The horrifying crimes committed by members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult might have scared some people away from religious cults, but there are still a surprising number joining such groups, including organizations that are considered to pose a problem to society.
Ho-no-Hana Sanpogyo, whose leader, Hogen Fukunaga, was arrested last week on suspicion of fraud, has attracted as many as 30,000 followers nationwide. Although the Life Space and Kaeda Juku cults have only a small number of members, just 100 and 50 respectively, this did not hinder their rapid rise to fame as sinister cult groups, after it was discovered they had been storing mummified human bodies.
Nobutaka Inoue, a professor at Kokugakuin University's Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, in 1996 published an encyclopedia of the nation's 300 religious groups founded since the early 19th century.
However, Life Space, which started as a self-enlightenment group, and small cults like Kaeda Juku are not included in Inoue's encyclopedia. This suggests that the real number of new religious groups in Japan is even higher.
Inoue, who has also conducted surveys on religious beliefs among young people, found that there is an increasing interest in supernatural phenomena and the occult, rather than in established religions, among Japanese university students.
In the results of a survey he conducted in 1999, Inoue reported that 49 percent of respondents said they believed in telepathy and 63.4 percent believed in near-death experiences. The percentage of people who said they believed in reincarnation and past lives was 56.2 percent, while 50.9 percent believed in some form of afterlife.
However, 65.8 percent of respondents also answered that they considered religion to be partly dangerous, showing that a general suspicion of religion exists in peoples' minds.
In his book "Contemporary Japanese Religion" Inoue wrote that "the Japanese people are drifting away from organized religions, but this does not necessarily mean that they have lost interest in religion in general.
"Furthermore, interest in things like the occult, paranormal phenomena, and various mysterious phenomena--in other words, spiritual things that are often considered closely associated with religion--does not appear to have waned at all."
In a book titled "You Shall Be Released--Maindo Kontororu Kara Nogarete" (Released from Mind Control) a former Aum cult member wrote, "I was fascinated by extrasensory perception and I believed there had to be a common ideal that everyone could agree on. I think that was what drew me to Aum."
Akiko Yamakawa--who gives seminars on spirituality and for the last 15 years has translated books on the subject, including those written by U.S. actress Shirley MacLaine--believes that the increasing interest in spirituality is not just a fad.
"People everywhere have similar desires (consciously or subconsciously to understand the meaning of human existence)," Yamakawa said. "Unfortunately, some people are attracted to groups like Aum, while others choose to practice spirituality freely without relying on someone (a religious leader)."
Asked why so many people are attracted to religious and spiritual groups, Toshimaro Ama, a Meiji Gakuin University professor, said it is because humans crave to know the answer to existential questions.
"Established religions have provided explanations for human existence, but for some people these explanations have become invalid in today's world. However, I think the number of people wishing to seek alternatives to conventional explanations is still small," Ama said.
"When the number of such people increases and an sentiment intensifies, a new religion may be created or established religious groups may break from the conventional order and drastically reform themselves.
Alternatively, the word 'religion' may vanish completely and new explanations may evolve into a more literary form. People may just be satisfied with the scientific explanation--though it does not provide philosophical answers--that humans are just a collection of DNA and their lives end when their DNA is dissembled."
In "You Shall Be Released--Maindo Kontororu Kara Nogarete," another former Aum member mentions the significance of understanding the meaning of life.
"(After I left Aum) there was a big void in my life," he said. "I had discovered the meaning of life and I lost it. I sometimes feel that I may never recover from the loss."