Princeton, N.J. -- WITH THE arrest of Aum Supreme Truth's leader Shoko Asahara, Japanese authorities may have finally gotten their man -- some two months after the deadly nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subways. Given the heinous nature of the crimes Aum is charged with, the sect's insistence that the government has carried out "extraordinary religious suppression" must strike Americans as ludicrous.
Nonetheless, Japanese law considers Aum a legitimate religious organization, and the government's decision to try Mr. Asahara and possibly disband Aum introduces new elements into the historically troubled relationship between the Japanese state and what are commonly called the "new religions."
This is not the first time the Japanese government has tangled with controversial new religions. In the years before World War II, officials confronted a great many sects that sprang up outside the established Buddhist, Shinto and Christian denominations and recruited believers in the millions. The state's response was brutal and direct. A nationwide campaign to "eradicate the evil cults" resulted in the forced dissolution of several of the largest new religions.
Appalled by this prewar suppression of religious groups, the Americans who occupied Japan after World War II granted religious organizations the remarkably strong constitutional-legal position that they enjoy to this day.
The U.S.-drafted constitution of 1947 unambiguously guarantees freedom of religion. Under the 1951 Religious Corporation Law, legally registered religious organizations gained not only tax-exempt status, but also protections from the type of state supervision experienced before the war.
One consequence, critics claim, is that postwar authorities have been slow to press charges against sects that engage in criminal activities -- Aum being the most extreme example -- lest the government be accused of violating their freedom of religion.
Yet, before the Japanese rush headlong into weakening these ** freedoms, they should consider the history that many would prefer to forget. Before 1945, there was little to restrain the government from crushing religious groups that posed far less threat to public safety than Aum.
The prewar constitution granted Japanese the freedom of religious belief -- but only "within limits not prejudicial to peace and order, and not antagonistic to their duties as subjects." Even this limited freedom was not extended to the new religions -- which state officials summarily dismissed as "pseudo-religions."
Like Aum, the prewar new religions grew rapidly and amassed considerable resources. They, too, were accused of fleecing the wealth of guileless congregants. The prewar sects also resembled Aum in their use of spiritual healing techniques to gain adherents.
One sect, Omotokyo, particularly offended the public -- much as Aum does today. Its charismatic patriarch organized paramilitary groups and he mimicked the sacrosanct emperor by reviewing them atop a white horse. Perhaps Omotokyo's eeriest resemblance to Aum lies in their common prophesy of an impending apocalyptic war with the United States, which could decimate all of Japan but for their compounds.
By 1935, senior officials in the national police decided that the continued existence of all new religions threatened public order, propagated harmful superstitions and insulted the dignity of the emperor. In a fit of bureaucratic overreaction, the government set up special "religions police" units throughout Japan to crack down on sects.
As a first step toward eradicating the "evil cults," hundreds of police raided Omotokyo headquarters, arresting nearly a thousand leaders and members. After disbanding Omotokyo, the authorities ordered wrecking crews to smash the sect's holy buildings. The destruction of other new religions followed in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The suppression of new religions before 1945 revealed, as nothing else, the state's willingness and ability to differentiate between "proper religions" and offensive "cults."
But the incidents also illustrated the Japanese public's support for crackdowns of what the press called the "evil cults." Established religions urged officials to dissolve the competing new religions, and a host of modern-thinking men and women denounced the sects for their "superstitious" practices and reliance on spiritual healing. Just as newspapers today write lurid stories of Aum's practices, papers of the day sensationally described the alleged orgies and torture chambers of the prewar sects.
The Japanese government might well have continued to control the everyday activities of the new religions, had it not been for the American occupation's constitutional and legal reforms.
Yet, as in the prewar era, most new religions -- however quirky and manipulative -- offer believers spiritual solace and community amid the anomie of urban Japan. It would be unfortunate if the apocalyptic violence of one sect sparked the revival of oppressive state interference in religious activity in general.
Sheldon Garon, a professor of history at Princeton University, is the author of "Managing Society in 20th-Century Japan," to be published by Princeton University Press.