Aum documentary holds up a mirror to Japanese society

The Japan Times, Aug. 18, 2002

RELIGION AND SOCIAL CRISIS IN JAPAN: Understanding Japanese Society Through the Aum Affair, edited by Robert J. Kisala and Mark R. Mullins. Hampshire: Palgrave (St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan), 2001, 228 pp., $68 (cloth)

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It is frequently observed that social change and resulting social crises often give rise to new religious movements. It is less commonly noted that social crises can be precipitated by religious movements themselves. Yet we have much evidence of this.

One example is the response to Aum Shinrikyo’s release of sarin nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, which left 12 dead and 5,000 injured. Many have been the reactions to and the interpretations of this act, some of them leading to severe national repercussions.

These various reactions and responses, hold the editors of this collection of essays on the attack and its aftermath, allow one to understand more about the nature of contemporary Japanese society than does a narrower focusing on Aum itself.

Thus the collection opens with Susumu Shimazono’s account of Aum as a religion (rather than a cult), an abridged translation of one of the first investigations of the movement, and Christopher Hughes’ analysis of the authorities’ response, or rather their failure to respond, to the threats posed by Aum.

Mark Mullins then reviews the basic legal response by the government to Aum’s criminal activities, and Manabu Watanabe examines the various groups that were formed to oppose Aum. Robert Kisala then gives translated transcripts of the religious responses to Aum that appeared both in the secular press and in religious publications.

The media’s role in covering and interpreting the story is provided by Richard Gardner, and the reaction of some political and intellectual “elites” is given by Yukio Matsudo. Finally, the reaction of Aum members themselves is investigated by Michiko Maekawa.

Through reading this narrative, one learns much about Aum Shinrikyo and also a great deal about Japanese society. Attitudes both recounted and assumed have indicated some sensible extremes: that perhaps society would be better off without religion, or that perhaps the time has come to think seriously about the need for religious and moral education.

All of the essays delve deeply into the implications of the various reactions, but the one which treats their expression most widely is Gardner’s essay on Aum and the media. Though he covers radio and TV, he is in main concerned with a film made by a freelance filmmaker, Tatsuya Mori, who sought to take his investigation deeper than allowed by superficial TV coverage and the simplistic interpretations (and expectations) of the press.

The film, “A,” was shot over the period of a year and a half, and before editing was composed of 150 hours of film. It was taken almost entirely in Aum quarters and seriously sought to confront basic questions. With no narrative voice at all (the only editorial intrusion being the use of music at several junctures), the picture could be mistaken as merely giving Aum members an equal opportunity to explain themselves.

So it does, but it is also much more than that: It responsibly gathers evidence both about Aum’s self image, and also that of the media and — spectacularly — that of the police. Nonetheless, though never officially attacked, the film has remained largely unseen since television networks have refused to show it. As Gardner writes: “By not portraying Aum’s crimes or pressing . . . members of the group to recognize and apologize for these crimes, Mori, it seems, is considered guilty of somehow legitimating Aum’s position.”

Gardner is right. The truth is that by taking the position of a neutral reporter Mori seems to have violated the terms of the symmetrical scenario expected by government, media and the man on the street. This is that the whole is a simple case of higaisha (victims) and kagaisha (victimizers), and that the only possible closure is for remaining members to show a sufficient sense of responsibility and repentance.

In “A” we watch members, faced with overwhelming evidence, refusing to do this. No, not even refusing to — unable to, since their compliance would conflict with the faith (they only thing they have left) which sustains them. You and I would perhaps understand the extent of our responsibility and the distance we have been led. Beleaguered religious groups, however, have great tenacity.

Demonization is a device commonly employed by a shocked society. Some viewers of “A” (and its sequel, “A2”) were scandalized that it showed Aum members smiling and joking. They would have preferred that the “demons” followed the scenario and scowled. This sort of reaction shows more about Japanese society than it does about the members of Aum.

This society has always had particular trouble with its kagaisha role, even to the point of itself failing to address wartime examples. Everyone the world over would prefer to be considered a victim than a perpetrator, and in Japan the wish has become an expectation. Whole levels of victimization are on public display. Yet this takes a serious toll because reality is simply not to be explained by so elementary a scenario.

While it is true that social crises often give rise to new religious movements, it is certainly equally true that social crisis can be precipitated by religious movements. All one can hope to do is to punish the perpetrators, to admit the complications and to mourn the dead.

As this series of thoughtful essays indicates, just as the Aum members are unwilling or unable to construct a narrative that would incorporate Aum’s crimes, so the media in Japan (which forms public opinion) seems unwilling or unable to include anything that disturbs the elementary narrative of victims and their victimizers.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 19, 2002.
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