New religions in the land of the rising sun


CELEBRITY GODS: New Religions, Media, and Authority in Occupied Japan, by Benjamin Dorman. University of Hawai’i Press, 2012, 296 pp., $42.00 (hardcover)

To those from societies where religion permeates everything from public speeches to private life, the Japanese often appear remarkably free of its influence, becoming Shintoists at weddings, Buddhists at funerals and little of anything in between. But as Benjamin Dorman notes in his fascinating, if occasionally frustrating, study “Celebrity Gods: New Religions, Media and Authority in Occupied Japan,” Japan’s “new religions” (shinshukyo) have had an impact on the national media and consciousness at times far out of proportion to their numbers of believers.

Since the Meiji Era (1868-1912), with its massive social and cultural upheavals, dozens of “new religions” have arisen to fill the needs of those alienated from Japan’s established faiths, though their founders have often borrowed freely from them.

Dorman focuses on two — Jiu and Tensho Kotai Jingu Kyo — that achieved notoriety in the chaotic early postwar years, when the occupying Americans were allowing all sects, new and old, to flourish and, in the case of the dodgier ones, prey on the credulous, all in the name of religious freedom.

Meanwhile, the government bureaucrats who had previously supervised religions wanted desperately to win back a measure of control in the name of preserving order. The media organizations, which had once served these bureaucrats as watchdogs — or lapdogs — were openly contemptuous of Jiu and Tensho Kotai Jingu Kyo, derisively labeling the charismatic women who led them as “celebrity gods.”

Jikoson (nee Nagako Nagaoka) of Jiu ruled her small band of followers through divine oracles, while calling for a renewal of Japan and, by extension, the world, under the leadership of the emperor (who would presumably receive his marching orders from her). Cloistered from the public eye, Jikoson might have remained yet another in the long procession of obscure postwar religious cranks if her teachings had not been taken up by go master Go Seigen and sumo grand champion Futabayama.

When the latter physically defended Jikosan from a police raid of her Kanazawa headquarters in January of 1947 (a photo of him grappling with an arresting officer is thoughtfully included in the book), the media uproar was enormous and the resulting fallout, which included Futabayama’s hasty departure from the group, was fatally damaging to Jiu.

Sayo Kitamura, the feisty farmer’s wife who became the leader of Tensho Kotai Jingu Kyo, proved to be a savvier manipulator of the authorities and the media, though she repeatedly clashed with both, as well as with representatives of established religions, which she derided as empty vessels.

Though tirelessly denouncing what she called the “maggot world” in her sermons, Kitamura had a magnetic personality that attracted the very “maggots” she was attacking, bolstered by her claims to faith healing powers, as well as by the singing and dancing featured in her services.

Not everyone was charmed, however, particularly the powerful journalist and commentator Seicho Oya who labeled Kitamura a “barbarous peasant woman” and found it “ridiculous that rational people in the current democratic age” would follow her. Kitamura later jousted with him in public debate — and won his grudging respect. But once the media tired of her antics, she and her group faded back into obscurity.

Dorman’s retelling of Jikoson and Kitamura’s stories, as well as his analysis of their relationship to the media, public and occupation-era authorities, is mercifully free of academic jargon, if not repetitiousness and disorganization. The aforementioned Kanazawa incident, for example, is referred to over and over before finally being related in full nearly half way through the text. An editor with a better sense of drama would have made it the opening chapter.

Also, the book might have benefitted from a more detailed explanation of other new religions that arose in the same era and after, including some with far larger followings than Jiu or Tensho Kotai Jingu Kyo. One exception is Aum Shinrikyo, whose murderous attacks on Tokyo subway commuters in 1995 made it the most notorious new religion of all.

Within the parameters he has set himself, however, Dorman has not only brilliantly illuminated a fascinating era in Japanese religious history, but carefully elucidated the fraught, if symbiotic, relationship between the new religions and the media. His book is an important contribution to the already large shelf of scholarly studies about postwar Japan as well as one of the few the general reader can actually enjoy.