Slowly, life returns to normal. It’s been nearly four years. COVID-19 has cost us dearly. There’s the death toll (7 million worldwide), the economic toll ($12.5 trillion, the International Monetary Fund estimates), and the psychological toll, incalculable and immeasurable – faces masked, social life stifled, opportunities lost, enterprise aborted. A phenomenon like this does not end when it ends. Consequences endure, memory lingers, breeding pain, inhibition, emotional trauma. So much can be guessed. As to the nature of the trauma, its breadth and depth, we’ll just have to wait and see.
Slowly, faces emerge from masks, life resurfaces. People can meet, talk, breathe on each other. Risk remains but is deemed manageable. On college campuses, clubs – known as “circles” in Japan – are stirring after long dormancy. The response is eager. It’s like spring after a long winter. Be careful, warns Spa (May 2-9). The fresh air may be tainted. There are viruses and viruses – organic viruses and metaphorical viruses.
We’re dealing with the latter kind here. The education ministry has sounded its own warning. Watch out, it says, for circles with “a hidden religious agenda.”
It knows whereof it speaks. The murder last July of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe exposed government ties to a religious group whose benign name, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, allegedly masked gross extortion from innocent and trusting seekers of religious salvation. Abe’s accused assassin blamed the Federation, familiarly known as the Unification Church, for his family’s descent into poverty. He struck, it is alleged, as an avenger.
Infection is rampant, from government down, university circles not excepted. It’s hard to be forever on guard, dangerous not to be. “Kosuke Uemura,” whom Spa introduces pseudonymously, learned the hard way.
The 20-year-old chairman of a cultural and literary circle saw his membership dwindling as the virus spread. He felt his responsibilities keenly, felt he must do something, didn’t know what; when two old high school friends came forward with a proposal to merge their club with his, it seemed like just the thing; he seized the chance. His friends proposed the Bible as a subject of discussion. Why not?
The Unification Church teaching is a modified Christianity that casts Church founder Sun Myung Moon (1920-2012) as the second Jesus, his mission to found a new human family free of the taint of original sin. Couples united in mass weddings called “blessings” number in the thousands.
The Federation’s website glows with smiling faces and shining testimony. “One of the best things about growing up in the Unification movement,” reads one testimonial, “has been the community. No matter where you go, you can always find people who feel like family, even if you’ve never met them before.”
Clearly it works for some. So did Aum Shinrikyo, whose pseudo-Indian mysticism culminated in 1995 in a sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway, killing 14 and sickening many more. Its membership at its peak numbered 50,000 worldwide. Spa warns against its successor group, Aleph, still active on campus and still attractive, apparently, to some young people who have no suspicion of the cult’s sinister background.
Religion, broadly speaking, is the pursuit of happiness beyond this world. To the worldly and rational, it can seem silly or insane or anything in between. The very early Christians, a tiny minority within the vast Roman empire, were persecuted mercilessly as a corrupting and infectious influence. They refused to sacrifice to the emperor and the state gods. Their “kingdom” was heaven, their God incarnated in a man born of a virgin and crucified so his blood could wash humanity free of sin. It was absurd, fantastic. It might have remained so, had the accidents of history unfolded differently.
“Kaori Niita,” 25, had seen enough of her campus life blighted by the pandemic. Now the circles were coming back to life; good; eagerly she scanned the social networks for suitable contacts. She found one, she tells Spa: “a beautiful, smart career-woman type.” “We meet at my house,” she said, “for cooking and Bible discussion.” Niita had attended a Christian high school; Bible discussion was fine with her.
It was fun, lively, friendly – for a year or so. Then it got “weird.” True, one person’s “weird” is another person’s common sense and a third person’s transcendental reality. Still, when senior members began urging her to give up her friends outside the group, or insisting her boyfriend was an agent of Satan, or maintaining that the Savior was now on Earth and in prison as Jesus had been and that her soul could ascend to heaven via sexual union with a certain “teacher,” she got the message at last. This circle was not for her.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “Arimasen.”© Japan Today