Japan Sects Offer Personal Path in Rudderless Society

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The head of Science of Happiness, Ryuho Okawa, says he is Buddha reborn, his wife was Florence Nightingale, and a Golden Age will begin in 2020.

Of his "revelations," at least one seems to echo the fears of many Japanese these days: Last year, Okawa warned that Aum Supreme Truth--the cult that many suspect killed 10 people last week by releasing poison gas in a Tokyo subway--was trying to destroy the nation.

"Before the release of gas, Aum forced people to quit their jobs, renounce the world and give up their money and assets. They were suspected of kidnaping and murder," said Yasuyuki Tetsuya, a Science of Happiness devotee. "Aum is evil, and we've been saying so for months."

Aum Supreme Truth, with its rituals that include drinking the guru's blood to ingest his DNA and wearing helmets with electrodes designed to stimulate the brain, is indeed extraordinary.

But its suspected role in last week's urban terror is causing people to take a closer look at Japan's new religions and the people who join them.

Science of Happiness is one of nearly 200,000 religious groups that have emerged in Japan this century to provide direction in an increasingly materialistic yet rudderless society. Their appeal has grown as the country's drawn-out recession, devastating earthquake and recent stock market fall spur people to seek control over what little they can--their personal lives.

Though some groups are more remarkable for their profiteering than their prophecies, they have garnered sizable followings with a savvy combination of charisma, marketing and evangelism.

The Science of Happiness headquarters looks more like a publishing company than the home of a modern-day Buddha and his 9 million followers. The entryway is lined with brightly covered books, including three on the current bestseller list, and a timely poster declaring, "The revival of Buddha can save you from Tokyo's crisis."

Followers insist that Science of Happiness should not be considered a new religion, since leader Okawa is the reincarnation of Buddha who is, after all, over 2,000 years old.

But founded just nine years ago, the fast-growing group has many hallmarks of Japan's new spiritual organizations: a tie to a traditional religion, a charismatic leader, promise of a more fulfilling life and a knack for business.

Two believers, looking for all the world like the white-collar workers they once were except for their large gold medallions with Okawa's initials dangling over their neckties, earnestly offer their testimonies.

"When I was young, I wanted many things," said Tsuchiya Tomoyoshi, who used to work for Nippon Life Insurance. "I wanted money, I wanted status, I wanted an affluent life. But as I went higher, rank by rank, I felt emptier and emptier. After I read 60 of our master's books, I finally understood why I was living." His smile is as bright as his gold medallion. "It changed my life completely."

New groups offering answers to the world's oldest question--What is the meaning of life?--have arisen along with Japan's radical social transformations. After World War II, offshoots of Buddhism and Shinto filled the spiritual void created when Japan's defeated emperor lost his divine status.

Now, once-controversial sects like Tenrikyo, Omotokyo and Soka Gakkai are entrenched and powerful; Soka Gakkai has strong ties to the Clean Government Party, which recently merged with other political forces to form Japan's third-largest party and claims millions of members around the world, including American entertainers Tina Turner and Suzanne Vega.

Most Japanese practice a combination of Buddhism and Shinto and consider themselves spiritual, but not actively religious.

Groups that emerged in the 1980s, during Japan's ascent to stunning prosperity, came to be known as the "new" new religions. They include Science of Happiness, Powerful Cosmo Mate and--though other groups are scrambling to distance themselves from the apocalyptic sect--Aum Supreme Truth.

These newer religions attract younger, better-educated supporters than their predecessors did. The postwar group concentrated on re-creating society after the wartime devastation; the newer religions are more individualistic and internally focused.

"When you're physically deprived, you can't focus on subconscious things. But since Japan has become materialistically satisfied, people have turned inward," social analyst Tadashi Moro said.

Filling the desire for a spiritual yardstick, the newer sects have taken on a pseudoscientific flavor: Recruits are given personality evaluations to identify how religious practice can improve their characters. Science of Happiness created an institute to research the meaning of life. Once, people heard the Word on a mountaintop or in a church--now they can receive lessons via the Internet or satellite TV.

Perhaps the most extreme sect--Aum Supreme Truth--is also the most high-tech. Aum's leader, Shoko Asahara, owns a chain of computer stores and recruits scientists from top universities to conduct experiments with his devotees in electronic and chemical brain stimulation.

Police are investigating whether the tons of chemicals at Aum's compounds were also used to make the deadly sarin nerve gas that killed 10 and injured more than 5,000 last week. The combination of science and faith is supposed to ensure survival if the world ends in 1997 as Asahara predicts.

Hiromi Shimada, an expert on new religions at Nihon Women's University, sees Aum's nihilism as a significant change.

"Before 1970, modernity meant something good. New religions had hope for civilization. They wanted to make something from society, to change the environment with their religious actions," he said. "But some of the new religions represent anxiety and denial of society. They don't hold much hope for the present situation."

Some of the new organizations may not be rich in spirit, but they make up for it in other ways. Incorporated religious entities enjoy tax-free status and special loan concessions. Every year, internal revenue officials throw out sheaves of forms from bars that declare themselves neighborhood shrines.

Soka Gakkai, one of the older new religions with 8 million disciples and representation in Parliament, encourages members to patronize other adherents' businesses.

"Some people aren't believers at all but just join because it's good for business," said a shop owner who didn't want her name--and real motives for joining--revealed.

Some Japanese corporations find that creating a little company spirit pays as well. Kazuo Wada, the chairman of a multibillion-dollar retail conglomerate, Yaohan International Group, is a disciple of Seicho No Ie, which teaches that positive thinking and lots of prayer lead to financial success.

Looking at Yaohan's bottom line would be enough to make believers out of most, but to make sure, Yaohan employees must complete three months of training in the group's philosophy.

Sects with one foot in the business world find that halos don't protect them from headaches. Science of Happiness has sued several detractors for libel.

And the battle of the sects rages on. Science of Happiness has published a book about Aum Supreme Truth's evil ways and Soka Gakkai's "dangerous mistake-filled ideas," though it says it is doing it out of love, not belligerence. Aum has accused Soka Gakkai of planting the chemicals to manufacture poison gas on its compound to destroy it.

Ironically, the group that has made one of the most accurate prophecies is Aum. Leader Asahara predicted there would be a major catastrophe. "It gives them a strange credibility," said one religion expert who asked that his name not be used. "It increases the anxiety about society that drives people into cults like theirs."

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