An arrest warrant has been issued for the 52-year-old leader of a fringe Christian group in Japan arrested in connection with vandalism at shrines and temples in Nara, Kyoto, Chiba, and elsewhere
In late March the man allegedly poured or sprinkled an oil-like liquid on the premises of Katori Shrine in Katori City, Chiba Prefecture. The act was caught on security cameras. Chiba police have linked this to a string of similar incidents at 48 temples and shrines in 16 prefectures around Japan, including World Heritage sites in Kyoto.
The man lives in America but his group is based in Tokyo, according to media reports. He formed the group — unnamed in press articles — in 2013 in Tokyo, where he is from. In summer of the same year he apparently told believers at gatherings that they should “cleanse” heresy through the use of oil. “We will cleanse Japan’s temples and shrines with oil, and free the souls [kokoro] of the Japanese of these old customs,” he is allegedly to have said. His group is reported to have over 100 believers in Tokyo and Osaka.
Despite the best efforts of missionaries, Christianity remains a minority faith in Japan, a country often said to be fundamentally “irreligious” when judged by the western sense of religion. While there are a few prominent Christian universities and certain Christian figures in the public eye (the novelist Shusaku Endō, the former prime minister Tarō Asō), most people’s understanding of Christian tenets and history is vague. Only in places like Nagasaki does Christianity have a strong historical presence. Some fringe Christian groups have generated attention, including the pro-Israel sect Makuya, which frequently organises flamboyant pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the adherents to an esoteric belief that Jesus is buried in Aomori. (There is an interesting parallel whereby some believe the Japanese to be one of the “lost tribe” of Israelites, again using a foreign culture or religion to shore up the nihonjinron myth of Japanese “uniqueness”.)
Due to the stigma of the state’s pre-war anti-religious persecution, Japanese police are traditionally reluctant to investigate religious groups in Japan. This is often cited as a reason for its inept performance when initially examining suspicious reports about the Aum Shinrikyō cult, who perpetuated sarin attacks in Tokyo and Matsumoto, and allegedly several other assassinations and kidnappings. Following the subway incident in 1995 it clamped down heavily on Aum and continues to monitor the sect, even though it has officially changed its name and leadership, as well as openly apologised for its violent past. Aum led to a sea-shift in the way the police handled religious groups and investigating them was no longer taboo. However, in general “religious crimes” is still a rarity in Japan.
Shintō’s long association with the Imperial Family and State Shintō has made shrines targets for vandalism in the past by New Left groups or individual anarchists. This was especially the case during the changeover between the Showa and Heisei emperors, when a series of small bombings damaged religious sites in Kyoto.