitness club, a dial-a-date service and a baby-sitting organization. Tapping the cult's extensive in-house expertise in computer technology, the guru established several companies that sold cut-rate computers assembled by unsalaried Aum followers. These ventures, in turn, enabled the cult to raise the billions of yen it needed to buy the Russian armaments, construct state-of-the-art laboratories and purchase raw materials for its biochemical weapons.

Aum's entrepreneurship continues. Japanese authorities revealed after a February 2000 raid on one of the group's sites that five Aum computer businesses operating as the M Group had developed software programs for at least 10 government agencies, including the Japan Defense Agency (see JEI Report No. 10B, March 10, 2000). This discovery raised fears throughout Japan that the cult that had tried to destroy Tokyo now could engage in cyberterrorism. JDA and such major corporate buyers as Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. immediately suspended use of all the software developed by M Group technicians — an action that is expected to undermine the viability of Aum's computer firms. Nevertheless, given the sect's scientific brain trust, many officials are fearful that even these sanctions amount to locking the barn door after the horse got loose.21


Criminal Acts

While it may be debatable whether the fraud that Mr. Asahara inflicted on his followers constituted a crime, no authority would dispute that the cult's acts of murder and kidnapping were illegal. In this respect, too, Aum differs from other Neo-New Religions to a frightening degree.

In addition to being held responsible for the 12 deaths related to the Tokyo subway attack, the Aum leader is being tried for the sarin-gas tests in Matsumoto that killed seven people, not to mention an entire flock of sheep. Furthermore, he apparently was not above ordering the abduction and the execution of individual adherents or outsiders who seemed to threaten his omnipotent hold on his followers.

The most publicized case involved Tsutami Sakamoto, his wife and their 1-year-old son. The Yokohama attorney, a specialist in human rights, was retained by a group of parents to press charges that would force the cult to return their children. When Mr. Sakamoto came close to penetrating the virtual — and real — constraints imposed on cult members, Mr. Asahara allegedly ordered his kidnapping and murder and that of his family. Their bodies, from which the Aum assassins had extracted the teeth to complicate identification through dental records, eventually were found in remote areas of central Japan.22


How and Why?

Most experts grappling for an explanation of Aum's extreme deviation from the religious norm lay the blame at the feet of the guru. Mr. Asahara suffered from delusions of grandeur and a conspiratorial view of current society, to say the least. Testimonies and interviews given by former devotees also reveal a man who was just plain exploitative and manipulative. However, in the parlance of modern psychology, Mr. Asahara also seemed to be "enabled" by his followers' apparent ambitions to make a
mark in their respective scientific fields as well as by their blind devotion. He provided answers where their education had not.

The National Police Agency came in for pointed criticism from the media for its ineffective handling of reports from people living near Aum communes of suspicious activities. Its bungled investigations into kidnapping allegations made by distressed parents of youthful devotees received the same treatment.

In fact, the subway attack gave momentum to the comprehensive review of crisis-management procedures that Tokyo had begun following the Great Hanshin Earthquake in January 1995. A new set of guidelines for the police to use in responding to cult-related complaints by citizens was developed. Yet some observers have pointed out that the police no doubt felt that their hands were tied by both the letter and the spirit of the laws protecting religious freedoms. On that score, one of Aum's legacies may be that by virtue of its extreme behavior, it fueled a debate that perhaps was overdue about where to draw the line between constitutionally mandated rights to follow any spiritual path and public safety.


Authorities Crack Down On Aum, Other Cults

Immediately following the subway attack, the police swooped down on Aum facilities and arrested Mr. Asahara and 196 of his followers for a series of crimes, including kidnapping, murder, conspiracy and complicity in the deadly gassing. All of them subsequently were indicted. Authorities then promptly revoked the cult's status as a religious organization. Of those arrested, 162 have been found guilty to date; only one was able to prove his innocence. Mr. Asahara and 33 of his followers remain in jail pending completion of their trials. (Criminal trials in Japan are notoriously lengthy procedures.)

Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for five of the indicted parties, including the guru. One follower has been sentenced to life in prison for providing transport to one of the three Aum members who planted the sarin brew in a subway car. Two Aum officials have been sentenced to hang but are appealing their verdicts. However, even if defense lawyers can make a persuasive case as to why the guru and his top lieutenants should be spared, legal experts say that none of these individuals is likely ever to walk the streets a free person.23

Although severe, the judgments meted out have not quelled the public's fear that Aum — or the hundreds of other shinshinshukyo — continues to pose a danger to society. As the courtroom drama dragged on, policymakers in Tokyo explored other legal avenues that would enable them to disband Aum. In 1997, the government sought to apply the 1951 Anti-Subversive Law, which allows authorities to outlaw organizations that have engaged in terrorism and are likely to do so again. However, the Public Security Examination Commission, an independent advisory panel to the Ministry of Justice, opposed using the statute against Aum. Its members argued that the Cold War-era law was intended to combat revolutionary groups like the notorious Japanese Red Army rather than to force the dissolution of religious organizations.

Lawmakers and bureaucrats also looked into the possibility of amending the Religious Corporations Law. Critics argued that its liberal interpretation of what constitutes a "real religion" has allowed groups like Aum Shinrikyo to abuse their tax benefits and amass sizable fortunes. However, while denouncing Mr. Asahara and his followers, members of other religious groups — Soka Gakkai being the most vocal among them — expressed grave concern that revising the Religious Corporations Law might bring a return to the highly restrictive Peace Preservation Law. Tokyo's pre-1945 militarist government used this statute to quash many of the New Religions that deviated from the state's emperor-centered Shinto doctrine.24

The government subsequently shifted gears again and developed legislation during 1998 and 1999 aimed specifically at Aum. Some observers saw in this initiative a message to other nonmainstream faiths that authorities might be less likely to look the other way when people complained about problems caused by a group's presence in the community or when parents voiced concerns about their children being detained or otherwise adversely influenced by cults.

In early December, the Diet enacted two anti-cult bills based on the legislation that had been drafted over the previous two years. The first authorizes the Justice Ministry's Public Security Investigation Agency to monitor any organization that has committed "indiscriminate mass murder during the past 10 years." It also allows the police to inspect such a group's facilities without a warrant. Perhaps more importantly, this law gives Justice officials the right to order a group to report on its activities every three months as well as to restrict operations for up to six months as a crime-prevention step. The second law — written to compensate the victims of the sarin-gas testing in Matsumoto and the subway attack — allows bankruptcy administrators to seize Aum's assets.

The statutes went into effect in late December. The Public Security Examination Commission issued its first ruling February 1. It basically green-lighted active surveillance of Aum. The police immediately launched searches of Aum facilities in five prefectures. Evidence that the cult's computer firms were providing software to government agencies and major corporations was uncovered during one of these raids.

Many of the 28 municipalities across Japan where Aum facilities are located have refused to accept residential registrations from Aum devotees. Such enrollment is necessary to obtain a driver's license or a passport, receive health benefits or send a child to a public school. Two of Mr. Asahara's children, a 5-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter, until recently were denied admission to a school in Otawara, north of Tokyo.

In the past, Tokyo tacitly had approved of these discriminatory actions. However, with the implementation of the new anti-Aum laws, bureaucrats are urging local governments at least to permit cult members' children to enroll in public schools. In early March, education officials in Tochigi prefecture softened their stance and allowed Mr. Asahara's children to go to school. Saitama prefecture made a similar concession to enable the twin daughters of another senior cult member currently on trial to attend elementary school.25

Some observers suggest that with the anti-Aum laws on the books, authorities' increased responsiveness to complaints about other Neo-New Religions is no coincidence. Among the groups that have been subject to greater scrutiny by the police and the Justice Ministry's cult watchers are:

  • Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo, whose guru, Hogen Fukunaga, claims to be able to divine a person's fate by examining the soles of his or her feet. Police raided the group's facilities twice in December on suspicion that three former devotees were defrauded out of the equivalent of more than $200,000. Authorities also are investigating reports that four Ho-no-Hana followers died during training sessions.
  • In late February, authorities arrested Koji Takahashi, the leader of Life Space, a group established in 1983 that conducts self-enlightenment seminars for which attendees pay tens of thousands of yen. The cult leader, a former accountant, was charged with failing to seek proper medical care for one of his followers, who was found partially mummified in a hotel room in Chiba prefecture with his wife and son keeping vigil. Mr. Takahashi claimed that he was curing the man of his illness with Skati Pat, a yogic term for a guru's dispensation of divine energy to a follower through a series of pats to the head.
  • Also on the Justice Ministry's radar screen is Kenshokai, a group that targets university and high school students. Although this cult does not charge exorbitant training fees like Aum or Ho-no-Hana, it evidently puts great pressure on its devotees to recruit their peers. Authorities find particularly worrisome the fact that many students have dropped out of school to join the group, whose ranks have more than tripled in recent years to about 670,000 members.


Outlook: Reforms Needed On Both Sides

Public concerns about Aum had intensified by the time of the late December release from prison of Fumihiro Joyu, the cult's former spokesperson, who had served three years for perjury related to property transactions. Earlier in December, Aum followers had issued a formal apology to the victims of the Matsumoto sarin-gas test and the subway attack and had pledged nearly ¥150 million ($1.4 million at ¥110=$1.00) annually in compensation. Before then, they had begun to distance themselves from their guru, acknowledging his culpability in masterminding the attacks on society. In an effort to remove the stigma attached to the cult's name, this group of devotees renamed itself Aleph — the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, meaning "beginning" or "renewal."

Neither government officials nor citizens were assuaged by the group's reform initiatives. Justice officials were deeply concerned that Mr. Joyu, a clean-cut, articulate and generally compelling representative for Aum, would revive the group as its de facto leader. It was largely due to concerns about the possible negative implications of Mr. Joyu's release from prison that government officials pushed for implementation of the new anti-Aum statutes sooner rather than later.

Certain right-wing groups and residents of the Yokohama neighborhood where the former Aum spokesperson has sought refuge have not been shy about making known their anxieties about reports that the cult's membership has been on the rise during the past year. Sound trucks patrol the streets blaring anti-Aum pronouncements, and outside the building that houses Aum's makeshift headquarters, men with bullhorns stand, shouting for Mr. Joyu to leave.

Although it bewilders most Japanese and foreign observers that Aum — or any of the Neo-New Religions currently under investigation — could continue to attract devotees, experts suggest that the persistence of societal and cultural factors over the years has helped cults remain a haven for certain types of individuals. The educational system is just as stressful and competitive as ever, producing a well-trained but not necessarily a creatively minded or reflective work force. Moreover, Japan has been bogged down in an economic slump since the early 1990s. That reality has caused great uncertainty among younger workers about their professional futures and exacerbated feelings of hopelessness in others, compelling them to question the purpose of their conventional life-styles.

It comes as no surprise, then, that in the five years since the subway attack, many commentators have called on the government to overhaul the nation's dogmatic approach to education. Presumably, a happier, more inquisitive student, one who is open to exploring different viewpoints rather than focused only on cramming for exams, will be less vulnerable to a guru's lure of supernatural powers.

By the same token, though, it behooves Neo-New Religion groups to make changes that would obviate the need to tinker with the Religious Corporations Law in a way that might threaten to undermine religious freedoms. Organizations like Aum and Ho-no-Hana should be more willing to lift their veils of secrecy and, for example, allow inspection of their records or inquiries about members. At a minimum, they must demonstrate the absence of coercion and fraud. After the horrific example of Aum, it now is up to other shinshinshukyo to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that while they may espouse a doctrine that sounds bizarre and advocate ascetic practices, they are not engaged in criminal conduct or otherwise plotting to destroy the world.

Andrew Hayashi and Kanako Yamada provided research assistance.

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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1aa David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall, The Cult at the End of the World (New York, New York: Crown Publishers, 1996), pp. 289-290. Return to Text

2aa Masaharu Anesaki, History of Japanese Religion (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1930), p. 53. Return to Text

3aa Winston Davis, Japanese Religion and Society: Paradigms of Structure and Change (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 253. Return to Text

4aa Peter B. Clarke and Jeffrey Somers, "Japanese 'New' and 'New New' Religions: An Introduction," in Peter B. Clarke and Jeffrey Somers (eds.), Japanese New Religions in the West (Kent, England: Japan Library, 1994), p. 3 and p. 8. Return to Text

5aa Daniel A. Metraux, "Religious Terrorism In Japan: The Fatal Appeal of Aum Shinrikyo," Asian Survey, XXXV, No. 12, December 1995, p. 1141. Return to Text

6aa Ibid., p. 1150. Return to Text

7aa Winston Davis, "Dealing With Criminal Religions: The Case of Aum Supreme Truth," Christian Century, July 19-25, 1995, p. 708. Return to Text

8aa Davis (1992), op. cit., p. 232. Return to Text

9aa Kiyoyasu Kitabatake, "Aum Shinrikyo: Society Begets an Aberration," Japan Quarterly, October-December 1995, p. 379. Return to Text

10aa Davis (1992), op. cit., p. 33. Return to Text

11aa Metraux, op. cit., p. 1143. Return to Text

12aa Ian Reader, A Poisonous Cocktail? Aum Shinrikyo's Path to Violence (Copenhagen: NIAS Books, 1996), p. 13. Return to Text

13aa Davis (1995), op. cit., p. 709. Return to Text

14aa Davis (1995), op. cit., p. 710. Return to Text

15aa Metraux, op. cit., p. 1150. Return to Text

16aa Metraux, op. cit., p. 1148. Return to Text

17aa Davis (1995), op. cit., p. 709. Return to Text

18aa See Kaplan and Marshall, op. cit., pp. 19-20, for an account of Aum's public education-type approach to indoctrination, which featured frequent examinations (referred to as "initiations"), grades ("levels of enlightenment") and the all-knowing teacher (Shoko Asahara). "At no point would [the devotees] have to think for themselves," the authors point out. Return to Text

19aa Reader, op. cit., p. 45. Return to Text

20aa See Kaplan and Marshall, op. cit., pp. 106-112, for a discussion of how Aum developed ties to the Russian intelligence community and its other tactics to facilitate arms acquisitions. Return to Text

21aa Calvin Sims, "Japan Software Suppliers Linked to Sect," The New York Times, March 2, 2000, p. A6. Return to Text

22aa Kaplan and Marshall, op. cit., pp. 37-43. Return to Text

23aa Valerie Reitman, "Japan's Law On Sects Spurs Debate," The Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2000, p. 20A. Return to Text

24aa Metraux, op. cit., p. 1154. Return to Text

25aa "Local Schools to Allow AUM Children to Attend Class," Kyodo Wire Service, March 2, 2000. Return to Text

The views expressed in this report are those of the author
and do not necessarily represent those of the Japan Economic Institute

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