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New Religions in Japan PDF Print E-mail

James Lewis
World University of America

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Tokyo, Japan May 23-25, 1998

Last May, I visited Japan for about three weeks to gather facts on the state of religious freedom. I eventually wrote up a proposal for a conference or a book on religious persecution in this country. I left that with some friends here, went back to the States and didn’t think anything would ever come of it. When I was invited to this conference a few weeks ago, I called some of my friends in Japan. As they were giving me updated information, they said, “Oh, by the way, we published your report.” I was very surprised. In that report I expressed myself very bluntly, so I know I stepped on some people’s toes. What I am going to try today is to summarize some parts of that report as well as talk about what has happened since its writing.

When this conference began, I intended to sit through the meetings to see what topics were covered about religious persecution in Japan. Then whatever was left over that people didn’t cover, I was going to try to discuss. I have found, however, that with a few exceptions almost all of the points that I thought were really important were ignored.

I would like to request ahead of time that you please forgive me for expressing myself bluntly. Three years ago, when I first came to this country, someone told me that the Japanese are very accommodating toward Americans who break social conventions. So I hope you will excuse me for breaking with the tradition of being very polite, as I am going to be blunt.

In this conference, I have learned a lot about Japanese religious history and a lot about issues having to do with the Shinto shrines. But until this panel, no one was talking about the event that I think really stimulated this conference to come into being and that has really caused there to be a crisis in Japanese society with respect to religious liberty. That is the Aum Shinrikyo incident.

I think that in every society there are certain forces that work to promote religious liberty and certain other forces that work against it. Even though one side may be strong at any given time, in the long run they tend to balance each other out, so that while we might not have all the religious liberties we would like, at the same time, there is a major threat against them. The Aum Shinrikyo incident caused a national trauma. It was not just the subway attack. It was also the news coverage. The media kept covering the incident over and over again for months. I can remember. I was in Japan in May 1995 and, outside the Tokyo headquarters of Aum, about a hundred people were always gathered around outside like they were waiting for something to happen.

Within a few months, the ruling coalition, particularly the Liberal Democratic Party, decided that it would take advantage of this incident as other panelists have mentioned, to try to trash their political rivals, especially the New Frontier Party. Even though it is not an organ of Soka Gakai, New Frontier is indirectly supported by it and has many Soka Gakai members. I would like to read a few statements made by LDP officials that will give you a better sense of how this was being deployed at the time.

At a press conference on September 3, 1995, Koichi Kato, the LDP secretary-general, asserted,

Religion is based on principles taught by a single founder. Because of this essential nature it is irreconcilable with parliamentary democracy.

Such a statement reflects either an abysmal ignorance of the history of democracy or a cynical deployment of rhetoric without concern for accuracy. Later, in March 1996, Kato told the Los Angeles Times

that we will not stop our campaign until we get Ikeda [the retired president of Soka Gakai] to testify in Parliament. He wants to control our country.

Again, they were playing on the anti-religious atmosphere created by the Aum incident.

On October 22, 1995, the LDP public relations officer bluntly came out and said in a televised statement, “The purpose of revising the Religious Corporations Law is to take measures against Soka Gakai.” The LDP’s readiness to exploit fears generated by the Aum incident was also reflected in the title of a negative campaign flyer it distributed entitled: “An Emergency Report-More Dangerous than Aum-Soka Gakai and New Frontier Party’s Clothing.” On October 2, 1996, Mr. Kamei, speaking on behalf of an LDP candidate, said,

There are only two religious groups trying to control the nation. One is Aum Shinrikyo and the other is Soka Gakai. Aum used sarin gas and automatic rifles. Soka Gakai tries to control politics using elections.

This is cutthroat politics at its worst.

Then there was the Religion Basic Law. There have been a whole series of legislative efforts to control religion that were really directed toward undermining the political clout of Soka Gakai. Let’s look at the Religion Basic Law, which made everyone so upset and was so widely opposed that it was not passed. But just the mere attempt to pass such a law is mind-blowing. The law began by presuming to define religion as “an internal affair of individuals,” a definition that gives wide scope for restricting any kind of organized religious activity. The law would have forbidden religious groups from striking back at critics, particularly the press. They would not have been able to boycott newspapers, for example. If you did not like what a newspaper said against your religion, and you said, “Let’s boycott it,” you would have been violating the law.

One of the really crazy provisions of the law was that it forbade religious groups from attempting to

solicit the initiated with groundless explanations. In particular, those pertaining to an individual’s destiny, happiness or unhappiness in the future.

Needless to say, such activities characterize all religions. Furthermore, the law asserted that,

If the solicited person refused membership, then the religious organization is forbidden from further contact with the intention of soliciting that individual.

In other words, suppose someone came up and tried to convert you or say something to you about their religion and you said “No thanks, leave me alone.” If they then came back and tried to say something else to you, not only could that individual be thrown into jail but the whole religion that he represented would have been guilty of breaking the law. That someone seriously proposed such a law indicates the extent to which Japan is moving in the direction of curtailing religious freedom.

When I came to Japan a year ago, I was looking at events at the national level of politics as well as at events closer to the grassroots. When the ruling coalition began to attack religion, it gave other people with a vested interest in attacking religious groups a signal that they could attack religion without the national government interfering. I think this is a reason that deprogramming activities were stepped up. That’s also when spiritual sales began to become a big issue.

Connected with both these issues are radical lawyers, many of whom are members of the Japan Communist Party (JCP). The oddest thing I discovered was that they were in an alliance with the United Christian Churches of Japan (UCCJ), the group that sponsors most deprogramming.

The Unification Church, in particular, is a target of this deprogramming. There are several reasons for this. One is that the Unification Church takes a strong anticommunist line and the UCCJ is allied with communist lawyers. Second, to orthodox Christians, the Unification Church represents heresy. And third, Japanese society in general looks down on the Unification Church for many different reasons. I won’t go into all of them, but one is that it is Korean-based, and the Japanese have a certain prejudice against Koreans. But the national government and the police allow deprogramming to go on. They turn a blind eye to it and say that it is just a family affair.

When I was in Japan a year ago I spoke to victims of deprogramming. It is different here than it is in the United States. For one thing, in Japan, when they kidnap somebody, they won’t keep them just for weeks or months. They will keep them for years, until they have finally broken their faith. There are some churches that convert people to a more orthodox brand of Christianity. I understood that there are entire churches in Japan that are composed of deprogrammed ex-members of the Unification Church. I find this situation intolerable, and I am very surprised that the people at this conference don’t speak out and say “Let’s do something about this. Let’s get a little bit more concrete here and talk a little less about theory and a little bit more about doing something.” I hope one of the results of this conference is that people will become more aware of what is going on and attack it.

The spiritual sales issue I will just briefly touch on. In the United States many people will buy something like a mezuzah or a blessed cloth that is supposed to give you some spiritual benefit. In Japan there are similar practices. People are sold statues of the Buddha or something else and are told that, by purchasing this, they will receive a certain spiritual benefit. What these unprincipled lawyers are doing is saying, “Obviously you are getting no benefit from it because there is no such thing as anything spiritual. So let’s sue the religion making false claims.” In America, those kinds of lawsuits would be incomprehensible. Yet here people are leveling those lawsuits and winning. That issue needs to be directly addressed, criticized, and responded to. We ought to be up in arms about it. Let’s do something.