A deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway by an apocalyptic cult 10 years ago exposed the deep alienation in modern Japan, and the shock still tarnishes the image of religion in the country, mainstream faiths included.
As the economy and society undergo transition from the certainties of the past, the Japanese, who have a tradition of diverse religious movements, are increasingly hungry for spiritual relief.
But a stigma has surrounded religious orders since the Aum Supreme Truth sect, which believed the world was on the verge of a catastrophic war, released sarin nerve gas on crowded subways on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500.
The Japanese are now turning instead to pop culture figures, fortune tellers or other spiritual advisers unlinked to sects as their new gurus, experts said.
“Japan is still in the rehab period after the trauma of the Aum sarin incident,” said Manabu Watanabe, professor of religious studies at the Nanzan University, which is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
“Before the Aum incident, people cared about protection of religious freedom. After the Aum case, religious groups became something to be put under state surveillance,” he said.
Following the subway attack, Japanese authorities have clamped down on a number of cults whose behavior went beyond the merely eccentric.
In May 2003, police raided facilities of the Pana Wave Laboratory doomsday sect, whose followers wore surgical-style white robes and travelled Japan in a caravan of white vehicles to escape “electromagnetic wave attacks” allegedly being unleashed by communists.
In February 2002, the leader of the Life Space cult was found guilty of the murder of a stroke victim whose mummified body was found in a hotel.
And in May 2000, the founder of a cult that read people’s feet was charged with fraud for telling his followers they would get cancer unless they handed over thousands of dollars worth of money.
“Many Japanese — young and old — are losing their faiths. They detest religions because of the image of Aum. But people remain curious about the mysterious world, which can lead to a resurgence of new religions,” Watanabe said.
While feverish cult activity is a phenomenon throughout the industrialized world, the nature of Japanese society lends itself to it, experts said.
Japan has historically tolerated various religions and cults because its culture is not based on the supremacy of a single faith. Many people identify themselves as Buddhist and Shinto simultaneously and take part in both faiths’ rites.
An exception was during World War II when indigenous Shintoism was promoted as the national faith and Buddhism was repressed.
Sensitivities about the militarist era have led to a reluctance to outlaw movements, with even the Aum cult remaining legal after the subway attack although it lost its recognition as a tax-exempt religious group.
A key moment in Japan’s spiritual evolution was at defeat in World War II when Emperor Hirohito declared himself a human rather than a deified leader.
“The Japanese have been searching for a sense of direction in life since then,” Watanabe said. “New religions have emerged to fill the void.”
As Japan quickly rebuilt itself as an economic power following the war, stressed individuals found solace in religions that practised physical movement, such as yoga and meditation, to ease their minds from the daily grind, rather than sects that required diligent studies of dogma.
But in the same way that the Japanese have traditionally valued selfless devotion to their masters, crafts and companies, some people turned to slavish attachment to cult leaders, Watanabe said.
Aum, which combines Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, gained popularity by offering newcomers systematic training by experienced cult mentors, said an expert with the Public Security Intelligence Agency.
“The group was well organized. It had an almost manualized system that they claimed showed the path to salvation. Followers did not have to think anything other than to do what they are told,” he said.
Aum founder Shoko Asahara, a former acupuncturist who at the cult’s height was known for his long hair, beard and heavy weight, “was the figure who knew the path to salvation,” the security expert said.
“Followers sought his teaching with hopes that they would be able to leave the cycle of reincarnation for a better world,” he said.
After the 1995 attack stained the image of religions, an alternative has emerged in the form of popular celebrities and fortune tellers appearing on Japanese television and in magazines claiming to have the mystical power to tell other people’s fate.
“Mass media have created ‘virtual gurus,'” said Junkou Inoue, a religion professor at Shinto-affiliated Kokugakuin University.
“This is a reflection that Japanese people are longing for religious guidance, with many people feeling anxiety about modern life,” Inoue said.
Japan has seen a painful transition since the early 1990s after its “bubble economy” burst and once-unthinkable ideas such as unemployment reared up.
The rapid changes have included a growing international influence, particularly through the media and Internet , that puts enormous stress on people who no longer feel that their unique values and culture matter.
“Some people shut themselves from the rest of the world in reaction to globalization, which standardizes many things,” Inoue said.
The resistance can lead to nationalism or provide a fertile ground for more cults.
“Now, anomie exists with people having no moral standards to adhere to. In this chaos, new sects could emerge to influence people,” Watanabe said.
“The only thing preventing it is the mental scars from the Aum crimes,” he said.