How other Religions reacted to the “Aum Affair” (Part 6 of 7)

Graduation Thesis on the Aum Affiar: Part 6 of 7

This is part 5 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 section will outline the “Aum Affair” and list the after-effects

  • 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. 

Religious Response to the “Aum Affair”

Religions all throughout Japan were affected by the “Aum Affair.” Despite the new freedoms granted to religions in the wake of forced secularism in 1945, the public opinion of religious practice in Japan was low. The “Aum Affair” further isolated religious life from an increasingly modern and urban society. Sensing this isolation, religions had one of three responses to the “Aum Affair.”

The first type of reaction was to quickly disassociate one’s own religion with that of the Aum. Some religions eagerly pointed out that the Aum Shinrikyo was not an authentic, “true religion.” They also used this opportunity to inform the public about the dangers of all “false religions.” The Sekai Kyuseikyo, a mildly popular New Religion, claimed that the attack was “a unique case involving a rather unique group. Their rites and everything are so strange, I’m not sure you could even call it a religion. A religious group is supposed to contribute to the enlightenment of society.” Their leader then pointed out that unlike the violent isolation of the Aum, Sekai Kyuseikyo was very involved in the betterment of Japanese society (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). This seemed to be the least damaging response to the “Aum Affair” but, oddly enough, was a position that was very rarely assumed by religions. Critics argue that the hesitance for religions to openly address the Aum and their perspectives further isolated religion from the public affairs.

The second response was to criticize not only the religion and its individual rituals and practices, but also the wider society around it that allowed these activities to develop (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). If this approach was taken, it was taken was exclusively taken by New-New Religions. The most common complaints were about the lack of communication between religions and society, the dangers of blind submission by members, the role of drug use in religious rituals and initiations, and questions concerning eschatological beliefs (Kazuhiro, 2001).

The third, and most common, reaction from religions was a refusal to take a side. The president of another New-New Religion claimed, “We cannot make any comment about the believers of another religion. Since the truth is not yet established, there is nothing that we can say. We haven’t talked with anybody associated with the Aum either.” The Japanese branch of Jehovah’s Witness and the Omotokyo, the New Religions which were discredited by a media scandal earlier that decade, similarly refused to comment. Perhaps since religions were used to being slandered by the media, they were unwilling to tear each other apart. In the early stages of the investigation, five of the twelve polled religions refused to make a comment as to how the “Aum Affair” would affect Japanese religion in the long-run (Kisala & Mullins, 2001) (Watanabe, 2005).

The Buddhist Monk Kazuhiro claims that religions have a hidden dimension. Since religions deal with the inner life of the heart and the spiritual, internal journey that characterizes the subjective experience, it is difficult for outsiders to understand precisely what is going on inside the religion. Up until this point, it seems as if the public has no desire to know the inner workings of the many New Religions and New-New Religions. Kazuhiro claims the society must demand religions to be ethical, otherwise problems like the “Aum Affair” can arise (Kazuhiro, 2001). However, as mentioned before, the most common reaction from Japanese religious groups was to try to forget the “Aum Affair” as quickly as possible. Many religions believed that the questions the “Aum Affair” presented about religion’s place in society, as well as whether religions could have a positive role in modern Japan, were best quietly forgotten and not directly addressed and debated (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). As valid as the fears of Japanese religious groups may have been, one has to wonder whether inaction was the best method for dealing with the “Aum Affair.” The refusal to sling mud at the already downed former religion of Aum only placed them other religions in Japan on the wrong side of the issue (Kazuhiro, 2001). If they were not against the Aum, they were for the Aum. After all, inaction itself was an action.

Long Term Effects of the “Aum Affair”

There were four long term effects of the “Aum Affair”:1) a political action by the government further restricting religions, 2) a social feeling of narrowly dodging an extremist religion’s terrorist activities, 3) a public idea that religion makes one delusional, 4) and an attitude that hating religion is popular. The first of these, the political action taken by government officials probably could have only occurred in the wake of the “Aum Affair.” Religions such as the Soka Gakkai, saw these laws as a “blatant opportunist attempt by the ruling coalition to exploit the Aum affair for political gain.” (LoBreglio, 1997) Very few were vocal about their objections, however, under the fear of being labeled pro-Aum. Of the four long term effects, governmental restrictions and taxation was only possible because of the public fear and mass hysteria in the months following the fallout. Without the “Aum Affair,” there would not be public support for such a controversial policy (Earhart, 1998).

The second long term effect of the “Aum Affair” was a feeling of narrowly dodging a metaphorical bullet. The 1995 sarin gas incident was more than a simple act of a religion acting out, it was an act of terror that shook modern Japanese society to the core and threatened the laissez faire idea surrounding religion. Five thousand individuals were hospitalized for sarin gas exposure and another potential 20,000 could have been killed by the undetonated hydrogen cyanide contraption (Yoshiyuki, 2001) (Gardner, 2005). What if instead of sarin gas, Aum members had released their stockpiled anthrax or Ebola cultures? What if they had put a shorter fuse on the hydrogen cyanide in Shinjuku station? The Japanese public was very aware of how narrowly they avoided serious bloodshed at the hands of a “cult” acting within its constitutional freedoms to organize and practice freely. Furthermore, if it happened once, what is to say it cannot happen again? While the second long term effect could have theoretically happened without the “Aum Affair,” the world is full of all sorts of religious war and terrorism and the fact that it was so close to home was and continues to be unsettling for the public (Yoshiyuki, 2001).

The third long-term effect was the idea that religion can make one delusional. Even after the “Aum Affair,” many Aum members kept their religion and continued to meet and rebuild Aum compounds. To this day, the Aum Shinrikyo religion, which officially changed its name to Aleph in 2001, still practices with a couple thousand members. It has been formally labeled as a terrorist organization by Canada, the United States, and the European Union, yet it still has followers and hold regular meetings thanks to private donations (Snow, 2003). The fact that members continue to practice a religion who’s founder and leader is on death row is frightening for the average Japanese person. It shows how “delusional” religious “cults” can be even after their practice and their activities were publically discredited.

The final long term effect is that in modern Japanese cosmopolitan society, hating a religion is popular. The “Aum Affair” put forth the idea that a very fine line divides a “proper” religion from a “cult” and, as a result, left religion on very thin ice. “I didn’t like religion,” writes a Japanese school teacher. “At the same time, I was wondering about religion. In this world… is religion necessary? I thought, like most people, that what is most needed in the world are such things as politics, economics, and authority of power. In this light, in this world, religion is not really good, necessary.” This was a very common belief for Japanese people in the post-Aum Affair world (Earhart H. B., 1998).


Works Cited:

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.

Kazuhiro, Mori. (2001). Fantasies and Illusions Run Rampant: Is Aum Shinrikyo Buddhism? 著: KisalaRobert, MullinsMark, Religion and Social Crisis in Japan (ページ: 113 – 119). Hampshire: Palgrave .

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

Lo Breglio, John. (1997). The Revisions to the Religious Corporations Law: An Introduction and Annotated Translation. Tokyo: ABC Clio Reference-book House.

Snow L, Robert. (2003). Deadly Cults: The Crimes of True Believers. Greenwood Publishing Group.

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

Yoshiyuki, Takizawa. (2001). Aum Shinrikyo is a Band of Criminals, not a Religion. 著: KisalaRobert, MullinsMark, Religon and Social Crisis in Japan (ページ: 124 – 133). Hampshire: Palgrave.




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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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