How the Moonies Conquered Japan

In his novel Confessions of a Mask, Japanese author Yukio Mishima has a character who describes his compatriots as living in a “reluctant masquerade”. It’s a good metaphor: Japanese life, though outwardly harmonious and benign, is still dictated by etiquette and custom, and on closer inspection can seem choreographed and veiled. But on occasion, the mask can slip; or, rarer still, to be torn away, revealing an inner darkness. It happened last week in Nara, when an assailant pulled a homemade shotgun from his bag and calmly assassinated Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in front of an astonished crowd.

The apparent motivation for the crime was quickly revealed: a grievance held by the assassin against the Abe dynasty for promoting a religious group, the Unification Church – better known as the “Moonies”. He alleged the group pressured his mother to make huge donations – around $1million – leaving the family “devastated”. Revulsion at the murder was quickly followed by intense curiosity as the spotlight shone on the murky relationship between Japan’s political class, particularly its perennial ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and what the are called new or arrived religions. or less politely, as sects.

Followers of the Unification Church would dispute the latter designation, but it is certainly a controversial organization with a history of illegality. Founder Sun Myung Moon, a close friend of Abe’s grandfather – former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi – served time for fraud in the United States, and the group’s fundraising activities in Japan, conducted under the alleged protection of the LDP, provoked a group of 300 lawyers to create an association to help people who claimed to have been coerced. It is alleged that Unification Church operatives scanned obituaries and then targeted mourners with emotional manipulation calls. The bereaved would be told that their recently deceased loved ones needed help to reach heaven, which could be arranged, in exchange for large and continuing bequests. In 2020, a Tokyo court ordered the church to repay $34,000 obtained through such methods.

Despite its occasional setbacks, the success of the Unification Church in Japan has been exceptional: it is believed to have raised 70% of its revenue in the country. But it is far from unique. Japan has proven to be fertile ground for a wide variety of pseudo (or new) religious groupings, and there are around 180,000 of them, or one for every 700 people in Japan. Many are harmless, but the most controversial are characterized, according to a study by Inoue Nobutakaby extreme levels of secrecy, erratic growth and coercive proselytizing.

This trend dates back to the 1860s, a time of great social upheaval when age-old rules and customs were quickly supplanted by a flood of new ideas and outside influences. The severing of the syncretic ties of Shintoism and Buddhism and the lifting of the 250-year-old ban on Christianity in 1873 created space for a proliferation of new religions. These were first persecuted by the right-wing militarists who ruled Japan, who subscribed to the official state religion of Shintoism. But after World War II, which ended the cult of the emperor and saw freedom of religion enshrined in the new constitution imposed by the United States, a spiritual vacuum emerged. As did, for the unscrupulous, a decidedly attractive tax-free business opportunity.

Customers, or converts, were not hard to find as post-war Japan struggled to rebuild. The cities were flooded with young people from the countryside, poor, lonely and often desperate. Migrants were not just looking for a job, but for spiritual support and a sense of belonging – the new religions offered both. In Tokyo especially, where the pace of life and stifling rules of etiquette made making friends a daunting challenge, the lure of welcoming new religions was palpable. (Even today, neighbors often don’t speak to each other, knowing a “hello” forces them to repeat the greeting forever.)

Among those that have flourished, some religions have sought power and security through politics. The most famous of these is Soka Gakkai, a form of Nichiren Buddhism based on the teachings of a 13th century priest. He now claims eight million followers in Japan and twelve million worldwide. It has its own political party, the Komeito, which through the rigid discipline of its members – who vote according to their instructions – has become a key player in Japanese politics, often as a coalition partner for hire.

Komeito has been allied with the ruling PLD since 1999 and is the current government’s junior coalition partner. Michael Cucek of Temple University in Tokyo calls Komeito “the most important and least understood part of Japanese politics”. He says the party is mostly run by women, with the most powerful part being its inner decision-making sanctuary, the fujimbu, or association of mothers and women. The political alliance is contentious within the LDP, but Cucek explains that, as 25% of the party’s district votes are supposed to be provided by the Komeito – in exchange, of course, for favors – the awkward embrace looks likely to last.

It is tempting to compare the relationship between the two parties to that which the senior politicians of the LDP once had with the yakuza — Japan’s Organized Crime Gangs — in the early 1960s. Kishi had a close relationship with mob boss Yoshio Kodama, whose help he called in from time to time to provide muscle. Whether the repairmen wear the sharp suits and Hawaiian shirts of gangsters, or the flowing robes of religious leaders, it matters little to the results: they get things done.

At the other end of the spectrum are doomsday cults, the most notorious of which was Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Matsumoto Chizuo, the half-blind son of a tatami mat maker. Aum promised psychic powers and salvation from an Armageddon forecast – a prospect with far more resonance in a country regularly hit by natural and man-made disasters. Aum relied on the charisma and boundless self-confidence of their leader: he persuaded his followers that he could fly and sold a panacea (actually an orange peel in water) for 7,000 $ per unit to encourage supporters to give up their assets.

The group offered a form of spiritual cleansing to those who had become disgusted with the moral rot and emptiness that seemed to characterize Japanese society in the 1970s, when Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei (known as Japan’s version of Richard Nixon) was embroiled in a corruption scandal. and tainted by the association with Yoshio Kodama and the 80s, when Japan’s bubble economy ushered in an era of decadence and greed. The sidekicks tended to be professionals, who were not only cynical about the decline of Japanese ethics, but had been numb into gullible fatalistic passivity by the banality of corporate life.

Aum was responsible for the world’s only WMD terrorist attack by a private organization when they released sarin gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people and injuring 6,000. The leader was executed, but surprisingly the group survives, having changed his name to Aleph and lowered his profile. It is rumored to have 1,600 members and recently made headlines for refusing to cooperate with government surveillance orders.

The subway attack has become Japan’s signature atrocity, the one everyone knows about. But this is not an isolated incident: in 1986, seven women, calling themselves the “wives of God” and members of the “Friends of the Truth Society”, set themselves on fire on a beach in Wakayama.

No one knows for sure how many Japanese are cult members today, but a figure of 10-20% has been estimated. The fundamental problem, an expert on Japan told me, is that “Japan has no real religion.” Traditional Buddhism is more of a philosophical belief and lifestyle and Shinto is primarily concerned with aesthetics, he explains. All of this leads the Japanese to yearn for a more structured and accessible transactional theology.

And once you recognize that desire, you see evidence of it everywhere. It is there in the mini-deities or spirits of yuru chara – mascot characters that represent everything from prefectures to businesses to household items. It’s there in teen-pop idols, barely allowed to exist as real people, revered by devotees who will buy special tickets to shake their hands, or just sit in their presence. It’s there, at exclusive neighborhood culture schools run by a revered “master” rewarded with discreet cash payments. And it’s there in the faux-religious rituals of tidying up guru and Netflix star Marie Kondo.

Japan is often asked about its turbulent history, with the various legacies of World War II and its consequences remaining a source of difficulty. But it is perhaps his unstable spirituality, which lurks in the Japanese psyche, leading vulnerable and lonely people down dark paths, that is the deeper and more troubling issue.

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