Heal me: Spirituality businesses redefining “religion”

September 15th, 2011 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Notes from the other side: Newspaper ad for books on spirituality

Earlier this week, Toru Saito, the leader of a yugen-gaisha (limited company) called Shinsekai (World of Gods), was arrested by the Kanagawa Prefectural Police for swindling five customers out of more than ¥13 million. Shinsekai is a so-called spirituality business (reikan shoho) that runs a chain of “salons” where people who are suffering physically or mentally can be “healed,” mainly through prayer fees or the purchase of spiritually charged objects like “power stones.” A group of lawyers representing former patrons of Shinsekai have likened the company’s business model to that of a pyramid scheme. People who come in for a consultation are charged huge sums in an ongoing manner to be cured, and when they can’t pay they are then compelled to bring in friends and acquaintances, thus creating a cycle. The salons themselves grow from this cycle and, according to the lawyers group, have to fulfill quotas assigned by Shinsekai executives. A local newspaper reports that the company, which some media are calling a “cult,” collected ¥17.5 billion from 2001 to 2007. Between 30 and 50 percent of the money went to the leadership group, with Saito, the founder, receiving a cool ¥1.5 billion.

Nice work if you can get it, and a lot of people obviously are trying. Since the Aum Shinrikyo scandal in the mid-90s, the idea of religion has been tainted in Japan, and a lot of money-making spiritual concerns that once would use the word religion if for no other reason than to qualify for tax-exampt status now shun it, prefering the term “healing” to describe the benefits of what they have to offer. Superstar fortune tellers and “aura readers” like Hiroyuki Ehara and Kazuko Hosoki epitomize this post-Aum spirituality trend, which focuses on the subject’s relationship with his or her ancestors, thus tapping into cultural beliefs associated with tenets of Buddhism and Shintoism. These two faith systems, especially Shintoism, have a close relationship with money, which represents the spiritual investment in whatever sort of outcome the subject wants to bring about. If you want a prayer to bless your house or make sure your son passes a university test, the more you pay the stronger the entreaty, though in the Western sense of “faith” it sounds more like superstition.

In fact, most Japanese consider such payments as being more of a custom than anything else and are not likely to patronize the spirituality trade. Those who have come forth as “victims” of Shinsekai told the lawyers group that sensei (masters) said their problems were caused by either “toxins” in their bodies or “fatal confrontations” with unhappy ancestors, and in the case of the latter only prayer would allay those ancestors’ anxieties. One woman explained that after her daughter was born in 2004 with a disorder, she went to Shinsekai, who told her medicine would not have any effect and that only God could help. She had to pay for prayers and to have her name changed (the one she was born with was deemed “inauspicious”), and after 2 years she had contributed about ¥10 million to Shinsekai’s bottom line. Such claims are normal operating procedure for spirituality concerns, and it seems the authorities’ main beef with Shinsekai has to do with the scale of their business and the pyramid-like structure.

The irony of this particular case, however, is that the defense is saying that Shinsekai is a religion. One executive of the group, a woman named Akie Sugimoto, is currently on trial for fraud, and her lawyers are claiming that it can’t be said that Sugimoto’s patrons were swindled because they approached Shinsekai as a religion and thus participated in the various activities as “believers.” The plaintiffs, however, are saying that they were told from the beginning that Shinsekai was not a religion, and the fact that Shinsekai is not registered as a religion (and, thus, presumably pays taxes) should bolster their argument. The defense, it seems, would have to somehow prove to the court that the plaintiffs had faith at the time they were paying their fees for healing, and they might succeed. After all, who but someone with faith would pay that amount of money for a poem and a piece of rock?

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