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Asian Cults And Castes, Where New Religions Meet Power Politics

Emerging religions and cults in Asia are deeply intertwined with politics: in China, religions need political approval, while in Japan religious groups use political platforms to assert themselves. Not even the killing of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, carried out by a member of the Unification Church, has prompted a closer look at exactly what role religion plays in society.

Asian Cults And Castes, Where New Religions Meet Power Politics

Celebrating the birthday of the Chinese sea goddess Matsu in Meizhou, China

Hu Qingxin, Yin Yuet

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

The suspect confessed that he killed Abe because of his close relationship with the Unification Church , which his mother adhered to and went bankrupt for. The Unification Church was founded by Korean Messiah Claimant 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 scandals related to donations and brainwashing.

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 practising qigong for more than 25 years.

In the past he had already said that he no longer needs to see a doctor because of his qigong practice, and even claimed to have reached the level of a "master". Qigong originated from traditional Chinese medicine, but in the 1970s and 80s. the practice of it had reached a cult-like level in China .

Negative portrayals

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

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

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

Such assumptions are not hard to make, as new religious movements were behind some of the most horrific mass killings and suicides in 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, which masterminded the Tokyo underground sarin gas attack in 1995.

But in most cases, new religious movements are not so " evil " as to be anti-human and anti-social. Despite their size, the characteristics of emerging religions are difficult to summarise or describe, and vary greatly from region to region.

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

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

At the Kanda Myojin Shrine in Tokyo

Damon Coulter/SOPA Images/ZUMA ZUMA

Beijing requires political approval

In Chinese religions, there has been a tradition of distinguishing "righteousness" and "wickedness".

This tradition also continued in the People's Republic of China after 1949. Although there were nominally only five major religions in China, they did not hinder the development of various folk beliefs and spiritual movements, even within the rule of the atheist 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 regime's stability, the government will crack down on it in the name of rectifying "evil cults", the biggest of which was the crackdown on 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, the keywords in the headlines are often linked to "chaos", "prevention", "rectification", "governance". Here, cults are not about religion, but seem more about politics.

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 were also targeted. For example, the Presbyterian Church, which is actually a mainstream Christian denomination, was suppressed by the government because of its political advocacy.

For this reason, after the lifting of restrictions in 1987, with the opening up of the registration of religious and social groups, new religious groups sprang up in Taiwan and triggered a wave of religious fervour.

Religion to justify the 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 fostered national Shinto in order 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 unchallengeable will of the state and one of the triggers for Japan's wars of aggression.

After the Second World War, Japan, which had undergone democratization and reform , was wary of this tradition. Article 20 of Japan's 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 conduct religious education or any other religious activities.

At the request of the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces in Japan (GHQ), the Japanese government also abolished the Religious Associations Law, which was seen as a remnant of the militarist system, and implemented the Religious Corporation Ordinance from December 1945, providing legal 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 unprecedented and intense pain: the economic collapse, the hardship of livelihood, and the sense of disorientation were the defining elements of Japan's society during this period, which became a good ground for promoting emerging religions.

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

Against this backdrop, new religious groups sprang up, with the number of groups rising rapidly from 34 during wartime to over 700 nowadays, including some of the largest groups with a million followers. The Soka Gakkai, the "supporting 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 number of believers had swelled from around 3,000 in 1951 to 5.24 million today.

The emergence of new religions soon attracted the attention of the political parties, and the relationship between religion and politics went back to the interdependent nature of the pre-war period, making the principle of separation of church and state largely a mere formality.

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

On the other hand, religious groups need to use the power of political parties to disseminate their teachings and to raise 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, members of the Soka Gakkai not only protect their interests by sending their political representatives to the legislature, but can also create in their members a sense of equality in political and even social status with other members of society.

In short, instead of separating church and state, political parties and religious groups have become allies, shaping the course of Japanese politics in the midst of the undercurrents.

The trauma left by a cult

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

Scholars point out that the larger new religious groups in Japan generally have a solid organisational structure. Moreover, these new religions have a "mechanism to motivate their followers", which requires them to preach and donate money in order to put their values in practise and strengthen the group.

Patriotism can also be a kind of spiritual trust.

Some emerging religious groups are particularly inclined towards brainwashing, such as Aum Shinrikyo, which uses physical imprisonment, violent beatings, emotional and informational control to force its followers into criminal activities.

Second-generation believers are a significant group of victims, with their parents giving everything to the organisation and raising their kids 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 the religious groups , they are often mentally devastated.

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

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

In our contemporary society, we are all questioning and seeking to find a solution to the problem of living in peace.

There are many choices that can give people a sense of security in life, when it comes to financial means, social status, personal aspirations, ideology, and so on. In Hong Kong society, a single apartment may be enough to solve most of one's anxieties; in China today, patriotism can also be, and is even being taught to be, a kind of spiritual trust.

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

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Bibi Blinked: How The Ceasefire Deal Could Flip Israel's Whole Gaza War Logic

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed ahead a deal negotiated via Qatar, for a four-day truce and an exchange of 50 hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Though the humanitarian and political pressure was mounting, Israel's all-out assault is suddenly halted, with unforeseen consequences for the future.

Families of Israeli hostages rally in Jerusalem

Nir Alon/ ZUMA
Pierre Haski

Updated Nov. 22, 2023 at 8:55 p.m.


PARIS — It's the first piece of good news in 46 days of war. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel agreed to a deal that included a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas — 30 children and 20 women — in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, again women and children. The real question is what happens next.

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But first, this agreement, negotiated through the intermediary of Qatar, whose role is essential in this phase, must be implemented right away. This is a complex negotiation, because unlike the previous hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, it is taking place in the midst of a major war .

On the Palestinian side, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is present in Doha , he does not make the decision alone — he must have the agreement of the leaders of the military wing, who are hiding somewhere in Gaza. It takes 24 hours to send a message back and forth. As you can imagine, it's not as simple as a phone call.

And on the Israeli side, a consensus had to be built around the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right allies were opposed to the deal — in line with their eradication logic — even at the cost of Israeli lives. But the opposition of these discredited parties was ignored, and that will leave its mark.

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