Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

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Since the March 20 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway lines, Japan has fallen into an Aum Shinrikyo "panic." Anxieties have abated somewhat since the arrest of Aum's founder Asahara Shoko on May 16, but Japanese television programs continue to be occupied with daily reports on incidents relating to the group. A growing perception has emerged to the effect that this string of incidents has come about as the result of the excessive leniency of Japan's laws dealing with religious groups. Participants in this debate can broadly be divided into two camps. On the one hand are those who argue that the problem is not the laws themselves, but their application. On the other hand are those who argue that the Religious Corporations Law should itself be revised.

But some of those arguing for revision of the law are contending on emotional grounds, without adequate familiarity with the contents or intent of the law. Others do so with the ulterior design of restricting the activities of other specific groups. In short, they feel "now is our chance."

On the other hand, a public opinion survey conducted by Yomiuri shinbun in mid-June revealed that the Japanese people's perception of religion has worsened sharply as a result of the Aum-related incidents. The proportion of respondents claiming belief in a religion has finally sunk to the 20% level, and the proportion who think that religion is necessary has likewise fallen sharply. It is clear that religious activities are being perceived much more harshly than before.

Not all the suspects in the sarin subway attack have yet been apprehended, and most of the "home-leavers" and lay followers of the religion continue to remain within the group, asserting that they are themselves victims of official oppression. Doubts are also being heard regarding the extent to which such followers can be provided with effective leadership by Joyu Fumihiro and others currently in the group's leading echelons.

Trials will likely begin in the fall for Asahara Shoko and several other indicted defendants, and many observers are wondering what kind of opening arguments will be presented by prosecutors and defending attorneys. It is certain, however, that a new phase of debate will be generated, no matter the strategies taken by prosecutors and defendants.

The incidents swirling around Aum Shinrikyo are indicative of the turning point currently being faced by Japanese society and religion. It is also bringing into focus the substantial perception gap which exists between the generations. Last but not least, it should have the effect of forcing academic researchers on religion to seriously consider a number of issues relating to their methods of study. In that context, the Japanese Association for the Study of Religion and Society (JASRS) is planning to hold a symposium on September 7 regarding the Aum Shinrikyo incidents and their implications.

-- Jul 1, 1995, INOUE Nobutaka

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:42

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