Did the “Aum Affair” push Japan to Secularism? Conclusion: (Part 7 of 7)

Graduation Thesis on the Aum Affiar: Part 7 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. 


Of the possible counterarguments for the claim that Japan was destined for secularism, with or without the “Aum Affair,” two particular arguments stand out: the opinion that Japan has never been a religious country or, aside from the slight hiccup from cult-like behavior, Japan is slowly moving back to a state-wide religious mix of Buddhism and Shintoism.

The first of the two counterarguments suggests that Japan was never religious and the current levels of Japanese secularism do not necessarily prove Japan is moving toward secularism. In fact, Japan might be moving toward a more religious era. The instances of Japanese nationalism during World War II and the institutionalization of state Shintoism disprove this counterargument. While Japan might not always seemed secular to an ethnocentric, Western viewer, aside from the brief period between 1945 and 1995, Japan has never subscribed to the Western idea of organized religion. Japanese history lacks many of the experiences of classic religious persecution (aside from Christians leading up to World War II), a government-enforced religion, and “holy wars” common in most Western historical narratives (Carter, 2012). This all stems down to the idea that Asian values are different than Western values. One cannot assume Asian and Western religious values and ethics are identical any more than they can assume Asian and Western secularism is the same. While Japan may have never been religious from a Western perspective, its history was indelibly shaped by the practices and traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism (Kitagawa, 1987).

In a similar manner, the second counterargument, that aside from an exceptional period of religious tolerance and secularism after American occupation and again after the “Aum Affair” Japan is moving back toward a state-wide non-secular attitude where religion and tradition are treated as the same, is equally impossible. It is too narrow-minded to assume that once left unobserved, Japan will revert back to its historical traditions and possibly nationalism (Carter, 2012). Shintoism thrived in a Japanese militaristic and heavily nationalistic period that is nearly impossible to reproduce without a regression to fascism and isolation. Furthermore, even if there were a way to for Japan to return to her roots, it is doubtful people would be willing to forsake their current ways (Mullins, 1993).

Books about Japanese religion written after 1995 paint a very bleak picture for Japanese religion. They claim the “Aum Affair” was the final nail in the proverbial coffin of public religious practice and from the 21st century on, Japan will become more and more secular (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). Just as a paper that has once been crumpled can no longer return to its pristine condition, Japan can no longer return to the pre-“Aum Affair” religious ideas. Surprisingly enough, books written before the terrorist scare of 1995 also paint a similar picture supporting the idea that secularism is inevitable. Instead of pointing to a public distrust and fear of religion, these books point to the busy schedule of a salaryman, the disconnection between family members, the public view of religious wars around the world, and the non-confrontational nature that would make it difficult to prophesize one’s religion in Japan’s digital and industrial society.  In 1993 the scholar Mark Mullins predicted Japan would gradually become more secular (Mullins, 1993). His book written before the “Aum Affair” was eerily predictive of the course of religion in the near future ; the absence of religion was more practical than emotional. “Young people cannot find good ideas relevant to Japanese religion,” he claimed, explaining why few people put their faith in religion (Kisala & Mullins, 2001). If religion cannot not offer practical solutions to everyday life, the reasoning follows, it is simply not nonsensical to invest energy into these purposeless religions.


Aside from the fate of religion in Japan as a crumpled up piece of paper, can anything be done to reverse secularism? Perhaps Japan is not fated to secularism, and with certain crucial changes, it can move back toward a more positive religious environment. After all, most of the changes toward attitudes and the placement of Japanese religion occurred in the last century. Would a return to the roots send Japanese secularism packing?

The only change that could bring back religion would be a complete revision of society so that religion and its associated traditions and practices becomes a popular life choice. Modern Japanese society today has no place for religion, at least not entirely. The sixty hour salaryman workweek, excluding unpaid overtime, leaves little to no time to reflect on one’s life (Bryan, 2008). Even if workers had the time, most potential faithful practictioners live in isolated apartments deep in the city. They are out of touch both physically and mentally with the natural elements of native Shintoism, its connection to nature and rural, traditional life (Murakami, 1980).

Japan is a homogenous society with very strict social expectations and hierarchies. Many middle-class Japanese have a harrowing task with competitive college entrance examinations,  graduations, searching for full-time employment for life, get marrying, having children, retiring sixty-five years old, and to continue volunteering until they die. There is very little room for religion. In fact, some argue that this socially determined and ubiquitous definition of success is itself, a religion. As the famous Japanese proverb says, Deru kugi wa utareru, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” (Bryan, 2008) Very religious members of Japanese society are often hammered down by social pressures and the negative feelings surrounding religion. If religion is not actively helping members achieve these narrowly-defined definitions of ‘success,’ then it has no place to thrive in contemporary society.

In the last two centuries, two enormous setbacks in religious growth and maturations have been committed by religious groups in Japan. Japanese nationalism and the rise of militarism championed a state Shintoism with the emperor as the head of state, but its defeat in WWII brought incredible damage to society and Japan’s reputation abroad. The “Aum Affair” occurred in a period of Japanese history just before an immense deflationary spiral, following years of success and growth as an economic miracle story. These setbacks for religion and its role in society arose in different times and for different reasons, but in the public’s eye, the problem was the same: religion (Gardner, 2005). Furthermore, the extent most Japanese people experience religion outside of the yearly pilgrimages to family shrines is through missionaries on the street or door-to-door evangelicals. Reiko, a fifty three year old homemaker, speaks in great lengths of the frustrations she has suffered from Christian missionaries. “They knock on my door and invite themselves in. I think that is very rude. Then they want to talk to be about their god, to make me feel guilty and to give them money. To me, that is rude. I am happy with my life. I do not like missionaries. If I see it is a Christian, I will not open my front door.” Reiko’s concerns are not uncommon. Communities don’t have patience for religions that cannot provide solutions or satisfy desires that they experience in their daily life (Itoh, 2008).

Lastly, the homogeneity of Japan’s culture exerts strong pressure on conforming to certain expectations and roles. Success is measured materialistically, rather than internally, and operates as a normalizing force whereby all individuals feel the need for financial and material gain because everyone else is feeling the same force. One of the best representations of this phenomenon is the high rates of plastic surgery, expensive cosmetics for males and females alike, and the large market for brand-name goods. In the last two decades, Japan has faced a problem as teenage girls turn to prostitution and paid dates with older men in exchange for cash or luxury goods (Moffett, 1996). A quarter of the annual worldwide sales for Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags are sold to Japan, beating out any other single country (Alderman, 2011). Japan has the highest per capita skin care market in the world (Keisuke, 2012). The list goes on and on, and this only goes to show the how valuable social conformity is in Japan. Just like having a job, a marriage, and children, attaining physical beauty is a measurement of success. Chasing after beauty and materialistic goods itself is a modern-day religion.

There is no way to deny that modern Japanese secularism is strongly shaped by what the “Aum Affair” did to the public’s faith and opinions of religion. However, as mentioned before, secularism is much more than just a dislike for religion. Instead, it is a combination of a separation of church and state, a thriving religious minority, and a general disinterest in religion (Lifton, 2000). All three criteria were present in both pre- and post- “Aum Affair” Japan; certainly the “Aum Affair” decreased public religious interest, but it was not the main factor leading to modern secularism.

In some sense, Japan always has been secular. However, the amount and the expression of secularism has increased in the last century as young adults move from rural areas inhabited by their ancestors for generations, to a more urban and solitary lifestyle. The secularism Japan faces today is very different than the Japanese militarism secularism or the American imposed secularism of religious tolerance, but it is secularism nonetheless. From historical texts on the dangers of nationalism to hushed whispers about religious cults, religion is extraordinarily unpopular in Japan. Unless religious groups find a way to somehow make formal religion socially desirable, Japan will remain secular and increasingly cosmopolitan society.


Works Cited:

Alderman, Liz. (2011年March月25日). Less Appetite for Luxury. 参照日: 2013年November月11日, 参照先: The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/26/business/global/26luxury.html?pagewanted=all

Bryan, Stefhen. (2008). Black Passenger Yellow Cabs: Of Exile and Escess in Japan. Tokyo: Kimama Press.

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

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.

Itoh, Masako. (2008). I’m Married to your Company: Everyday Voices of Japanese Women. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Keisuke. (2012年November月16日). Ibuki Magazine: Asian Inspired. 参照日: 2013年April月30日, 参照先: Japanese Skincare Obsession: http://www.ibukimagazine.com/japanese-skincare-obsession/

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

Kitagawa M, Joseph. (1987). Understanding Japanese Religion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lifton Jay, Robert. (2000). Destroying the World to Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence, and the New Global Terrorism. New York: Macmillan Press.

Mullins R, Mark. (1993). Religion and Society in Modern Japan. Tokyo: Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture.

Murakami, Shigeyoshi. (1980). Japanese Religion in the Modern Century. Tokyo: University of Tokyo 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

4 Comments on Did the “Aum Affair” push Japan to Secularism? Conclusion: (Part 7 of 7)

  1. Thank you for sharing your essay about this topic! I really liked reading about it

  2. Hey Grace! I finished reading your paper. I found some interesting points that changed or perhaps informed my perspective on Aum and religion in Japan. I’d rather have a conversation about this than commenting back and forth. :D But I appreciate you posting this!

    • Awwww, thank you so much. That actually means a lot.
      I would love to Skype some time (just because that’s easier the commenting back and forth, right?)

      Actually, of all the posts I’ve done on my blog, all 7 posts are in the “bottom 10” by view-count. So it’s kind of nice to know someone appreciated reading them!

      • Glad to hear it! Based on the popular topics, I can see why, but they are personally important, I assume, so having at least a few pay attention would be nice, ne? Skype is a great idea! I had some questions while I was reading but forgot to write them down. I’ll take another look.

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