Aum reflects Japanese society in miniature

In a way, it was inevitable that so many Aum Shinrikyo followers were graduates of elite universities, and, in particular, had degrees in the natural sciences.

One of the reasons I say “inevitable” is that people with superior reasoning ability are all the more prone to see the limits of reason itself. This is something akin to a doctor’s understanding of the limits of medicine because he or she sees human suffering all the time.

When those bright young Aum zealots realized no amount of knowledge was ever going to make life easier in this world, they set out on their quest for a simpler path that would help them lead others to happiness.

Were this the 1960s, such young people might have found their calling in political activism. But that was not the case. Nor did any of the established religions provide an answer.

In the past, new religions were a powerful magnet for those who were desperate to escape dire poverty, sickness or any other hardships in life. In the case of Aum followers, however, their hunger was spiritual, not physical.

It is not unheard-of for members of a doomsday cult to commit mass suicide, convinced of the utter worthlessness of their present lives. Aum, on the other hand, turned to murder.

Some intellectuals argue that Aum’s doctrine and its sins ought to be discussed separately. I disagree because they are inseparable. My understanding is that there was something inherently anti-social and criminal in the doctrine preached by founder Chizuo Matsumoto.

The more “pious” the disciple, the more determined he or she was to live up to the guru’s message-that to bring salvation to this world, Aum should even work evil.

The second reason why Aum attracted exceptionally intelligent young people was that they were too smart not to notice the disturbing changes taking place in society.

In the wake of the collapse of the “bubble” economy, there came a spate of corporate downsizing, major bankruptcies and megabank mergers in the mid-1990s. The times were ominously reminiscent of the early years of the Showa Era (1926-1989), marked by a great financial panic, rampant unemployment, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the assassination of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in May of the following year.

The three “principles,” or systems, that supported pre-World War II Japan-the emperor system, state Shintoism and the military-were denounced after the war as the triple causes that drove the nation to self-ruin.

Since then, however, I believe many Japanese have kept wondering, if only subconsciously, whether those three things were completely evil in themselves.

Fifty years after Japan’s defeat, Matsumoto declared himself the reincarnation of the Hindu god Siva. Establishing himself as the godhead of this monotheistic “religion” of his own making, he went ahead and armed it.

There is a close parallel between the process by which Aum became a homicidal entity and how Japan marched inexorably toward war. And both developments, I believe, foreshadowed the way Japan is now.

In that sense, Aum was something that emerged from a crack in the era, a monstrous caricature or scaled-down version of Japanese society.

Precisely because Aum followers were determined to ride out the transitional period and participate directly in the changes that were about to take place, they believed in the Apocalypse their guru prophesied.

It also helped those cultists that Matsumoto was able to guide them step-by-step through their training.

Knowledge can be acquired from books, but books don’t provide any practical advice on how to improve oneself through training. It is only through various physical training sessions that one comes to understand one’s own weaknesses or limitations and begins to see things from a new perspective.

This process is basic to any religious training, but going through it must have been a new and refreshing experience for those former students of the natural sciences. And for this particular generation of people who were raised to gauge their own worth by test scores, the Aum system of promotion by merit worked perfectly.

A cult can go only either of two directions-adjust and coexist with society at large, or accept itself as a heretical entity and turn its back on society.

The “Satian” buildings that formed the Aum compound at the foot of Mount Fuji were symbolic of the extremely precarious footing on which this particular cult stood at the time.

* * *

Keiji Ueshima, a religious anthropologist, was born in 1947. He completed a graduate program at the University of Tokyo, and taught at Kansai University, where he was professor of religious anthropology until 2002.

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The Asahi Shimbun, Japan
Mar. 23, 2004 Opinion
Keiji Ueshima

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday March 23, 2004.
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