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After Aum, post-9/11 lull, weeklies rediscover faith

by Mark Schreiber

March 20 will mark the 19th anniversary of the toxic nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) doomsday cult. That attack, which shook Japanese society to its very foundations, resulted in 13 deaths and thousands of injuries. Thirteen high-ranking Aum members, including its founder, Chizuo Matsumoto (aka Shoko Asahara), currently await execution on death row for their crimes.

Aum’s name was back in the news recently. Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 13) reported that former members of the cult may have been planning a caper to spring three condemned members — Tomomasa Nakagawa, Yoshihiro Inoue and Yasuo Koike — from captivity while they were being driven between the Tokyo Detention House in Kosuge, Katsushika Ward, and the Tokyo District Court in Kasumigaseki to testify at the trial of their former cohort Makoto Hirata. Hirata, 48, turned himself in to the police on New Year’s Eve 2011 after 16 years on the lam. He has been implicated in several murders.

Nikkan Gendai cites a court reporter who says that penal institutions nationwide have been put on high alert for when the three men visit the court to testify. Special vehicles will be utilized, and the route taken to the court will be kept secret.

Such precautions are necessary because Aum is still in business. Now operating under the name Aleph, the cult has managed so far to evade attempts by the authorities to drive it out of existence. It continues to proselytize. Estimates of its current membership in Japan range between 1,000 and 2,000, down from around 15,000 it claimed at its peak in 1995.

In the immediate wake of the Aum debacle, the mass media initially targeted new-age religions for negative coverage. But in the years that followed, articles pertaining to religious practices in general came to be sharply curtailed. This trend received further impetus after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001.

The news blackout on religion may have also stemmed from a sense of media guilt over complicity. TV networks, in particular, came under sharp criticism for programs that promoted activities by mystics and seers — most of whom were eventually proved to be charlatans — or which gave credence to paranormal phenomena.

I was somewhat surprised, therefore, when two leading business weeklies ran cover stories on the subject of religion. First to appear was Shukan Economist, whose Oct. 22 issue offered an overview of “Religion and economics in 2013.”

Of particular interest was a one-page essay by religious scholar Hiro Sachiya, who suggested that the reason Japanese adhere to the work ethic is due to the influence of Shinto. (“Among Christians and Muslims, work is regarded as punishment from God; Buddhists disdain labor; but Shinto venerates it,” the article asserts.)

On the other hand, an article in the same issue by Dokkyo University professor Tadayuki Sato titled “Why are there so many rich Jews?” appeared shallow and derivative. While naming a few illustrious business successes, such as former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, Sato stated that Judaism has no tradition of genteel poverty, or at least did not until Jesus of Nazareth was born in a humble manger and later persuaded his first disciples to forsake wealth. I wonder how many Jews, who produced such thinkers as Maimonides, Spinoza and Martin Buber, would agree with such an assertion.

Nikkei Business (Dec. 16) featured 15 pages under the title “Zen and management,” with its cover featuring pencil sketches of late Apple founder Steve Jobs (a Zen devotee whose 1991 marriage was performed by Kobun Chino Otogawa, a priest of the Soto sect), Japan Airlines Chairman Kazuo Inamori and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Inamori (global.kyocera.com/inamori) is best known as the founder of Kyocera Corp. and the innovator behind the “Amoeba management” idea. His Zen credentials are beyond dispute, as he was ordained a priest in the Rinsai sect in 1997.

For insights into Inamori’s thinking, Nikkei Business ran a list of six tenets he espouses in his quest for spiritual purification: “1. Make endeavors that are second to no one; 2. Practice modesty and avoid self-indulgence; 3. Each day, embrace the spirit of self-reflection; 4. Be grateful that you are alive; 5. Accumulate meritorious and altruistic deeds; 6. Do not concern yourself with sensual matters.”

Zen and business need not be incompatible: To relax in a Zen lounge, the magazine recommends a visit to the Hotel New Otani in Akasaka or the Cerulean Tower Hotel in Shibuya — whose carpet pattern resembles the rake impressions of a Kyoto stone garden. Apple’s iPad tablet is also a very “Zen-like” product in its own right. Meanwhile those traveling on France’s rail network have the option of reserving “Zen seats,” where the use of cellphones and presence of young children are banned.

The monthly Cyzo, while not a business magazine, devoted its January issue to a whopping 64-page special covering a huge range of subjects related to religion in Japan, including tenets of the various denominations and its presence in politics and society. Among other things, it suggested that PM Abe maintains murky ties to Universal Peace Federation Japan, a Shinjuku-based organization affiliated with the Unification Church. Also of interest was an essay on the “strange relationship” that exists between Japan’s religions and publishing companies.