Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Secularism: Introduction to Modern Japanese Religion (Part 1 of 7)

The ways of the past shape the present.

Just as the holocaust cannot be understood without first examining nearly two thousand years of Christians seeing Christ a victim of Jews, Japanese religion cannot be understood without first examining the Japanese reaction to religion throughout history, religion’s role in Japanese imperialism, the “Aum Affair,” and the public reaction to this New-New Religion (Gardner, 2005).


This is part one in a seven-part essay on the Aum Affair in Japan. It was written (by me) in late November as my graduation thesis. I originally did not plan on “publishing” it – but I am on my honeymoon for the next six weeks and will not be able to blog while I am abroad. In the mean time, I broke the capstone graduation thesis into seven parts and scheduled them to publish while I was gone. This topic, Aum Shinrikyo, is relevant to me because:

1. My husband’s father was a prominent police officer during the affair and was in charge of raiding and arresting Aum members

2. I am a Christian who has spent copious amounts of time in Japan – as a student, teacher, and/or “living witness.” I was struck by both the non-religious and religious elements of Japan and wanted to explore why it was that way. 

This thesis is a sum of my experiences, backed up by literature. 

  • For the introduction (part 1), click here.
  • For an explanation of the first and second stages of Japanese religion (part 2), click here.
  • For an explanation of the third and fourth stages of Japanese religion (part 3), click here.
  • For a brief history on the “New Religious” group, Aum Shinrikyo (part 4), click here.
  • For a summary of the “Aum Affair” – a religious act of terrorism (part 5), click here.
  • For an explanation of how other religions in Japan reacted to the “Aum Affair” (part 6), click here.
  • For counterarguments and my conclusion (part 7), click here.


In case anyone is not familiar, the “Aum Affair” was an act of “religious terrorism” by the New-New Religion, Aum Shinrikyo, an invented Japanese religion that first emerged in 1987. In 1995, Sarin gas was released on several crowded trains in Tokyo, causing mass panic. With twelve dead and over 5,500 hospitalized, the following days were a media storm against the Aum. I will discuss more on the “Amm Affair” in later articles. 

For now, all you need to know is that the Aum was a New-New Religion. New-New Religions are religions that combine the popular elements of Christianity, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions to forge a unique cocktail religion that applies more to Japanese city life (Earhart H. B., 1998). New-New Religions cater to young Japanese adults who live in the city. They take the cultural elements popular in history, such as a yearly pilgrimage on New Year’s Day to a shrine and reincarnation, and combine it with modern religious elements such as eternal salvation, a higher purpose, and an interactive faith. However, compared to other religions, New-New Religions are comparatively pessimistic and “world rejecting.” They typically follow the idea that people are powerless to change their destiny, believe the spirit world was malicious and vengeful, and chose to live rather isolated from the rest of society. Later on, I will discuss why this caused friction between the Aum and the public.  (Hardacre H. , 2003).

According to the World Value’s Survey in 2000, Japan remains one of the most secular nations in the world (Welzel, 2011). Many find this surprising, citing Japanese Zen gardens and Shinto shrines that remain an integral part of Japanese society.  However, while Japan as a whole seems very religious, but individual people tend to be disinterested in religion (Affairs, 1972). Simply put, after the loss in World War II, attributed to Japanese nationalism and religious fanatics, religion “had no place in modern Japanese society.”

By the 1990s, that disinterest had turned to fear (keep in mind, this is before the “Aum Affair”). A 1990 survey of four thousand college students at Kokugakuin University, revealed 65.8% of those students found that the world “religion” itself scary (Gardner, 2005). According to a similar public survey, in 1990, a majority of the public also felt that religions only existed to make money by playing on people’s weakness. Furthermore, an overwhelming 86% of respondents claimed to have little or no trust in religious institutions, putting trust in religious institutions below political groups, social activist groups, and manufacturing companies (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). The 1995 “Aum Affair” took that fear and personified it, giving Japanese citizens a real and concrete example of the dangers of religious extremists.

In many ways, Japanese secularism is defined by the 1995 Sarin gas attack by the New-New Religion group, Aum Shinrikyo. However, it would be a mistake to assume Japanese secularism hinges on this attack because, with or without the “Aum Affair,” modern Japan would be headed towards secularism.

Modern Japanese Religion:

The most popular religions in Japan are traditional Japanese Shintoism, a variant of Chinese Buddhism called “Zen Buddhism,” Christianity, and the invented New Religions and New-New Religions that popped up in the wake of World War II (Reader, 1991).

The characteristics of New Religions and New-New Religions will be examined later in this paper. For now, one only has to remember that both New Religions and New-New Religions are “invented” religions with key differences (Earhart, 1998). Each is created by a charismatic leader who combines the scripture and dogma of several different religions, creating a cocktail that they believe applies to life. Since New Religions and New-New Religions are not the “pure” versions of the home religion, they are typically classified in a different bracket. In this case, the “invented” bracket.

Despite the apparent diversity in Japanese religion, the Japanese religious air is unique from any other country in the world. Many many experts call Japanese Zen Buddhism a “religionless religion” and claim Shintoism is not a religion at all, but rather a way of life that is slowly becoming obsolete in the modern era (Gardner, 2005). Japanese religion is not centered on a formal dogma or required rituals for believers. Becoming a “believer” is not difficult. Most of the time, all it takes for an individual to identify with the Shinto religion is a once-a-year pilgrimage to the shrine during New Years (Carter, 2012). For someone to be classified as Buddhist, one of their ancestors must have had a Buddhist death ceremony upon cremation (Affairs, 1972). Some temples and shrines have different rules – these are just the ones put through by recent texts.

Older, established religions in Japan operate under a lineage clause, such that membership to a temple is passed down by generation to generation, regardless of individual beliefs (Earhart, 1998). In a government survey in early 2004, 94% of 126 million surveyed individuals identified themselves as Shinto, 72% as Buddhist, and 87% as “both.” Furthermore, of the people surveyed who classified themselves as Shinto, Buddhist, or “both,” 81% did not attend weekly, or even monthly, religious services (Gardner, 2005).

Of the 2% of respondents that claimed to be Christian, upon closer examination of their religious values, 65% claim to truly believe less than 20% of the Christian doctrine – something that seemed to surprise both authors (Gardner, 2005) (郁夫, 2007). Furthermore, 70% of Japanese churches met inside a believer’s homes with an average attendance of less than 30 (Bureau of Democracy, 2007).  Personally, I have been to several of these “home churches” and absolutely love them – but the Bureau seems to deem those small churches as failures on the part of Christianity in Japan. To each their own.

If one can classify themselves as following a specific religion without regular attendance at a temple or house of worship, do Japanese religions offer their followers anything that actually meets their spiritual needs?
Works Cited
Bureau of Democracy, H. R. (2007, November 4). International Religious Freedom Report 2007. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from US Department of State:

Carter, R. (2012). Philosophy East and West. University of Hawai’i Press.

Earhart, H. B. (1998). Religions of Japan: Many Traditons Within One Sacred Way. Long Grove: HarperCollins Publishers.

Gardner, R. A. (2005). Collective Memory, National Identity: Victims and Victimizers in Japan. In C. H. Badaracco, Quoting God (pp. 153 – 172). Waco: Baylor University Press.

Kisala, R., & Mullins, M. (2001). Religion and Social Crisis in Japan: Understanding Japanese Society through the Aum Affair. Tokyo: Sophia University Press.

Reader, I. (1991). Religion in Contemporary Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Welzel, C. (2011). The Asian Values Thesis Revisited: Evidence from the World Values Surveys. Japanese Journal of Political Science , 1 – 12.

郁夫, 主. (2007, February 1). 日本の正教会の歴史と現代. Retrieved November 18, 2013, from 東京の大主教:




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About Grace Buchele Mineta

I got into the writing business by accident. Now I live in the countryside near Tokyo with my husband, Ryosuke, where I draw comics, blog, and make videos about our daily life. Contact: Website | More Posts

2 Comments on Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Secularism: Introduction to Modern Japanese Religion (Part 1 of 7)

  1. Grace, a timely moment to find your blog. I will follow your Aum posts with interest. I have to profess that my knowledge extends only to Haruki Murakami’s ‘Underground’ book – which fascinated me.

    • Great, glad to hear!
      I’ve heard wonderful things about Murakami’s book – and will check that out once I return from my trip. Thanks!

6 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Did the "Aum Affair" push Japan to Secularism? Conclusion: (Part 7 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  2. How other Religions reacted to the "Aum Affair" (Part 6 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  3. The "Aum Affair" - Religious terrorism in Japan (Part 5 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  4. The History of the "New Religion," Aum Shinrikyo (Part 4 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  5. Japanese Religion and Secularism: the Third and Fourth Stages (Part 3 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  6. Japanese Religion and Secularism: the First and Second Stages (Part 2 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo

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