TOKYO : After decades of controversy over doomsday cults, legal and cult experts say many Japanese will continue to be lured by the promise of spiritual relief offered by such groups in an increasingly materialistic and alienated society.
This is despite a rash of public campaigns by lawyers, academics and the media disclosing the mind-control techniques used by cults and the suffering of former followers and their families.
Even the most violent cult in Japan’s post-war history, Aum Supreme Truth, whose leader Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death Friday for crimes including the murderous 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, still has around 2,000 followers in its new incarnation, Aleph.
Legal and cult experts point out that Japan lacks social support such as professional mental health care and career counselling to bring those who leave cults back into society.
Although the growth in cult activity is not unique to Japan and reflects the changing social climate in many industrialized countries, the nature of Japanese society lends itself to it, they say.
“It’s an illness prevalent in developed countries, including Japan,” said Kimiaki Nishida, professor of social psychology at Shizuoka Prefectural University in central Japan and a researcher on mind control.
“People have become materially affluent as standards of living have improved, but they have found spiritual happiness or satisfaction increasingly hard to come by.”
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a Tokyo-based lawyer representing the National Network of Lawyers Against the Spiritual Sales who has been fighting the Unification Church through the courts for years, agreed, but said the proliferation of cults in Japan seemed to be worse than in other developed countries.
His group estimates the Unification Church, whose followers are referred to as Moonies, has about 20,000 core followers in Japan, much smaller than officially claimed. Most recently, married women in their 30s and 40s, many of them housewives, are recruiting new members for the church, Yamaguchi said.
“Japanese are looking for other forms of satisfaction than those found in everyday life,” he said, adding that if they cannot find an answer quickly, they tend to fall for a ready-made solution.
And in a society where efficiency is cherished, critical thinking sometimes falls by the wayside.
With the pro-democracy activism typical of Japanese students and unions in the 1960s and 1970s a distant memory, many young people now turn inward to express their discontent, locking themselves up in a spiritual netherworld.
Among the major sects or new religions active in Japan are the Unification Church founded by South Korean Sun Myung Moon, which swept through college campuses in the late 1970s.
Aum emerged a decade later, growing fast with its cod-Buddhist dogma and pop-culture image, while legal setbacks for the Moonies meant they began to lose their luster as an alternative to more mainstream Christian and Buddhist sects.
In contrast to the followers of the People’s Temple of Jim Jones who engaged in mass-suicide in the jungles of Guyana in 1978, Aum turned increasingly hostile towards the outside world, acquiring a formidable arsenal including chemical weapons in pursuit of its wild ambitions to conquer Japan.
The results were the deadly Sarin nerve gas attacks of 1994 and 1995 that killed 19 people and injured thousands.
In contrast to the West, the Japanese tendency toward group behaviour and the need for the social approval of others make it more difficult to isolate cult activity.
“I don’t think Japanese as people are more vulnerable to cults but maybe social conditions in Japan are making them so,” said Nishida.
Nishida added that the social emphasis on scientific thinking and development in highly industrialized countries like Japan tends to limit the place of religion, noting that for Japanese religious practice did not necessarily define their personal or social philosophy or behavior.
“Japan does not have the broad-based religious foundation provided by Christianity, or even Buddhism, but has a non-religious spiritual system based on ancestor worship,” Nishida said, referring to the practice of Shintoism, Japans indigenous belief system.
Sadao Asami, a retired professor of theology, said this worked to the advantage of cults. Asami heads a group helping families extricate their relatives from cults.
“The basis of the Japanese belief system remains very primitive,” Asami said, adding that the increasing emphasis on religious freedom and personal privacy in Japan and other developed countries has also worked to the benefit of cults.
He said the Unification Church, Aum, and self-proclaimed Buddhist psychic healers had exploited the Japanese desire to calm the spirits of their ancestors, as a tool to raise funds for their organizations.
Yamaguchi and other lawyers have appealed to the government to adopt guidelines set by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and designed to help assess what kind of cult behaviour, religious or otherwise, can harm people.
“It’s not their teachings or beliefs but rather their activities that matter,” Yamaguchi said.
While countries such as France have outlawed cults outright, Japan has been reluctant to crack down on them for fear of impinging on religious freedom.
Experts and anti-cult activists in Japan are not optimistic about the future.
“Has our society learned any lesson from the experience with Aum? The only change stemming from the Aum incidents is that police powers to investigate cults have been expanded,” Yamaguchi said.
But the mental agony of individuals in society would continue to nourish the growth of cults, he said.
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