Responding to Value Relativism: Aum and New Age Movements in Japan

→2000年に南アフリカ・ダーバンで開催された国際宗教史宗教学会での発表原稿(Paper for the Panel: Urban Dwellers and Religions in Asia IAHR Congress Durban 2000)です。
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1. Turning Point of Japanese Religious Movements
Aum and the New Age Movements of Japan came to prosperity at the same time. By examining their historical and social backgrounds, I hope to point out how they both display a kind of value relativism.
First, I will explain the situation around 1990 when these two movements rose to prominence in the Japanese religious scene. Then I will trace the development of the Japanese New Age and “cults/sects” before Aum. Finally, I will discuss the value relativism in their backgrounds, introducing some narratives of New Agers and Aum members.
The second half of the 1980s in Japan saw the popularization of New Age Movements. These movements searched for mysticism and spirituality, away from the traditional religious institutions of Japan. Today, we find many books using the words “New Age” (usually called seishin-sekai in Japanese or “spiritual world”) near the religion or psychology section when we go to a large bookstore. They are arranged around topics, such as self-development, sacred texts of India and Tibet, UFOs, healing, occult, black magic, popular psychoanalysis and so on. In this way, we can see how the New Age has found a niche for itself in Japanese culture.
As mentioned, healing is one of the themes in the New Age Movements. When we search for the term “healing” in the database of the three major Japanese newspapers, we find the first four reports coming from late 1988. Reports about healing further increase after 1990. They became considerably conspicuous in the second half of 1994 and exceeded 100 in the next year. Therefore, it is clear that the New Age Movements in Japan became popular during the second half of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.
While the New Age Movements rose in popularity, the phenomenon called “cult/sect” also began to be found sporadically in Japan. The New Age Movements are kinds of religions which diffuse into the culture. On the other hand, a “cult/sect” assembles and regulates their members while directing beliefs and practices in a focused direction. Aum is a typical “cult/sect”.
It is not a coincidence that the New Age Movements and Aum as a “cult/sect” gained influence simultaneously in the late 1980s. Aum changed itself from a yoga circle to a religious group in 1986. As it was conscious of the New Age Movements, it ran a series of articles called “A Sermon on the Spiritual World (seishin sekai koza)” in its monthly magazine Mahayana established in 1987. Aum’s sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system influenced the aforementioned reports on “healing” which increased rapidly after the attack in 1995. Stories like “I joined Aum in a quest for healing” became common in newspaper reports at this time. Therefore I believe it is meaningful to treat and discuss together the New Age Movements and Aum.
2. The Japanese Roots of the New Age Movements and Aum
Although the New Age Movements became conspicuous in the 1980s, we can trace their roots to the 1970s. I will now look at how the New Age Movements have become popular today. I also feel that the expansion of the “cult/sect” phenomenon corresponds to these steps.
(1) Oil Crisis and the Decline of Student Power
In Japan, the tendency to give priority to economic activities was hit badly by the oil crisis of 1973. A new life style was born in Japan which valued “taking it easy” and being spiritually different from the life style of mass production and mass consumption which had been dominant. Student activism declined at this time. The value systems (for example Marxism) which unified the young generation faded from their consciousness, and their values became more diverse. The ideas and practices which are now assembled together as “New Age movements”, such as oriental religions, western mysticism, folk medicine, and transcendental experiences through drugs or meditation, were known to part of this young generation as a subculture or counter culture.
Japanese sociologists of religion have indicated that the rise of new religious movements were promoted by this subculture or counter culture. Mahikari (regarded as a sect in Europe), Agon-shu and the God Light Association (GLA), which had a strong influence on Aum, are examples of such religious groups. These groups were not called “cults/sects” but rather New New Religions (shin shin shukyo) in Japan in those days.
Furthermore, we can see strong criticism of the Unification Church (Moonies) at this time. Though we can find accusations about it from the end of the 1960s, they are only intermittent reports. In the late 1970s, however, a number of reports appeared which criticized members for running away from home or college, illegal propagation methods and unsavory political activities. The Unification Church had developed propagation on university campuses. Reports arose which were apprehensive of students developing a strong concern in religion while student power declined on campus.
(2) Bubble Economy and its Collapse
Japan experienced a bubble economy in the second half of the 1980s. Shirley MacLaine’s Out on a Limb was translated into Japanese in 1986. I consider this the beginning of the popularization of the New Age Movements in Japan. Many Japanese came to learn about the beliefs and practices of these movements characterized by channeling and the search for one’s self. Many Japanese revalued exercise (for example meditation, yoga, and various health methods), searching more for mental peace than material abundance as well as becoming interested in alternative culture. As stated previously, the first newspaper reports about a healing were written in 1988. Self-development seminars also became fashionable at this time. When the bubble economy collapsed in 1991, the New Age Movements hit full stride. The information magazines about New Age, You Can and FILI were also started in 1991.
The bubble economy and its collapse brought a new wave to the “cult/sect” scene in Japan. The Institute for Research in Human Happiness (IRHH), which was influenced by GLA, was founded in 1986. IRHH targeted the young generation and frequently issued critiques of the mainstream media which had labeled IRHH as a “bubble religion”. Aum, which was founded in 1986, was subsequently compared to IRHH. The managements of IRHH and the founder of Aum, with his followers, debated on television in 1991. The media increased its criticism of the Unification Church in the late 1980s because of its destruction of the home and its emotionally manipulative sales techniques. In such critiques, the media used the term “cult”.
3. Narratives of the New Age Movements and Aum
I have explained the process of the popularization of New Age Movements and “cult/sect” like Aum. We can see that the New Age Movements and Aum appeared at the same time. I’d like now to explore the common characteristics of these two through narratives from the members of these movements.
(1) Narratives of New-agers
It is hard for us to extract a typical narrative from the New Age Movements, as there are various types of movements. However, we know that the following narratives have come out of New Age Movements.
“You told us to imagine our ideal selves, but I can’t imagine mine. That’s the reason I am here at your seminar. For a long time, I have looked for my ideal self. However, I can’t find it.”
I was told this narrative by a man who attended the “120% self-development seminar” (September, 1995) which the famous spiritual leader, Masato Akiyama, ran. His seminar concentrated on image training. This man spoke of his pain in not finding his ideal self, and the participants of this seminar applauded his narrative. We often observe such a motif in the search for the self in New Age Movements. For example, I was told the following narrative from a woman who ran a dolphin healing tour at the 4th International Dolphin & Whale Conference in Japan (April, 1994).
“Everyday I felt bored and unsatisfied as an office lady in Japan. But now I have forgotten my loneliness here together with the dolphins in the Bahamas. I have found my real self. I am returning to my childhood. I accept myself here and now and I am feeling the chi-energy sent by the dolphins.”
In one final example, I was told by a trainer on the first day of his self-development seminar (October, 1991) that the ideal self is a “diamond nestled within”. The participants looked for an artificial crystal inside clay, by doing this exercise, they were reminded of their luminous selves contained within. The participants said that they wanted to change themselves. The trainer told me that they were not confident in human relationships because of their experiences of transfering school, bullying, and so on. “Bullying” in elementary schools and junior high schools in Japan is especially serious. The trainer indicated that 80% of participants had experienced “bullying”. They desired to replace their negative self-image with an affirmative one.
(2) Narratives of Aum Members
There are also numerous patterns in the narratives of Aum members. However, it is easy to find the theme of the “abundance” of Japanese society contrasted with “the sense of emptiness” of Aum members in their narratives in Aum bulletins.
“I studied in the daytime and drank with my colleagues at night. I repeated this every day. Every day felt monotonous for me. It was meaningless for me.” (a man who resigned from the National Space Development Agency)
“I was very rich, but I was not fulfilled mentally. I thought, ‘Why am I alive? Why am I here?’ Although I had many questions, not one of them was solved.” (a woman who is the only child of a wealthy person)
“I had a good time or drank every night after working. However, in the end, I became empty. I felt my life was dull. I got bored with drinking and partying. I was not focused. I was always lonely. I did what my friends did whether I wanted to or not. I didn’t have a core to my life. I felt empty.” (a woman, ex-aesthetician)
We know from these narratives that these people were materially well-off, but that they were not fulfilled emotionally.
One final example I was told is the following narrative from a female member (29 years old) of the Aum Dojo (training center) in May, 1995.
“My parents get along fine, and I am proud of them. I was blessed. But I cried sometimes at night. I had many long phone conversations. I wished for a partner or companion. I was lonely. It is an impermanent world. I felt a sense of emptiness. I was not fulfilled. Even if I was having fun, I became bored. I was looking for a career in something that wouldn’t make me bored. I did not always have a purpose. I was half dead.”
4. Conclusion
We find a common pattern in the narratives from members in the New Age Movements and Aum. This is the ever changing nature of the self, expressed as “a sense of emptiness” and the search for a self-image, expressed as “the quest for the ideal self”. I will now examine this ever changing self and the search for a self-image within their historical and social context.
From the historical context, the oil crisis of 1973 gave birth to a life style which valued leisure and spirituality. The shared values of the young generation faded away and diversified with the decline of student activism. The bubble economy of the second half of the 1980s brought confusion to such a dispersed and pluralized value system. Japanese values became individualistic after the collapse of the bubble and fell into relativism. From an international perspective, I believe “the end of ideology”, from the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union at the same time as the collapse of the bubble, heightened this tendency. I consider the ever changing self and the search for a self-image in the narratives of the New Age Movements and Aum are the culmination of the confusion and pluralization of values, and ultimately the relativization of values.
From the social context, I think the process of relativism in the pluralization of values relates to the weakening collectivity in Japan. “The break up of local communities” from the depopulation of the country side and the concentration of wealth, information and human talent in the cities of Japan in the 1970s, had become a major social problem. The Japanese media in the 1980s reported on “the breakup of the family”, such as the communication gap between husband and wife, violence towards parents by children and so on. However, these problems were not solved, and there is no vision of how to reconstruct the collectivity of Japan. Life styles in the cities have, of course, reinforced this tendency. Japanese have lost spaces in the neighborhoods, homes and companies which they used to be able to identify with. Therefore, Japanese have developed a volatile sense of self and the subsequent need to search for a more secure one.
Finally, I want to discuss the response of the New Age Movements and Aum to value relativism because they appear to be different. New Age Movements have their basis in value relativism. They have the central belief that we had better accept our present condition and situation. It is important in the New Age Movements to accept oneself, including “the sense of emptiness” and pain of the quest for our ideal self, and to find one’s ideal self within this. On the other hand, Aum rejects this value relativism. Aum explains that various individual values are united under one value system (truth). The “sense of emptiness” is said to be false because it is a result of desire. Extreme asceticism is encouraged, plus renunciation of the world and training are recommended. It is said in Aum that such practitioners find the “ideal self”. The New Age Movements and Aum have different opinions at a glance. However, if we consider both the historical and the social contexts according to my arguments, we can conclude these movements have two separate responses arising from the same background of value relativism.

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