Japanese Religion and Secularism: the Third and Fourth Stages (Part 3 of 7)

Graduation Thesis on the Aum Affiar: Part 3 of 7

This is part 3 of 7 for my graduation thesis on the “Aum Affair” in Japan – a biological attack on the public by a Japanese “New New Religion.” This will explain the third and fourth stages of Japanese religion.

  • 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.

This is part two 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. 

The Third Stage (1945 – 1995)

The third stage, from 1945 – 1995, was a stage of careful reconsideration of religious tolerance and freedoms. Arguably much more secular than the previous two stages, the third period was marked by an overwhelming public disinterest and distrust of religious life. The new Japanese Constitution demanded religious freedom to all citizens, regardless of their faith. The Agency for Cultural Affairs in Japan writes that Articles 19, 20, and 21 of the 1946 Japanese constitution states: “freedom of faith [is] guaranteed in the constitution and must be respected in all phases of government. Therefore, no provision in this law shall be constructed as restricting any individual, group, or organization from disseminating teachings, observing ceremonies and functions, or conducting other religious acts on the basis of said guaranteed freedom.” (Affairs, 1972).

Following Japan’s surrender in WWII in 1945, Shintoism was classified as a religion, rather than a culture, and lost all previous government funding and support. As terms for surrender, the emperor was forced to renounce his divinity and his role as a living god for the Japanese people. Traditional, native religions became the perfect scapegoat for citizens frustrated with the deleterious effects of nationalism and its aftermath (Carter, 2012). Both Shintoism and Buddhism continued to suffer as rural youth migrated from the countryside into urban centers.  Unlike Christian churches, mainly located in centralized city locations, Shinto and Buddhist temples were in rural Japan, far away from civilization. These temples had existed for centuries, with complicated rituals revolving round the seasons and kami; it was impossible and unrealistic to try to move the temples into urban areas (Watanabe, 2005).

This period also saw an emergence of New-New Religions. Similar to New Religions, New-New Religions (also known as 新新宗教, or Shin-Shin Shukyou) were religions that combined the popular elements of Christianity, Shintoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions to forge a unique “cocktail” religion that adapted to life in the city (Earhart H. B., 1998). Just like New Religions, New-New Religions catered to young Japanese adults who lived in the city and away from the family home or village. They took the cultural elements popular in history, such as a yearly pilgrimage on New Year’s Day to a shrine and reincarnation, and combined it with modern religious elements such as eternal salvation, a higher purpose, and an interactive faith. However, unlike New Religions, New-New Religions were comparatively pessimistic and “world rejecting.”  People were powerless to change their destiny and belief in spirit world was malicious and vengeful. As a result many practitioners chose to live highly isolated from the rest of society. Furthermore, New-New Religions required extreme levels of commitment and as a religious organization were unwilling to involve themselves publically in civil society (Hardacre H. , 2003). They applied to young urbanities because they offered a critical perspective on the flaws of Japanese society. New-New Religions were specifically designed to fully utilize the talents of their membership body, which was refreshing and invigorating for young, wealthy men whose life track had been set by their own parents at birth.

During the third stage, these New Religions and New-New Religions were occasionally slandered in the press but, for the most part, they were allowed to peacefully exist and recruit new members. The heterogeneous coexistence and tolerance famous in the third stage was artificial; both the media and the government actively tried not to seem religiously intolerant, especially in foreign eyes. The media was frightened to call New-New Religions “cults” in the event that it was classified as “hate speech.” (Gardner, 2005). The new Japanese constitution was founded on American, secular values and was worded strongly to protect religious minorities. Due to their relative youth as a secular nation, the media and the government was overly sensitive when it came to criticizing religions. One of the more popular New-New Religions was the Aum Shinrikyo. The terrorist activities by the Aum in 1995 will be discussed in detail, but for now, it is important to note that just like WWII, the “Aum Affair” was responsible for bringing about a new stage in Japanese religious history.

Although minority religions were protected under the new Japanese constitution, they still floundered under public disinterest. Simply put, the average Japanese citizen was not interested in investing their limited time, money, and energy into an organized religion (Earhart H. B., 1998). Consider Sakakiba, a Buddhist monk who inherited his temple from his father. Sakakiba claims that “the Buddhist ideals of human life have been forgotten” as less and less people are interested in participating in organized religion. In the past, temples received substantial finances and gifts from the families who were members of the congregation. However, as more and more young people and families migrated from the village to the city in search of opportunity, temples have lost a majority of their funding and members. Sakakiba’s temple was a Buddhist temple that never received government funding; state-sponsored Shinto shrines and temples have suffered even more financially. Sakakiba claims temples receive over 80% of their funding from birth and death ceremonies, as opposed to private donations, training disciples, or selling charms. Furthermore, because of the high cost of living and decreasing revenue, nearly one third of Buddhist monks must moonlight to make ends meet, further cutting down on the time for religious study (Gardner, 2005).

Sakakiba describes his father’s practice of reading the sutras every morning, perform lengthy prayers before each meal, and hold several one-hour services every day. Sakakiba, on the other hand, reads the sutras once a week and only does a single, thirty-five minute ceremony each day. “I’m a bad priest,” he tells visitors. Sakakiba rarely finds elements of Buddhism he can apply to his own life. Instead, his passion lies in his “moonlit” part-time job as a professor of economics at a nearby university. Sakakiba watched the Buddhist temple lose followers under his father’s strict regimen and further lose followers under his own disengaged practice and ritual life. When asked why religion has begun to falter after World War II, Sakakiba claims “young people cannot find good ideas relevant to Japanese Buddhism.” (Gardner, 2005) Buddhism was no less compatible with modern society than Christianity, Islam, or Shintoism. In fact, it seems that all religions were suffering equally in this third stage. Comparatively speaking, New Religions and New-New Religions were more “successful” than older, established religions, yet despite the fact their membership was increasing, New Religions and New-New Religions only encompassed roughly 2% of religious people (Choy, 1995).

This third historical period was arguably the most secular era of Japanese history, even if the secularism was highly regulated and carefully regulated. There was a distinct, constitutional separation between church and state, a public disinterest in religion in response to being steered wrongly by wartime nationalism and fanaticism, and an overwhelmingly tolerant situation for minor religions, whatever their size and types of legal or illegal activities.

Third stage
Separation of Church and State Yes
Public Disinterest in Religion  Mostly (people seemed to be uninterested, rather than afraid)
Tolerant of Minor Religions Yes
Levels of Secularism: About 80%


The Fourth Stage (1995 – Present)

The fourth stage of Japanese religious history began in 1995 in the wake of the “Aum Affair” and continues on to the present. On March 20, 1995, five separate containers of Sarin gas were released by key members of the New-New Religion Aum Shinrikyo during morning rush hour on subway trains in downtown Tokyo. The carnage was chilling: thirteen people were killed and over 5,000 were hospitalized. It mirrored an event one year prior, where eight people were killed and several hundred hospitalized by Sarin gas on trains in Matsumoto (Gardner, 2005). In the latter case, the husband of one of the sarin victims was arrested and convicted of releasing the gas; he was acquitted of all charges after the second attack (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). This religious act of domestic terrorism was the first of its kind in Japan and later investigations of the Aum revealed biological and chemical weapons stockpiles including, but not limited to anthrax and Ebola cultures, weapons, explosives, and a Russian military helicopter inside the Aum headquarters at the base of Mt. Fuji. An investigation began and hundreds of Aum members were arrested (Hardacre H. , 2003). Two months later, a burning bag of hydrogen cyanide was discovered in a bathroom stall in Shinjuku station, the largest train station in Japan. Aum Shinrikyo was responsible for all three events and had projected a casualty rate of 20,000 people, had the last bag completed burning (Hardacre H. A., 2008) .

The leader of Aum Shinrikyo was sentenced to death by hanging, the group was stripped of its legal status as a religious body, membership was outlawed, and the organization was heavily scrutinized and demonized by the media. However, the media did not just crucify Aum Shinrikyo and the actions taken by its members, they also claimed that all religions were potentially dangerous and could breed more cults that could conduct domestic terrorism (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). Although it has been nearly twenty years since the last attack by Aum, the public air of distrust and fear toward organized religion remains.

The contemporary period is similar to the third stage, but with a greater intolerance and fear toward all religions. While Articles 20, 89, and 94 in the Japanese Constitution protect the rights of religious bodies to freely meet, assemble, and worship, the 1996 “Aum Laws” and revisions to the Religious Corporations Law (RCL) passed by the Japanese government in the wake of the “Aum Affair” require religious bodies to file detailed tax reports, membership information, and prohibit proselytizing in public (Hardacre H. , 2003) (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). In the fourth stage, the Japanese government has dealt with the dilemma of how to protect the public from religion without interfering with the right of organization. One of the key differences in the third and fourth stages also happens to be that modern Japan is less tolerant toward minor religions, especially New Religions and New-New Religions.

The “Aum Affair” shook Japanese society to the core, causing a reevaluation of laws and policies governing the rights and administration of religious groups in Japan. Gone were the secular ideas established in the 1945 constitution that the right to practice religiously was a fundamental human right and existed to better Japanese society. Instead, it was replaced by the general consensus that minor religion can be dangerous if people become too invested. This, coupled with the fact that young adults living in isolated, cramped, urban apartments were out of touch with the nature surrounding Shinto and Buddhist rituals, meant that youth increasingly saw little or no practical purpose in religion (McConell, 1999). Without the presence of rural Shinto rituals and kami worship that existed in the countryside for centuries, modern cosmopolitan life drained the life of religious traditions that people used to rely on for their spiritual sustenance. Comparing the third and fourth stages shows that 21st century Japan is more secular than the decades preceding it, with or without the “Aum Affair.”

Fourth stage
Separation of Church and State Yes
Public Disinterest in Religion Yes
Tolerant of Minor Religions Mostly
Levels of Secularism About 80%


While the “Aum Affair” certainly played a part in the current shape of public views toward religion, the American imposed separation of church and state through the post-World War II Japanese constitution and the steady migration of youth from rural to urban locations set the foundations for modern Japanese secularism today.


Works Cited:

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

Choy, Khoon Lee. (1995). Japan: Between Myth and Reality. World Scientific Pub Co Inc.

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

Gardner, A Richard. (2005). Collective Memory, National Identity: Victims and Victimizers in Japan. 著: BadaraccoHClaire, Quoting God (ページ: 153 – 172). Waco: Baylor University Press.

Hardacre A, Helen. (2008). Aum Shinrikyô and the Japanese Media: The Pied Piper Meets the Lamb of God. History of Religions, 171 – 204.

Hardacre, Helen. (2003). After Aum: Religion and Civil Society in Japan. 著: SchwartsFrank, PharrSusan, The State of Civil Society in Japan (ページ: 135 – 154). Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

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

McConell, Robert John. (1999). The ambiguity about death in Japan: an ethical implication for organ procurement. Journal of Medical Ethics, 322 – 324.

Watanabe, Theresa. (2005). Religious Contradiction and the Japanese Soul. 著: BadaraccoHClaire, Quoting God (ページ: 173 – 181). Waco: Baylor Univeristy Press.




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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

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  1. The "Aum Affair" - Religious terrorism in Japan (Part 5 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  2. Japanese Religion and Secularism: the First and Second Stages (Part 2 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  3. Aum Shinrikyo and Japanese Secularism: Introduction to Modern Japanese Religion (Part 1 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo
  4. How other Religions reacted to the “Aum Affair” (Part 6 of 7) | Texan in Tokyo

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