Domestic Bonds

Abe’s assassination shed light on Japan’s religious industry

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

Other former cult residents I met in Komoro — a rural town in Nagano whose mystical Shinto sect once held thousands across Japan — showed me hidden cupboards with what were once signs. of zeal, but which were now memories of financial regret. Bottle after bottle of healing potion had been purchased from the shrine for 60,000 yen ($434) each and contained tap water.

The question for Japan – a nation famous for its collective refusal to transfer its huge savings from bank and post office accounts to something riskier – is whether anyone in government or the financial sector could ever match the level of sale of religion.

Japan’s unusual relationship with religion comes under sporadic bursts of scrutiny, usually (as was the case with Komoro) following sad and violent outrage. He did it again within a week of the murder of Shinzo Abe, and the confession reported by the suspect that he was taking revenge for his mother’s financial ruin at the hands of the religious group (the Church of ‘Unification) with which the former Prime Minister’s family had long associations.

Often, analysis of Japan and religion at these times challenges the perception that most Japanese people are not terribly religious. Superficially, Japan appears secular, formal membership is relatively low, and many Japanese are content to be transactional and fanciful in their engagement. A standard lifestyle choice might involve a Christian-themed wedding, a Shinto blessing on a pregnancy, and a Buddhist funeral, regardless of whether this spiritual arbitration harms the individual or institutions.

Despite this appearance, religion, both as a social organizer and as a grasping entrepreneur, maintains a powerful presence in the background. At last count, Japan had just over 180,500 registered religious organizations: about one for every 700 people or three times the national number of convenience stores.

One strand of this discussion that has resurfaced with force since Abe’s murder centers on the entrenched status that religious organizations, as creators of reliable voting blocs and campaign volunteers, have historically enjoyed in politics. Japanese. The Abe family’s ties to the Unification Church are fascinating, as is the central coalition role that the Komeito party – founded by members of the Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai and still closely linked – has played over the past decade.

But the other always intriguing sight whenever Japanese religion is laid bare is how much money it seems able to separate (often tax-free) from ordinary people. In the case of Abe’s murder suspect, Japanese media quotes relatives as saying his mother was bankrupted two decades ago after donating 100 million yen to the Unification Church.

This, as well as the cult sales of bogus panaceas in Komoro, may be extreme examples. But these occasional bursts of interest in Japan’s religious industry serve as a reminder of how local shrines, Buddhist temples and other outlets are able to tap into the social fear of not doing what is “done” and to sell spirituality hard.

The intriguing contrast here stems from the discussion of Abe’s legacy and one of the big missed targets of his Abenomics revival program – the campaign to convince the population of the world’s fastest aging society not to not to part with his money, but simply to move it towards riskier activities. assets like stocks. True, it took several generations to take a leap of faith, but the evangelistic effort was like none had been attempted before. The Bank of Japan has embarked on an unprecedented buying spree on exchange-traded funds; the government’s retirement investment fund made a historic shift in portfolio weighting from government bonds to domestic equities; a tax-protected investment account program was expanded and Japan Post conducted a mega initial public offering to get millions into the investing game.

In 2012, the year Abe became prime minister for the second time, Japanese individuals held 20.2% of the Japanese stock market. In the fiscal year following the resignation of Japan’s oldest and most charismatic leader in decades in 2020, they held 16.6%. Considering the sales Faith can make in Japan, this is perhaps Abe’s worst failure.

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