July 20, 2022

In his novel Confessions of a Mask, the Japanese author Yukio Mishima has a character describe his countrymen as living in a “reluctant masquerade”. It’s a good metaphor: Japanese life, while outwardly harmonious and benign, is still dictated by etiquette and custom, and can, on closer inspection, seem choreographed and veiled. But on occasion the mask can slip; or, rarer still, be ripped away, affording a glimpse of a darkness within. It happened last week in Nara, when an assailant drew a homemade shotgun from his bag, and calmly murdered Japan’s longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe before an astonished crowd.

The apparent motivation for the crime was quickly revealed: a grievance held by the assassin against the Abe dynasty for promoting a religious group, the Unification Church — better known as the “Moonies”. He alleged the group had pressured his mother into making huge donations — around $1 million — leaving the family “devastated”. Revulsion at the murder was quickly followed by intense curiosity as a spotlight was placed on the murky relationship between Japan’s political class, especially its eternal party of government the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and what are referred to as the new or upstart religions, or less politely, as cults.

Followers of the Unification Church would dispute the latter designation, but it is certainly a controversial organisation with a track record of illegality. The founder Sun Myung Moon, a close friend of Abe’s grandfather — the former PM Nobusuke Kishi — served time for fraud in the USA, and the group’s fundraising activities in Japan, conducted under the alleged protection of the LDP, provoked a group of 300 lawyers to set up an association to help people who claimed to have been coerced. It is alleged that agents of the Unification Church would scan the obituary columns, then target the grieving with emotionally manipulative appeals. The bereaved would be told that their recently deceased relatives needed assistance to reach heaven, which could be arranged, in return for sizeable and ongoing bequests. In 2020, a court in Tokyo ordered the church to repay $34,000 obtained through such methods.

Despite its occasional setbacks, the success of the Unification Church in Japan has been exceptional: it is believed to have raised 70% of its income in the country. But it is far from unique. Japan has proved to be fertile ground for a wide variety of pseudo (or nouveaux) religious groupings, and there are an estimated 180,000, or one for every 700 people in Japan. Many are innocuous, but the more controversial are characterised, according to a study by Inoue Nobutaka, by extreme levels of secrecy, erratic growth, and coercive proselytising.

This trend can be traced to the 1860s, a period of great social upheaval where centuries-old rules and customs were rapidly supplanted by a flood of new ideas and outside influences. The severing of the syncretic ties of Shinto and Buddhism and the lifting of the 250-year-old ban on Christianity in 1873 created space for a proliferation of new faiths. These were initially persecuted by the Right-wing militarists that ruled Japan, who subscribed to the official state religion of Shinto. But after the Second World War, which put an end to emperor worship and saw freedom of religion enshrined in the new US-imposed constitution, a spiritual vacuum emerged. As did, for the unscrupulous, a distinctly attractive tax-free business opportunity.

Customers, or converts, were not hard to find as post-war Japan struggled to rebuild. Cities were flooded with young people from the countryside, who were poor, lonely, and often desperate. The migrants sought not just employment, but spiritual succour and a sense of belonging — the new religions offered both. In Tokyo especially, where the pace of life and the stifling rules of etiquette made making friends a great challenge, the allure of the welcoming new religions was palpable. (Even today, neighbours often don’t speak to each other, knowing one “hello” obliges them to repeat the greeting forever.)

Of those that flourished, some religions sought power and security through politics. The most famous of these is Soka Gakkai, a form of Nichiren Buddhism based on the teachings of a 13th century priest. It now claims eight million followers in Japan and twelve million worldwide. It has its own political party, Komeito, which thanks to the rigid discipline of its members — who vote as they are instructed — has become a key player in Japanese politics, often as a coalition partner for hire.

Komeito has been in alliance with the ruling LDP since 1999 and is the junior coalition partner of the present government. Michael Cucek of Temple University in Tokyo calls Komeito “the most important and least understood part of Japanese politics”. He says that the party is essentially run by women, with the most powerful part being its decision-making inner sanctum the Fujimbu, or mothers and women’s association. The political alliance is controversial within the LDP, but Cucek explains that as 25% of the party’s district votes are believed to be supplied by Komeito — in return, naturally, for favours — the awkward embrace looks likely to endure.

It is tempting to compare the relationship between the two parties to that which the LDP’s senior politicians once maintained with the yakuza — Japan’s organised crime gangs — in the turbulent early Sixties. Kishi maintained a close relation with the mob boss Yoshio Kodama, whose assistance in supplying muscle he called on from time to time. Whether the fixers wear the sharp suits and Hawaiian shirts of the gangsters, or the flowing robes of religious leaders, makes little difference to the outcomes: they get things done.

At the other end of the spectrum are the apocalyptic cults, the most notorious of which was Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Matsumoto Chizuo, the half-blind son of a tatami mat maker. Aum promised psychic powers and salvation from a forecast Armageddon — a prospect with far more resonance in a country regularly struck by natural and man-made disasters. Aum drew on their leader’s charisma and unbounded self-belief: he persuaded followers he could fly and sold a panacea (actually orange peel in water) for $7,000 a shot to hoodwink followers into signing over their assets.

The group offered a form of spiritual cleansing for those who had become disgusted by the moral rot and emptiness that seemed to characterise Japanese society in the Seventies, when Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei (known as Japan’s version of Richard Nixon) was embroiled in a bribery scandal and tainted by association with Yoshio Kodama, and Eighties, when Japan’s bubble economy ushered in an era of decadence and greed. Acolytes tended to be professionals, who were not just cynical about the decline of Japanese ethics but had been numbed into a fatalistic credulous passivity by the banality of corporate life.

Aum was responsible for the world’s only WMD terrorist attack by a private organisation when they released sarin gas onto the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 and injuring 6000. The leader was executed, but astonishingly the group survives, having changed its name to Aleph and lowered its profile. It is rumored to have 1600 members and has been in the news recently for refusing to cooperate with government surveillance orders.

The subway attack has become Japan’s signature cult-inspired atrocity, the one everyone knows about. But it is not an isolated incident: in 1986, seven women, calling themselves the “brides of God” and members of the “Friends of the Truth Society”, immolated themselves on a beach in Wakayama.

No one knows for sure how many Japanese are cult members today, but a figure of 10-20% has been estimated. The fundamental problem, one Japan expert tells me, is that “Japan has no real religion”. Traditional Buddhism is more of a philosophical and lifestyle creed and Shinto is mainly concerned with aesthetics, he explains. All of which makes the Japanese yearn for a more structured, accessible, transactional theology.

And once you recognise this yearning, you see evidence of it everywhere. It’s there in the mini-deities or spirits of the yuru-chara — mascot characters that represent everything from prefectures to companies to household goods. It’s there in the teen-pop idols, scarcely allowed to exist as real people, worshipped by devotees who will buy special tickets to shake their hands, or just sit in their presence. It’s there in the exclusive neighbourhood culture schools led by a revered “master” rewarded with discrete cash payments. And it’s there in the faux-religious rituals of tidying guru and Netflix star, Marie Kondo.

Japan is often questioned over its unsettled history, with the various legacies of the Second World War and its aftermath still a source of difficulty. But perhaps it is its unsettled spirituality, which lurks in the Japanese psyche, leading vulnerable and lonely people down dark pathways, that is the deeper, and more troubling issue.