No. 10 — March 10, 2000

Feature Article


Barbara Wanner


The deadly sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 horrified Japan and, indeed, the rest of the world. Although postwar Japan had experienced incidents of political terrorism and spiritual conflict, this was the first time that a religious group — Aum Shinrikyo, then 10,000-strong — had orchestrated such a large-scale, indiscriminate assault on the Japanese state. Shoko Asahara, the cult's leader and the suspected mastermind behind the gassing, and 12 of his top aides now are on trial for murder.

In addition to relying on Japan's criminal justice system to punish the alleged perpetrators, the Diet enacted legislation late last year to enable authorities to crack down on Aum Shinrikyo's activities. Public antipathy for the group remains strong even five years later, as evidenced by the spate of anti-Aum demonstrations triggered by the December release from jail of the cult's former spokesperson. Moreover, several municipalities have refused to allow Aum devotees to register as residents.

In view of the still-strong visceral reaction to the group, many observers are astonished that Aum Shinrikyo — which now calls itself Aleph, a name that signifies renewal for many Japanese — once again appears to be attracting new members and rebuilding its businesses. Other religious sects still flourish, notwithstanding reports that they engage in the same coercion, brainwashing, fraud and outright criminal conduct that Aum employs.

The key to understanding the persistence of the cult phenomenon in Japan lies in the factors that gave rise to these Neo-New Religions, as Aum and other nonmainstream faiths are known. While Shinto festivals and Buddhist rites create a sense of community for many Japanese, the so-called Old Religions increasingly have failed to provide a philosophy or a moral guide with which to deal with the pressures of modern society. Led by charismatic, guru-like figures who preach a gospel that usually is an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western spiritual doctrines, the Neo-New Religions offer a worldview and a regimen aimed at answering age-old questions about the meaning of life.

Analysts attribute the growth spurt of cults over the past 20 years to increased disillusionment, particularly among educated urban youth, whose world is one of high-pressure exams, forced conformity and intense competition for entry-level positions. Japan's prolonged economic slump and related worries about job security also have created a sense of desperation that the Neo-New Religions, with their emphasis on miracles and the supernatural, promise to relieve.

Tokyo's challenge is to develop laws that allow authorities to intervene when there is evidence that a cult could harm society while continuing to uphold the religious freedoms protected by the Japanese constitution. At the same time, experts emphasize, the government must undertake educational reforms aimed at producing a more inquisitive and less stressed-out student body, one that is not quite so vulnerable to the promises made by cults.

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Weekly Review

--- by Douglas Ostrom

In the Japan of 1980 or even 1990, alarm bells would have been sounding over the current run-up in international crude oil prices. This time, however, the reaction is relatively subdued despite certain conditions that would seem to call for heightened awareness. As in the United States, the Japanese response to $30-a-barrel oil is closer to grumbling than to sustained anger or fear.


--- by Jon Choy

In an unprecedented bow to environmentalists, Mitsubishi Corp. and the Mexican government announced March 2 the withdrawal of their plan to build a huge salt production facility beside a pristine bay on Mexico's Baja peninsula. Of concern was the plant's potentially negative impact on the gray whales that use the bay as a nursery and on an adjacent, officially designated wilderness area. Although an exhaustive four-year environmental impact study had concluded that the factory posed only minimal danger to both the whales and the wildlife sanctuary, environmentalists made the project an international cause celebre. The partners feared that the political costs of proceeding would outweigh the expected economic benefits. The rare retreat is one reflection of the ongoing evolution in Japan of "green" issues and of the responsibilities of government, companies and individuals to protect the environment.


--- by Barbara Wanner

Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult behind the March 1995 sarin-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured thousands more (see above), may yet wreak new havoc. Police officials issued that dire warning following February 29 raids on several Aum facilities that uncovered evidence that cult-linked computer companies had developed software for 10 government agencies and more than 80 major Japanese corporations. Authorities are concerned that Aum — now calling itself Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet — has gained access to sensitive government and business computer networks and could plant viruses or engage in other forms of cyberterrorism.


--- by Marc Castellano

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and more than 700 Japanese companies held a seminar in Tokyo February 29 to promote investment in member countries. Asean, which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (formerly Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, has been struggling to recover from the fallout from the 1997-99 East Asian financial and economic crisis. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand all saw inward foreign direct investment plunge in 1998 and drop again in 1999. Asean's road show in Tokyo was an effort to reverse this trend by convincing Japan's business community, the largest and most important source of investment funds for the region, that opportunities abound.



Responding to the multiple problems experienced by Japan's public and private pension systems (see JEI Report No. 4B, January 28, 2000), the cabinet of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi approved legislation March 3 that will introduce a defined-contribution pension system. Modeled after the popular 401(k) plans available in this country, the key points of the proposed Japanese version include:

Japan's steel mills on the defensive for the last 18 months because of U.S. industry-leveled charges that they had unfairly priced virtually all of the surging volume of carbon and stainless steel mill products shipped to the United States in 1998 finally got a break on the trade-complaint front. In a March 3 vote that stunned Japanese exporters and their American competitors alike, five members of the six-person International Trade Commission decided that no link existed between cut-rate sales of made-in-Japan carbon cold-rolled steel products and any problems that U.S. producers of this high-strength sheet metal for vehicles and appliances had experienced. The ITC's negative final injury determination applied as well to cold-rolled steel supplied by Argentina, Brazil, Russia, South Africa and Thailand.


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