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Religion and social crisis in Japan : understanding Japanese society through the Aum affair

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Religion and Social Crisis in JapanThis collection of essays assembled by two leading Western scholars of religion in Japan provides an outline of Aum’s turn to violence (covered in an essay by Shimazono Susumu initially published in Japanese and translated by Kisala) and an analysis of how different agencies and interest groups within Japan responded to the affair. As the editors show, the affair produced a profound sense of crisis at all levels in Japan, from the questions that arose about the apparent failures of the police to detect that Aum was involved with a series of crimes that preceded the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, to the legal and political ramifications of the affair, to how hostile interest groups used the affair to attack other dissident religious groups, and to how religions in general responded to the initial shock of the subway attack. The article by Mark Mullins outlines the legal actions sought by the political establishment after the attack, including attempts to reform the laws governing the registration and state scrutiny of religion, and ways in which the state could monitor Aum after it had carried out its crimes. The complex issue of how to deal with a dangerous religious group while upholding the constitutional stance of observing the right of religious freedom and protection from state interference, has been a crucial issue for Japan (as for all liberal democracies) and Mullins outlines how the issue was handled after Aum – often in ways that led to reforms of laws governing all religions. Christopher Hughes examines the underlying issues related to the role of the police and security forces in Japan, and while he notes that there were clearly failures in policing that enabled Aum to act as it did, he also provides salutary historical reminders of how the police in pre-war Japan had been used as an effective arm of the fascistic state to control and suppress dissident religions. As a result there had been a recurrent fear in post-war Japan about the activities of the police – and a consequent reluctance by the police to intervene in the affairs of religions, a reluctance that led them to back off investigating Aum properly, for fear that this would be seen as a return to the dark pre-war past. After Aum however the situation has changed, and there has been far greater readiness for authorities to intervene, and Hughes raises particular concerns here about the emergence of Japan’s Public Security Agency, after the Aum Affair, as an arbiter and monitor of Aum’s activities, and sounds warnings about how security agencies can use the spectre of problematic religious groups to advance their own agendas.

In other articles Watanabe Manabu also shows how cases of social disturbance caused by religious groups can have problematic repercussions, by detailing how a virulent ‘anti-cult’ movement (with agendas that have led to hostile depictions of groups that have had no association with violence and to the possible rise of activities such as ‘deprogramming’) has arisen since the Aum Affair. Again, as with the Mullins and Hughes articles, this raises issues relevant to wider public agendas in the aftermath of acts of religious terrorism, in showing how the deeds of one specific group may have consequences for all religions, and how other authorities and interest groups with their own agendas (from security forces to those hostile to particular types of religion) can make use of such opportunities to limit the freedoms and standing of others.

The volume also includes articles by Maekawa Michiko showing how Aum members not directly involved in the violence were confronted by a crisis in their faith and how they sought to deal with having been devout members of a group that committed atrocities, and by Robert Kisala, who discusses the often anodyne and troubled way various Japanese religions responded to the violence. Matsudo Yukio also reports on some of the nationalist responses to the Aum Affair, emphasising how certain forms of nativist nationalism in Japan sought to portray Aum as a culmination of the problems arising in Japan as a result of its turn away from its cultural roots and its turn towards westernisation after 1945, and as such used it to advance their own nationalist agendas.

The book as a whole presents a clear picture of a society struggling to deal with a dramatic terrorist attack and by its realisation that the perpetrators were members of its own society – people whose beliefs made them innately hostile to normative society and its mores. It shows also the potential dangers that arise as a result of social, legal and political responses to such events, and about the dangers to liberty and democracy posed by those who take advantage of such turmoil to advance their own agendas.

Contributing authors and chapter titles:

  • Shimazono Susumu, ‘The evolution of Aum Shinrikyō as a religious movement
  • Christopher W. Hughes, ‘The reaction of the police and security authorities to Aum Shinrikyō
  • Mark R. Mullins, ‘The legal and political fallout of the ‘Aum Affair’
  • Watanabe Manabu, ‘Opposition to Aum and the rise of the ‘Anti-cult Movement’ in Japan
  • Robert J. Kisala, ‘Religious responses to the ‘Aum Affair
  • Richard A. Gardner, ‘Aum and the media: lost in the cosmos and the need to know
  • Matsudo Yukio, ‘Back to invented tradition: a nativist response to a national crisis
  • Maekawa Michiko, ‘When prophecy fails: the response of Aum members to the crisis


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