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Is Japan sinking further into ‘Aum-ification’?

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

The world — this insignificant little spinning rock we call home — is nearing its end. Armageddon lies ahead: violence, upheaval, horror. The normal human mind shrinks from the mere thought, but “higher consciousness” embraces it. Higher consciousness sees things in a wider perspective. Where you and I see only this world, higher consciousness sees the cosmos. What are death and destruction to it? Nothing; if anything, good — harbingers of a better, more just world to come.

The sentencing of former Aum Shinrikyo cultist Naoko Kikuchi last month for attempted murder brought all this back, for such, more or less, was the “philosophy” behind a series of Aum atrocities whose climax, permanently etched on the national consciousness, was the March 1995 sarin gassing of the Tokyo subway. Kikuchi’s 17 years on the run make quite a story — not our story, however; our story takes up a provocative suggestion posed by freelance journalist Minori Kitahara in the weekly Shukan Asahi. Has Japan, she wonders, become “Aum-ified”?

Kikuchi, implicated in Aum’s mail-bombing of Tokyo City Hall in June 1995, was arrested at last in June 2012. An odd feeling came over Kitahara as she followed Kikuchi’s Tokyo District Court trial and interviewed other former cultists. “Aum is more comprehensible to me now,” she writes, “than it was in 1995. Why? Because the Aum atmosphere as it emerged in court is remarkably similar to the atmosphere of Japanese society today.”

Her reasoning seems at times a bit murky, but the essential point to her is that the ultimate goal of Aum’s intensely rigorous religious training was, do not think for yourself; do not exercise your own judgment; surrender completely to the “higher consciousness” of cult guru Shoko Asahara (currently on Death Row). And they did — not only Kikuchi, a relatively minor player, but doctors, scientists, engineers, whose distinguished educations should have fortified them against the pseudo-religious nonsense spouted by Asahara.

Well, there’s no accounting for charisma, or for the inner void that makes us susceptible to it. Whatever charisma is, Asahara evidently had it. “I felt even then that the cult was committing crimes,” a former believer tells Kitahara. “I suppresed my doubts; I was in training to enter a higher world.”

Kitahara’s argument falters somewhat when she seeks to link the blank mental state of the Aum initiate to public acquiescence (by no means as unqualified as she implies) to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trashing of postwar constitutional pacifism in favor of a more activist, potentially belligerent international posture. The rather strained comparison hinges on the fact that war, like Aum’s terrorism, kills people. That’s true, but other countries have war powers without anyone suggesting their populations are Aum-ified.

To qualify as Aum-ification, the failure to think for ourselves or to exercise our independent judgment would have to go beyond mere thoughtlessness or ignorance. It would have to involve brainwashing, mind control. Can a case be made for the public at large being under such sinister influence?

It’s easy to think so, walking down a street among the smartphone-possessed hordes. You’re almost reminded of the electronic headgear Aum acolytes were made to wear so they could absorb Asahara’s brainwaves.

Better case in point: The Defense Ministry wouldn’t have co-opted pop star Haruka Shimazaki for its new Self-Defense Forces recruitment drive without a pretty shrewd perception that she’d have an impact. What does Shimazaki know about the SDF? She has never enlisted, and her work with the idol group AKB48 isn’t likely to leave her much time for research. Never mind — she’ a star, and when she smiles and points coyly to a backdrop reading “You and peace,” as the ministry had her do on its recent YouTube ad, it’s enough to make the SDF look pretty cool. That’s star power for you. What’s another word for star power? Charisma, of course.

But is there anything new here? Kitahara writes of Japan’s Aum-ification as a recent phenomenon. If you were in Japan in 1995 you may recall the name Fumihiro Joyu, Aum’s handsome, sexy young celebrity “spokesman.” Mere weeks after one of the most heinous crimes in criminal history, his genial appearances on network TV to “explain” the cult would send ratings soaring. His hardcore fans were proud to call themselves “Joyu girls.” If Japan is Aum-ified, it’s been so for a long time.

Not just Japan, of course. Recent revelations that Facebook, for a week in 2012, surreptitiously performed a psychological experiment on its users, subtly manipulating their newsfeeds to study how emotions work online, shows how exposed we all are to that kind of thing — and the absence of any subsequent mass exodus from Facebook suggests we may not mind very much.

A string of recent tragedies in Japan gives the impression of a whole new level of severance between the mind and what used to pass for reality. Traffic accidents are as old as traffic, and their meaning shouldn’t be stretched to make a point; still, the mowing down of eight pedestrians in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district in June by a driver apparently under the influence of quasi-legal dappō narcotics, followed three weeks later by the deaths of three women hit from behind while walking along a beach road in Otaru, Hokkaido, by a driver whose attention was allegedly riveted to his smartphone, would seem to hint at something more significant than mere carelessness. Aum-ification? Your call, reader.

  • otisdelevator

    Not the cult of Aum.

    It’s the cult of Self…

    Me, me, me, ME, ME!

    I’m the one who’s important here. I’m the special one here. No consequences for me! I have all the information I need, and 372 followers on Twitter. Now that’s charisma! I’m entitled to do whatever I want. What-Ever-I-want! Yes sir, people listen when I write. Therefore I must be the center of the universe.

    Take drugs and drive. Fine.
    Cut up a school-mate. I felt like doing it.
    Someone is texting me while I’m driving? No problem.
    Go all Mr. Stabby in a crowd of people? ok.
    Go for a walk in white-out snow conditions, against the better advice of the Chinese hotel manager? Bring it on!

    What? You’re a police officer? Umm… I have an excuse. I didn’t realise I was doing anything bad! I’ve done it before and it was ok. I guess I absorbed the brain waves from the Internet through my Google Glasses® . Yes, that’s it – someone on the Internet told me to do it.

    *[Please do not quote me as the "sombody on the Internet" who told you to do it. I am not suggesting you do any of the above! This whole post is simply illustrating my opinion.]

  • Jeffrey

    “Her reasoning seems at times a bit murky, but the essential point to her is that the ultimate goal of Aum’s intensely rigorous religious training was, do not think for yourself; do not exercise your own judgment; . . . ”

    So, how different is this than what is already seen as societal norms in Japan?