According to a lazy view entrenched in the West, 21st-century Japan is a godless wonderland of consumerism and technological fetishes.
Yoshihide Sakurai, professor of sociology at Hokkaido University, knows how misguided this stereotype is. Not long after he began investigating how a local religious cult, Tenchi Seikyo, was extorting millions of yen from its elderly members, he received a visit from two members, who drove their car through the wall of his Sapporo home.
"I discovered that Japanese people are in fact very serious about god," Professor Sakurai jokes.
The attack occurred two years after the notorious Aum Shinrikyo group murdered 12 people in 1995 by releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway, provoking a fierce backlash against Japan's legion of small, secretive cults.
Twelve years later, however, Japan appears to have forgotten about the atrocities carried out by Aum leader Shoko Asahara and his brainwashed disciples. Aided by the internet and other mass media, cults are flourishing, to the point where some experts estimate shinshuukyo — or new religions — number in the thousands, and count one in five Japanese among their ranks.
The country was given a terrifying reminder of cults' capacity for violence two weeks ago, when police arrested members of the female-dominated Kigenkai sect, who allegedly kicked and punched another member until she died from shock.
Hundreds of cases like this fill the vaults of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery's office in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. Professor Sakurai, who sits on its board, says the accumulating files are symptomatic of a social malaise that festered for decades and was ignited by the collapse of Japan's economic bubble 16 years ago.
"Young people and old alike are seeking an antidote to the meaninglessness in their lives. They want salvation from this new competitive society in Japan," he says. "I think that's why Japan, more than any other country, has had this very serious problem with cults."
Other experts say that the atomisation of the family unit has forced youth to look for comfort in the folds of small religious movements that promise enlightenment and deliverance from suffering.
According to the Government's Agency for Cultural Affairs, there are more than 182,000 religious corporations registered nationwide. Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of Shinto studies at Tokyo's Kokugakuin University, estimates that "at least 500 of these" would be new religions, but reckons there are a "considerable number more that no one knows about". The Shinjuku-based cult prevention society says the number is into the thousands.
Many are harmless. Others, such as the Holy God Central Church, whose leader was sentenced last December to 20 years' prison for molesting seven girls, are sexually exploitative. And others still, such as Soka Gakkai, are highly organised. Soka Gakkai wields considerable influence in the New Komeito Party, a partner in the country's ruling coalition.
A small few, such as Aum, are militant, armed and prepared to kill.
"It's difficult to judge which groups are dangerous," says Professor Inoue. "The problem is we usually don't know how dangerous they are until they act."
On Monday, a raid involving 400 police arrested the last of 30 female members of the Kigenkai sect in Komoro, a quiet town in the country's central Nagano Prefecture. Sect members are accused of subjecting fellow cultist Motoko Okuno, 63, to an hour-long ordeal of kicks and punches that led to her death.
Among those rounded up were four teenagers — two of them junior high school girls — and one of the cult's ringleaders, Yasuko Kubota, whose father Kensuke Matsui founded the Shinto-influenced group in 1970.
The victim's husband and two daughters are also alleged to have taken part in the attack, reportedly meted out as punishment for the restaurant owner's lax lifestyle.
Although Kigenkai is thought to have as few as 300 followers, it has been registered with the Ministry of Education as an official religious organisation for the past 10 years. Critics claim they bottle ordinary water to sell as an elixir called Kigensui for more than 50,000 yen ($A475) a litre.
The cults that have flooded Japan's postwar spiritual chasm are so numerous, Professor Inoue says, that people have a hard time working out which of them are good — and which are evil.
That may explain why Tokyo rail commuters fail to blink as they pass giant billboards erected by the Raelian movement, a religion founded by a Frenchman but with its greatest support in Japan. Its followers insist mankind was created by extraterrestrials and claim to have successfully cloned a human.
"The sad thing is that I have students now who haven't even heard of Aum or these other groups," says Professor Sakurai. "When that happens, you have to worry about the possibility we have for repeating the mistakes of the past."