When it comes to cults, it is hard to compete with the United States: the country that gave the world the Branch Davidians, Heavens Gate, Jonestown, and the Manson Family, not to mention new religions such as Christian Science, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology. It stands to reason, considering the US was largely settled by religious zealots whose beliefs were considered too extreme or strange for European society (which in the 18th century, is saying an awful lot). But if any country can give the US a run for their money in the cult business, it is Japan, both in terms of sheer numbers, and strange and scary practices.
In recent academic discourse, the word “cult” has fallen out of vogue, partly because it escapes simple definition but also because it carries with it a certain stigma. Instead we will use the term “New Religious Movement” (hereafter NRM). Exactly what constitutes an NRM, and more importantly, what separates it from a religion, or even a sect or denomination, can come down to the number of believers, how the group is perceived by society, the nature of their beliefs, or even something as crude as how much money it makes. For the sake of simplicity, we will restrict our focus to only groups which meet all these criteria: a negative perception by society, a relatively low number of followers and strange or antisocial beliefs and practices.
This group is perhaps the most well known and reviled NRM in Japanese history, and incidentally the reason that there are so few public garbage cans in Japan (which certainly garnered my ire). Before I explain the reason behind that, let us back up to the beginning. Aum began innocently enough as a yoga circle which gained notoriety when it was reported that the leader, Shoko Asahara was able to levitate. He soon became a popular TV personality and later used this fame to run for political office. Until this point the yoga circle and Asahara himself were quite harmless, but when he lost the campaign and blamed it on various important people, he and his followers started to become more anti-social and subversive.
The short-lived fame of Asahara, brought the group to the attention of the Japanese public, including famed “anti-cult” lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had previously helped bring down the Unification Church, better known at the time as the “moonies.” Sakamoto began investigating the cult in order to bring a class action lawsuit on behalf of the victims, and this is where the story takes a violent turn. In 1989, members of Aum Shinri Kyo broke into Sakamoto’s home in Yokohama and killed him, his wife and his infant son by injecting them all with potassium chloride. The body of his wife was later found found in Toyama prefecture, Sakamoto was found in Niigata, and the body of his son was found in Nagano.
Several years later Aum came under attack again, this time under fraud charges brought by landowners in Matsumoto, Nagano. Just before the verdict was supposed to be released (and the Matsumoto branch likely evicted) several members released Sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, in a housing complex. The primary target was the judge handling the fraud case, however around 660 others were injured, and 8 were killed in the attack. This proved to be a sort of testing ground for the much more infamous, and even deadlier Tokyo subway Sarin gas attacks 9 months later. In March of 1995, members of Aum Shinri Kyo released sarin gas in the Chiyoda, Marunouchi and Hibiya subway lines, killing 12 and injuring 5,510 others. In connection to these attacks 189 members were indicted, and of those 13, including Asahara, were sentenced to death, while another 5 were sentenced to life imprisonment. In the resulting investigation plans were uncovered to murder celebrities such as Dave Spector, Mangaka like Kobayashi Yoshinori, and the leaders of both Souka Gakkai and the Institute of Research in Human Happiness
Another unexpected consequence was the removal of all public trash cans as they were seen as a potential security risk. So the next time you have to stuff sticky onigiri wrappers in your pocket because there is no trash bin, remember to thank Aum.
You might expect such an incident to be the end of Aum Shinri Kyo, but the NRM still exists today, re-branded under the name “Aleph” in 2000, with a second group called “Circle of Rainbow Light” which broke off in 2007.
In truth, this NRM is not so much dangerous as they are quirky, but nonetheless they gave the Japanese public quite a scare in the early aughts. At one point this group belonged to a more established NRM called Chino Shoho founded by Yuuko Chino in 1977, but the self-proclaimed “scientific faction” later broke away and dubbed themselves the Panawave Laboratory. For years the group was free of public scandal, but with the nation on high alert during the Aum proceedings, the quirky behavior with their ominous white vans, and all white clothing was all too reminiscent of early Aum activity. Claiming electromagnetic waves were causing catastrophic environmental damage, the group built strange looking housing complexes shaped like geodesic domes and wore white masks and head coverings. Things came to a head when several members were involoved in a televised conflict with police as they refused to move from a road in Gifu. The group explained that an undiscovered 10th planet would pass near the Earth causing the magnetic poles to switch, and they were looking for a place to avoid the resulting tsunamis and earthquakes. News reports showed members attempting to block TV cameras, claiming they emitted harmful waves.
While all of this seemed bizarre to TV audiences, their only real crime was the attempted kidnap of Tama-chan, a seal who was caught in the Tama river in 2003. The group believed returning it to Arctic would spare the apocalypse. Some animal rights groups have since sided with this cause, claiming that the Tama river was not a healthy place for the seal.
At first glance, this group seems typical of many new-age cults, even the name seems innocuous. Founded in 1995 by Higashi Junichiro, a sort of guru who claimed to be able heal people with prayers, Kaeda Juku taught that illness came from feelings of being unloved and resentment. By reciting secret prayers that had been revealed to Higashi, it was possible to cure any ailment without the use of modern medicine. It may seem that Kaeda Juku was more of a scam than a dangerous cult, but this story has a disturbing twist. In 2000, the mummified remains of two children were found in Miyazaki prefecture. The first was the body of a 6 year old who had been brought to Kaeda Juku with kidney failure in 1997. He died shortly after, but the body was locked in a room by Higashi, claiming it would be resurrected. The body remained in that room for two years, even though the house was used as a headquarters for the group, as well as housing about 20 members for that entire duration. When the body was finally recovered, police also found the body of a premature baby that had been born at the house in 1999, and died within a matter of days. Both Higashi and his chief accountant Akemi Togashi were sentenced to 7 years for criminal neglect.
This story of this NRM is not for the faint of heart. Life Space began as a series of seminars by Koji Takahashi, who claimed to have followed the Indian healer Sai Baba through 6,000 years of reincarnation, thus mastering his techniques. He began giving expensive seminars on self-enlightenment, and developed a large following. The larger and more devout his following became, the more liberties he began to take until finally he claimed that he had mastered Sai Baba’s healing technique of tapping his palm on the body of his patients, thereby transferring his energy into them and healing them. He attempted to demonstrate this technique on one of his followers. The perfect guinea pig presented himself quite by accident, when a follower in his late 60s named Shinichi Kobayashi slipped and hit his head in the shower, and was rushed to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage. Several days later, Takahashi convinced Kobayashi’s son to take him out of the hospital, against the doctor’s advisement, and take him to a Tokyo hotel room where the other followers could observe his healing technique first hand. In a later autopsy, it was determined that Kobayashi died shortly after the first attempt to heal him using Sai Baba’s Shakty pat technique. Nevertheless the body was kept in the hotel room for 4 months, constantly attended to by Takahashi and his followers. So certain of his technique was Kobayashi, that he actually asked the followers to record everything. By the end the followers had compiled a 5 volume tome complete with photographs of the decaying corpse. It seems absurd that his followers would continue to believe in his healing techniques after months of putrefaction and rot, but Takahashi explained away every sign of death to his followers. For example when followers reported that the patient had no pulse, he insisted that blood is not what keeps our bodies alive but air. When maggots were found in the corpse, he claimed that they were “ascetic tics” that were a sign of holiness in the Hindu faith.
Eventually the hotel management called the police to report of strange guests who refused to vacate their rooms. The police took away the rotting corpse as well as over 2,000 pages of meticulous notes and color photographs. In terms of evidence, it is hard to imagine a bigger slam dunk for the prosecution. Takahashi remained deluded until the end, claiming that the Kobayashi had been alive up until the autopsy. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison, which was later commuted to 7 years when the appellate judge determined that he had genuinely been trying to help. With healers like these, who needs enemies?
5. The Church of the Friends of the Truth (真里の友教会）
This group was officially designated as a Christian-based religious organization in 1952, but was essentially a cult of personality, and as such sort of bridges the gap between cult and religion. The founder, Miyamoto Shinji, a retired railroad operator, began publishing pamphlets proclaiming Jehovah as the one true God, the creator of the universe and the only path to salvation. In reality his church incorporated several Buddhist rites including Buddhist ceremonial robes and statues of the goddess Kannon-sama. Miyamoto gave impassioned sermons from his home in Wakayama, and part of his congregation actually lived communally with him and his family. Things didn’t start to get weird until after his death in 1989.
Immediately after his death, depending on which report you read, anywhere from 80 to 120 people gathered to hold a ceremony near his home. The next morning, the burned remains of 7 women were discovered, the result of self immolation. The bodies later turned out to be Miyamoto’s wife, mother-in-law and his adopted daughter. Several of the others were cousins or distant relatives of Miyamoto’s wife. The 5 unmarried women wrote a letter before their death, referring to themselves as the “Bride’s of God” and described their plans to follow their teacher into the afterlife. It was later reported that all 5 of these women had been attending the church regularly since childhood. In an ironic twist of fate, the funeral for the 7 women of the mass suicide was held together with Pastor Miyamoto, and they were given a traditional Buddhist funeral.
From Foot reading cults, to ascetic shinto communes, it is clear that Japan is a hotbed of NRM activity. Some credit this to the social pressures of modern Japanese society and the intense focus on group work in public schools which makes it easy for cults to prey on the disenfranchised and ostracized. Others contend that it is the lack of a singular dominant religion that plays the biggest role in the formation of so many fringe religious movements in Japan. Like any major social issue that pertains to Japan, there is no simple explanation. If anything, the abundance of cult activity only demonstrates what a diverse society Japan really is, and dispels the myth of a social homogeneity.