TOKYO — Japan yesterday revised its law on religion for the first time in more than four decades, granting the government new powers to police religious groups.
Supporters said the change will help prevent the emergence of groups like the Sublime Truth cult, which is blamed for a series of murders and kidnappings as well as the nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways in March that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500.
Critics accused the Liberal Democrats, who make up the largest bloc in the coalition government, of using the issue as a political weapon. They say the Liberal Democrats are seeking to punish a Buddhist group for helping the opposition in August elections.
With the change — the first made to the Religious Corporation Law — religious groups are placed under central government authority and must disclose more to the government. The law passed the upper house of Parliament yesterday and takes effect within a year.
In imperial Japan, the government imprisoned those who strayed from Shinto, the state religion. But in 1951, US occupation forces drafting Japan’s modern constitution wrote the Religious Corporation Law.
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Since then, Japan has experienced an explosion in the number of officially registered religions. About 100 new religious corporations are approved in Japan each year, and the tens of thousands of groups currently operating claim one in five Japanese as members.
The Sublime Truth sect went largely unnoticed by the central government and the public until police acknowledged last spring that its top members were prime suspects in a murder, kidnapping and terror spree that included the gas attack on Tokyo’s subways on March 20.
Police now say that for years, the cult had been developing its own machine guns, doing biological weapons research and making deadly sarin gas and LSD. Shoko Asahara, the sect leader, even had plans to take over the world.
After the attack, US congressmen expressed shock at the lack of oversight, saying Washington’s own investigation turned up cult plans for terrorist attacks in Japan and the United States.
Japanese leaders were embarrassed by the revelations, and supporters of the new law said it will ensure that such breaches will not happen again.
The revised law places religions operating in more than two of Japan’s 47 prefectures under the authority of the minister of education instead of local authorities.
Religious groups will be obligated to disclose more financial information and to submit reports any time the government asks for them.