The Roots of the Contemporary Image of Japanese Cults

Noboru Sakai, Tamagawa University [About | Email]

Volume 17, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 2 in 2017). First published in ejcjs on 27 August 2017.


The social issue of cults has been receiving growing recognition in this borderless world as a result of mass communication. Japanese people have been shocked to hear of tragedies caused by so-called “cult fundamentalists,” which sometimes leads to further prejudice against people in different cultures. This may cause unfavourable attitudes and behaviors on both sides in the future, and it will be necessary to understand what drives such actions. To discuss this point, as Japanese people seem still to have a strong image of the cults in the later 1990s to early 2000s, several case studies will examine how these were shocking to Japanese people and society.

Keywords: Japanese cults, Aum Supreme Truth, the unification church, Pana wave laboratory.

1. Introduction

Cults have been a central issue in Japan, and the news broadcast worldwide of terrorist attacks by “religious fundamentalists” has produced frightening images of cults or even of those who practice a religion in today’s Japan and/or elsewhere. Some may have or show prejudiced attitudes toward “others” who look similar to members of a dangerous cult. To look back over this tendency in Japanese attitudes towards cults, this paper reviews the history of cults from the late 1990s to the early 2000s in Japan which have caused critical social damage in Japanese society that informs the core image of cults’ organisation among Japanese people today, in particular, Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth). The discussion of these organisations will lead to a deeper understanding of how Japanese citizens consciously or even unconsciously perceive such groups.

In 1995, a group of people released sarin gas on the subway trains in Tokyo, and as a result 12 people died and many other victims were physically or mentally damaged. The criminals in this incident were members of Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth), a religious group regarded as a cult in Japan (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2004). This incident is called the “Tokyo subway sarin attack,” well-known worldwide. Later, the criminals were arrested, and then were tried and sentenced (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2004; Takada, 2000). During the trial, the senior members who carried out or commanded the sarin attack were given the death sentence (Takada, 2000), and finally, the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, Matsumoto Chizuo, the so-called Asahara Shoko, also received the death penalty (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2004).

Represented by the Aum affair, some religious cult groups have caused problems in society (Swanzon, 2002), and many people have become familiar with the terms cult and mind control because these words were continuously broadcast by the mass media (Sakurai, 2002). Cult groups became a serious issue in Japanese society because of their blindness towards society and the specific methods they used to reinforce the relationship between members and the group. Cults affect society and threaten many people with direct contact and even indirectly through their image of fear.

2. Cults’ blindness and “brain washing” techniques

Cult members become blind towards society to achieve their objectives. The cults’ doctrines and leaders share the typical characteristic that members are led blind. The definition of a cult is:

A cult is a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control… designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community (West and Langone, as cited by American Family Foundation, n.d.).

In general, in Japan, the word cult is used for any new religious movement which may cause problems or looks dangerous (Swanson, 2002).

Cults have several characteristics. First, cult members believe the cult is the only form of justice or truth. They do not admit the existence of other religions and regard other religions as evil (Morehead, n.d.). Therefore, members demand purity (American Family Foundation, n.d.), and many cults believe they are superior to others (Cult Information Centre, n.d.; Ross, n.d.). As for their doctrine, in many cases, they selectively re-translate or claim all or part of the Bible or other original teachings, or combine parts of several religious teachings (Watters, 1986). In addition, cults tend to isolate themselves from society (American Family Foundation, n.d.), and they tend to keep the group as a secret organisation (Hochman, 1990)

Leaders of cults have extremely strong authority in the group. In a cult group, the leader is treated as a god, or as the only person who can understand and/or convey the teachings of God (Ross, n.d.; Watters, 1986). Under these conditions, the words of the leader are regarded as completely correct, and all members follow his or her teachings (Ross, n.d.). No one can question the leader’s words (American Family Foundation, n.d.).

Moreover, cults use specific methods to strengthen relationships between members and the group. At first contact, since members are depressed because of their mistakes in society such as losing their jobs, bankruptcy, and divorces, they take part in the cult in order to heal their painful emotions, to make friends and foster human relationships, and to overcome their weakness. Cults actually demand these requirements (Morehead, n.d.; Watters, 1995). Next, after new members take part in the group, cults try to separate members from society. Members are involved in spending too much time on their tasks and they are deprived of time to think about other things (Watters, 1986). Then, members are separated from their family and friends, and they are forced to give up their previous careers so that members are isolated from society (Cult Information Centre, n.d.; Ross, n.d.). In the group, none of the members has privacy, and their actions are observed by the higher authority (Hassan, n.d.). They also do not have freedom (Watters, 1986). At the same time, cults educate members only in their community, and members became more and more dependent on the group (Watters, 1995). If members are deeply connected to the cult, it is difficult to leave the group because of fear or guilt arising from the cult’s empowerment (Ross, n.d.).

3. Cults around 2000 and their impact on Japanese society

The social impact of cults affects the lives of many citizens. There are several famous cult groups in Japan. In general, many of the activities of these cults frighten citizens (Sakurai, 2002; Swanzon, 2002). Compared to the United States, the number of cults in Japan is not so large; however, several cults cause problems, sometimes committing crimes, so many people are worried about them (Sakurai, 2002).1

Some years ago, the Unification Church appeared in Japan. After two Japanese celebrities took part in a mass wedding, its existence was widely broadcast throughout Japan (Havens, 1992). The Unification Church is regarded as a cult because of its strange activities, especially its spiritual merchandising (Inoue, 1992). Spiritual merchandising is a type of fraud. A seller tries to sell an ordinary thing for an enormous price by using spiritual fear such as the curses of an ancestor or ghost. Some victims paid several million yen for a piece of junk (National Network of Lawyers Against the Spiritual Sales, n.d.). However, the word “cults” was not yet common in Japan, and the widespread use of this term did not appear until after the antisocial problems caused by Aum Supreme Truth in 1995.

Following the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, the Pana Wave Laboratory cult group drew considerable media attention as a result of the problems they caused in the early 21st century. The group members wore white shirts because they worried about electromagnetic waves from space, and they believed the earth would end (Curtin, 2003). One day a convoy from this group appeared on television moving their community to a different location, and the mass media then followed the group’s situation continually. The police also placed this group under surveillance. During that time, residents were fearful. Fortunately, no serious incidents occurred (Cult Education Institute, n.d.). By this time, Japanese people were fairly accustomed to the term “cults” and this shows how Aum Supreme Truth informs the fundamental image of cults in Japan.

Aum Shinrikyo

Lastly, but not least, Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) is the most famous, the most shocking cult in Japan. Since Aum carried out several critical crimes, many people are still concerned about this group. Aum was established by Asahara Shoko (Matsumoto Chizuo) in 1987, as a successor organisation of “Aum Shinzen no Kai” originally established as a Yoga school around 1984 (Public security intelligence agency, n.d.). This paper will not examine their dogma closely, but putting it simply, the leader Asahara, who claims possession of supernatural power, and Aum’s assertions of the interchangeability of the universe had a visceral fascination for a certain number of people, including those who had reached a high academic standard in the natural science fields.

There were several major incidents. The Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995 is well known. In addition, in 1994, they used sarin gas in Matsumoto, and seven people were killed. Moreover, in 1989, a member of Aum Shinrikyo killed the family of Mr. Sakamoto because he was a lawyer who prosecuted the actions of Aum Shinrikyo. In addition to these incidents, Aum Shinrikyo engaged in violence, homicides, and abductions. Therefore, the negative impact of Aum Shinrikyo is tremendous, and many victims still suffer from physical and/or mental damage from Aum affairs (Religion News Blog, 2004; Senate Government Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, 1995).

During the trial, one of the top leaders of Aum, Joyu Hirofumi, declared his religious independence from Asahara and founded “Aleph” (written in Katakana formally) in 2000 (Public security intelligence agency, n.d.). Aleph declared that they had already disposed of the evil teachings of Asahara; however, residents near their community worried about their actions (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2004). At the same time, such a denial of Asahara also caused a controversy within the successor organisation Aleph, and Joyu in the end broke with those who respected Asahara’s teachings. In 2007, he left Aleph and founded “The Circle of Rainbow Light,” and the Aleph members from the original Aum Shinrikyo aim to go back to the roots of Asahara’s teachings more strongly (changing their Katakana name of Aleph into English Aleph). These organisations have remained active until the present time (Public security intelligence agency, n.d.).

At the same time, today, most citizens seem not to have a strong interest in current details of those organisations or have even forgotten past incidents; however, the successor organisations including branches (such as The Circle of Rainbow Light) have been regarded with great caution by the Public Security Intelligence Agency and their safety has been recognised as quite doubtful.

In short, the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995 was a crucial moment, which people consciously or even unconsciously use as a reference when looking at actual cults or even similar-looking organisations which are not actually dangerous or are even quite seriously dedicated to human society, which leads to further unfair actions against those groups even if such attitudes may be irrational.

4. Conclusion

Cults became a serious problem in Japanese society; the members of a cult tend blindly to follow the leader and his doctrines. The leader of a cult is treated as a god or some similar supernatural being, and the doctrines of cults are very rejecting of society. Moreover, cults educate members not to leave, and they separate their members from society. Furthermore, cults cause many problems in society, and several cult groups have been accused over incidents. Aum Supreme Truth is, for example, a deciding factor in how people recognise cults, even though the incidents they caused are two decades past. It is necessary to avoid future tragedy, but at the same time, people should understand the fundamental image of such organisations and refrain from thinking of newer organisations which respect religious and/or similar philosophical thoughts in the same way.


I would like to extend my thanks to Emeritus Professor Nanette Gottlieb, the University of Queensland, for proofreading this work.


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British Broadcasting Corporation., 2004, Death penalty for Japan cult guru. Online, available: [Accessed 21 September 2016]

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[1] Speaking of cults, one religious group which has received keen attention in Japan is Soka Gakkai. Regardless of its reputation since the end of World War II (both positive and negative), Soka Gakkai began to be called a cult by some people after the Tokyo subway sarin attack and the clear appearance of Aum Supreme Truth, so at least Soka Gakkai itself is not the root image of cults in Japan independently, though it may also, even partly, be the case that the early stage of Soka Gakkai gave some sort of conceptual image of a cult. For more information on the organisation, refer to Soka Gakkai’s official site ( and their world organisation of Soka Gakkai International, ( and/or their regional branch organisations (e.g., Soka Gakkai International Australia: The discussions on Soka Gakkai and its respected worldwide organisations, and in particular on the president Ikeda Daisaku, are still in a stage of quite hot argumentation (the pros and cons in extreme senses), and further consideration by each researcher is recommended for further understanding of some part of the Japanese mind. However, to discuss this is not part of the scope of this paper.

About the Author

Noboru Sakai is an adjunct lecturer at the Center for English as a Lingua Franca, Tamagawa University, Japan. He holds a PhD (Language studies) from the University of Queensland, an MA (Applied Linguistics) from the University of Queensland, and BS (Information systems) from Soka University, Japan. His research interest is communication in society from a holistic view, including its related multidisciplinary research fields. He in particular studies computer mediated communication (particularly among young people) based on sociolinguistic perspectives. He also researches in applied linguistics, emphasising computer assisted language learning and Japanese translation.

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