Asian cults and castes, where new religions meet power politics

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On July 8, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead while delivering a speech in Nara.

The suspect confessed to killing Abe because of his close relationship with the Unification Church, which his mother joined and went bankrupt. The Unification Church was founded by Korean Messiah seeker Sun Myung Moon in 1954 and entered Japan in 1956. At its peak it had 4.7 million followers, but declined after the 1990s due to donation and brainwashing scandals.

Meanwhile, in an interview on July 4, the new chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, John Lee Ka-chiu, mentioned that he had been practicing qigong for more than 25 years.


In the past, he had already stated that he no longer needed to see a doctor due to his practice of qigong, and even claimed to have reached the level of “master”. Qigong originated from traditional Chinese medicine, but by the 1970s and 80s its practice had reached cult status in China.

Negative representations

References to these alternative religious groups are not a new phenomenon today.

According to Eileen Barker, a sociologist of religions, there were already around 2,000 emerging religious movements in Europe in 1999, between 800 and 1,000 in Japan, and perhaps 10,000 in the United States, Asia, Africa and Oceania. together, for a total of more than 12 million members.

But these new religions are often associated with negative representations, ideas of sects, money laundering and brainwashing.

Such hypotheses are not difficult to formulate, as new religious movements were behind some of the most gruesome mass murders and suicides of the second half of the 20th century. For example, the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ and Heaven’s Gate committed mass suicides in the 1970s and 1990s respectively, and there was also Aum Shinrikyo, who orchestrated the Tokyo underground sarin gas attack in 1995. .

But in most cases, the new religious movements are not “wicked” enough to be anti-human and anti-social. Despite their size, the characteristics of emerging religions are difficult to summarize or describe and vary widely from region to region.

For example, in Europe and the Americas, where there are strong Christian traditions, some imported Eastern religious traditions are also considered emerging religions. In Taiwan and China, where Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are common, many emerging religions have evolved from Buddhist or Taoist traditions. In Japan, emerging religious movements have existed since the 19th century.

It is this fragmentation, this ambiguity and this plurality that calls for a more objective analysis of what these emerging religions mean in each region.

Beijing needs political approval

In Chinese religions, there has been a tradition of distinguishing between “righteousness” and “wickedness”.

This tradition also continued in the People’s Republic of China after 1949. Although there are theoretically only five major religions in China, they have not hindered the development of various folk beliefs and spiritual movements, even under the reign of the atheistic Chinese Communist Party. In the 1980s, the government even promoted a qigong fever.

Cults are not about religion, but seem more about politics.

But once a religion is suspected of endangering local law and order, or even the stability of the regime, the government suppresses it in the name of rectifying “evil sects”, the most important of which has been the suppression of Falun Gong in 1999.

Nowadays, many traditional and orthodox religions are already required to show their loyalty to the regime. If one searches for the word “cults” in mainland China, headline keywords are often related to “chaos”, “prevention”, “rectification”, “governance”. Here, sects are not about religion, but seem more political.

This was also the case in Taiwan, where the Kuomintang also suppressed emerging folk religious groups after 1949, for example by banning the Taoist I-Kuan Tao and the Buddhist Soka Gakkai imported from mainland China and Japan.

Western religious groups have also been targeted. For example, the Presbyterian Church, which is actually a mainstream Christian denomination, was suppressed by the government due to its political advocacy.

For this reason, after restrictions were lifted in 1987, with the opening of registration for religious and social groups, new religious groups sprung up in Taiwan and sparked a wave of religious fervor.

Religion to justify power in Imperial Japan

In Japan, politics and religion have always been closely linked in history.

After the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century, the Meiji government encouraged national Shintoism to establish a new system under the authority of the emperor. Shinto was then combined with the imperial system to form the state religion, which became the unquestionable will of the state and one of the triggers of Japan’s wars of aggression.

After World War II, Japan, which had democratized and reformed, was wary of this tradition. Article 20 of the Japanese constitution expressly provided for the separation of religion and state: no religious group could receive privileges or exercise political rights from the state, and neither the state nor its organs could exempt religious education or any other religious activity.

At the request of the Headquarters of the Allied Forces Japan (GHQ), the Japanese government also abolished the Religious Associations Law, which was seen as a remnant of the militaristic system, and implemented the Religious Societies Ordinance. beginning in December 1945, providing guarantees for the nation’s freedom of religious belief and greatly limiting government interference in religious activities.

As scholars have pointed out, post-war Japan experienced intense and unprecedented pain: economic collapse, struggling livelihoods, and a sense of disorientation were the defining elements of Japanese society in the during this period, which became good ground for promoting emerging religions. .

Tsunesaburo Makiguchi founded the religious group Soka Gakkai in 1930 in Japan

In this context, new religious groups have sprung up, with the number of groups rapidly increasing from 34 in wartime to more than 700 nowadays, including some of the largest groups with a million followers. The Soka Gakkai, the “support parent” of the Komeito Party, which is currently in coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, is also a beneficiary of the new legislation. Founded in 1930 by educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, its membership has grown from around 3,000 in 1951 to 5.24 million today.

The emergence of new religions quickly attracted the attention of political parties, and the relationship between religion and politics returned to the interdependent nature of the pre-war period, making the principle of separation of Church and of the State a mere formality.

This is first and foremost because religious groups can provide political parties with a broad and stable electoral base, and their support can be very beneficial in elections. Of Japan’s emerging religions, for example, the Soka Gakkai has been the most successful in entering politics, and Komeito’s canvassing efforts have rarely been matched by those of other parties.

On the other hand, religious groups should use the power of political parties to spread their teachings and elevate the social status of their members, to get rid of the negative image of religious groups as mysterious and obscure.

By participating in elections at all levels, Soka Gakkai members not only protect their interests by sending their political representatives to the legislature, but can also create in their members a sense of equality of political and even social status with others. members of society.

In short, instead of separating church and state, political parties and religious groups became allies, shaping the course of Japanese politics amid the undercurrents.

The trauma left by a cult

Despite their entry into the establishment and their efforts to improve their image, certain types of emerging religious groups are indeed responsible for creating tragedies in the lives of many believers and their families. These groups exert extremely tight control over their followers and once they have been initiated into the faith, it is difficult to get out.

The researchers point out that the new, larger religious groups in Japan generally have a strong organizational structure. Moreover, these new religions have a “mechanism to motivate their followers”, which compels them to preach and donate money in order to practice their values ​​and strengthen the group.

Patriotism can also be a kind of spiritual confidence.

Some emerging religious groups are particularly prone to brainwashing, such as Aum Shinrikyo, which uses physical imprisonment, severe beatings, emotional and informational control to coerce its followers into criminal activity.

Second-generation believers are a significant victim group, with their parents giving their all to the organization and raising their children in a chaotic and unsettling environment.

Yamagami, Shinzo Abe’s assassin, is indeed such a victim. It is reported that even if these second generation believers manage to escape the control of religious groups, they are often mentally devastated.

The problems associated with religious groups in Japan are slowly being recognized. Media and lawyers have accused religious groups such as the Unification Church of corruption and interference in politics. But the accused politicians have not bothered to respond, and the government is so tight-lipped on issues related to emerging religions that even Abe’s death has failed to shake that attitude.

The sad reality is that social problems caused by emerging religious groups have still not received the attention and treatment they deserve in Japan.

In our contemporary society, we all question ourselves and all seek to find a solution to the problem of living in peace.

Many choices can give people a sense of security in life, regarding financial means, social status, personal aspirations, ideology, etc. In Hong Kong society, a single apartment can be enough to solve most of your anxieties; in China today, patriotism can also be, and is even taught to be, a kind of spiritual confidence.

Thinking about it in a detached way, the choices most people make to settle are the same as those made by followers of emerging religions, but they are all based on personal needs.

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