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Special to The Japan Times It has been more than four years since key members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect carried out sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. With its principal facilities closed and its guru and his cohorts arrested, the cult has received a crushing blow. Reports say, however, that its subsidiaries racked up more than 7 billion yen in computer sales in fiscal 1998 and that the cult itself still has 2,100 followers and 40 strongholds.

The doomsday cult, which set alarm bells ringing across the nation after the gassing incident, seemed to have all but died.

Why is it regaining lost ground? How is it that many defectors have returned to its fold and many new followers have joined it?

The “religious deprivation theory” holds that the gap between the images and the realities of society prompt people to join religious sects. In fact, people pray to benevolent gods in times of trouble to close that gap. This creates close interactions between religious groups and their adherents.

Religious sects, their shrines and temples, try to secure followers by offering a variety of wordly benefits, such as healing diseases, curing addictions, passing examinations, easy childbirth, business prosperity, good marriages, etc.

Followers place enormous expectations in their religious group. Ishikiri Shrine in Higashi Osaka City is known for its “boil-curing god,” who is said to cure cancer as well. Followers walk around the shrine a hundred times offering a prayer each time. Another shrine attracts people who pray for the benefit of sudden death. People have an intrinsic desire to rid themselves of pain and anguish.

Interactions between religions and followers are closely intertwined with social conditions. In the early 1980s, Houzanji Temple in Ikoma City, Nara Prefecture — which is widely known for its boil-curing deity (who is a remaker and healer of bad habits and evil deed like drinking or drug use) — drew many young women trying to break the habit of drug abuse or gambling. That reflected a social aspect of Osaka in that period: the widespread use of stimulants among youths.

In present-day Japan, children are struggling to stay ahead in the examination race. Mothers are tired. Many graduates cannot find jobs. Middle-aged and older company employees lead stressful lives amid the constant fear of unemployment. In January this year, major temples and shrines across the country attracted 88.11 million visitors — the second largest turnout since 1973.

The practice of praying for wordly benefits, such as healing diseases, is seen worldwide. It is routine in Asian countries. However, religions have a deeper meaning in that they can save people from the anxiety of human existence and from an inner sense of guilt.

There are such great religious traditions in Japan, as in other parts of the world. And there are great religious leaders who embody such traditions, though their number is small. In a society dominated by populist tendencies, however, the established religions seem to be losing their influence.

With these religions failing to meet people’s spiritual needs, it is not difficult to understand how cult groups such as Aum Shinrikyo captivate the minds of many young people. It is wrong to think that the Japanese are not religious.

The 16th-century religious reformer John Calvin said man has a “seed of religion.” Indeed, man has an inherent tendency to rely on something divine — a religious tendency that transcends time and space. It seems to be tied inseparably to the benefits that only religion can bring.

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