Abe’s assassination has shone a light on Japan’s faith industry

The point where membership of a rapacious cult becomes embarrassing, an elderly former adherent told me some years ago, is at the local supermarket. That moment when, as a pensioner, you buy 10kg of the most expensive fried tofu and everyone knows you plan to throw it all into the river to propitiate a fox-god.

Other ex-cult residents I met in Komoro — a rural Nagano town whose mystical Shinto sect once held thousands in thrall across Japan — showed me cupboards stashed with what were once tokens of zeal, but were now mementos of financial regret. Bottle after bottle of healing potion had been purchased at the shrine for Y60,000 ($434) each, and contained tap water.

The question for Japan — a nation famous for a collective refusal to move its enormous savings from bank and post office accounts into anything more risky — is whether anyone in government or the financial sector could ever match religion’s level of salesmanship.

Japan’s unusual relationship with religion comes under sporadic bursts of intensive scrutiny, generally (as was the case with Komoro) in the aftermath of some sad, violent outrage. It has done so again in the week that followed the assassination of Shinzo Abe, and the suspect’s reported confession that he was taking revenge for his mother’s financial ruination at the hands of the religious group (the Unification Church) with which the former prime minister’s family had long associations.

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Often, the Japan-and-religion analysis at these junctures challenges the perception that most Japanese are not terribly religious. Superficially Japan appears secular, formal adherence is relatively low and many Japanese are content to be transactional and whimsical in their engagement. A standard lifestyle pick-and-mix might involve a Christian-themed wedding, a Shinto blessing on a pregnancy and a Buddhist funeral, with no concern that this spiritual arbitrage wrongs either the individual or the institutions.

Despite that appearance, religion, both as a social organiser and grasping entrepreneurial pursuit, maintains a powerful background presence. At last count, Japan was home to a little over 180,500 registered religious organisations: roughly one for every 700 people or three times the national tally of convenience stores.

One strand of this discussion that has resurfaced strongly since Abe’s killing centres on the well-entrenched status that religious organisations, as creators of reliable voting blocs and campaign volunteers, have historically enjoyed in Japanese politics. The Abe family ties with the Unification Church are fascinating, but so too is the pivotal coalition role that the Komeito party — founded by members of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement and still closely connected — has played over the past decade.

But the other always intriguing sight, whenever Japanese religion is laid bare, is the sheer quantum of money it seems able to part (often tax-free) from ordinary people. In the case of the suspect in Abe’s killing, Japanese media cite relatives who say that his mother was forced into bankruptcy two decades ago after donating Y100m to the Unification Church.

That, along with the cult sales of bogus panaceas in Komoro, may be extreme examples. But these occasional bursts of interest in the Japanese faith industry are a reminder of how skilfully local shrines, Buddhist temples and other outlets are able to exploit the social fear of failing to do the “done” thing and hard-sell spirituality.

The intriguing contrast here arises from discussion of Abe’s legacy and one of the great missed targets of his Abenomics revival programme — the campaign to convince the population of the world’s fastest-ageing society not to part with its money, but simply to move it into riskier assets like stocks. Certainly, this called on several generations to perform a leap of faith, but the evangelist effort was like none previously attempted. The Bank of Japan went on an unprecedented buying spree on exchange traded funds; the government pension investment fund made a historic shift of portfolio weighting from government bonds into domestic stocks; a programme of tax-protected investment accounts was expanded and Japan Post performed a mega initial public offering to launch millions of individuals on the investment game.

In 2012, the year that Abe became prime minister for the second time, Japanese individuals owned 20.2 per cent of the Japanese stock market. In the financial year after Japan’s longest-serving and most charismatic leader in decades stepped down in 2020, they owned 16.6 per cent. Given the sales that faith can achieve in Japan, this ranks as perhaps Abe’s worst failure.

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