Mahikari: New Religion and Japanese Popular Culture.
On February 22, 1959, Okada Yoshikazu--former officer in the Japanese army, former owner of an aircraft manufacturing plant, and descendant of samurai--experienced a vision. From an image of a god washing clothes in a tub of gold, he determined his purpose in life was to cleanse the world. Then a few days later he awoke to a voice saying, "Give the True Light of God and declare the dawn of the Spiritual Civilization. Your mission is to be as a sphere of light. Your name shall be Kotama (Jewel of Light)" (McVeigh 15).
The following year Okada formed a movement which has become one of the fastest-growing so-called New Religions in Japan, and one of the few that has succeeded outside of Japan. This essay will explore the manner in which this New Religion-Mahikari--reflects features of Japan's contemporary culture. After placing Mahikari in the context of other New Religions, it will focus on five topics: (1) healing, (2) spiritualism, (3) apocalypticism, (4) Japanocentrism, and (5) science. All five relate to Japan's popular culture, and most also serve to connect Mahikari with "New Age-ism" in Japan (Haga and Kisala 236).
New Religions in Japan
First, what are New Religions in Japan and how do they differ from the "old" ones? Just as "high" culture tends to merge with popular culture in modem Japan (Painter 197), sometimes traditional religions flow into and influence the "new" ones in Japan. Both emphasize the importance of nature, living and dead family members, purification rites, festivals, daily rituals, and the connection between religious history and Japan's nationhood (Earhart 2). In the last two centuries, however, many reformulations of Shintoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other belief systems have produced what are termed "New Religions."
Some claim the New Religions movement started in the early nineteenth century. Additional suggested starting points include the years after the Meiji restoration in 1868, the early 1900s, or the period after World War II (Inoue 4). Helen Hardacre believes the phenomenon started in 1800 and then had three distinct periods of growth: 1800-1860, the 1920s, and the years after World War II(4). Most recently, Shimazono Susumu, in an analysis of Aum Shinrikyo, noted that New Religions can be grouped into four main periods of growth, the last of which began in the 1970s and continues today (383). There is general agreement, however, that serious growth first occurred in the late Tokugawa and early Meiji period, for it was only then that the Japanese were given the freedom to organize non-traditional religious organizations and to meet freely (Havens 272).
A second term, "New New Religions," forms the subset of New Religions that includes Mahikari. These groups have adapted themselves well to Japan's popular culture. For example, Manga (Japanese comic boks) and other media are widely used to recruit and deliver information to members, and televangelism may not be too far behind. These new groups can be distinguished from their predecessors by their interest in psychic phenomena and spiritualism and by their high proportion of younger members (Inoue 13-15). Besides Mahikari, the first wave of New New Religions comprised groups such as Agonshu and the God Light Organization, which experienced high rates of growth in the 1 970s and 1980s. The second wave included groups such as Aum Shinrikyo and Kofuku no Kagaku, for whom the use of media and advertising was important (Shimazono 383-84).
All New Religions in Japan, including the "New" New Religions, form a powerful cultural force. Over 350 groups are registered with the government, and some estimates of membership go as high as almost one-third of the population (Anderson 115). Although some may believe New Religions have signaled Japan's movement away from a spiritual world to one that is more secular, others see the growth of these sects as just one more chapter in a coherent religious story-that is, they can be viewed as a "modern version of Japan's spirituality" (McVeigh 24). The irony in Japan's religious tradition is that a nation so often assumed to be oriented mainly toward group activity and consensus-making has such an amazing number and variety of distinctive religious organizations (Reader 109).
Certainly Mahikari fits comfortably into this new religious tradition that forms an important part of Japan's popular culture. Like other groups, it was founded by a charismatic, shamanistic leader who stressed the power of the mind, communication with the spirit world, the coming of a new age, construction of a paradise-like center on earth, miracle-like healing, the influence of previous lives on current ones, and the need to rid both the human body and the planet's environment of poisons (McVeigh 22). And like other New Religions, it has endured its share of change. In 1960, Okada Kotama called his first organization the "Lucky and Healthy Sunshine Children Organization." The name was later changed to "Church of the World True-Light Civilization" (Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan). After Okada's death in 1974, a scramble for power was followed by a court case and finally a splintering of Mahikari into several factions. The two main ones operating today are (1) Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan and (2) Sukyo Mahika ri, led by Okada's adopted daughter and by far the larger group. Although neither appears to recognize the other, they share similar belief systems that flow from their founder. Information I acquired about Mahikari largely came from the Sukyo Mahikari group, starting with my 1994 visit to the sect's New World Shrine in Takayama, Japan.
Healing and Mahikari
One central idea forms the core of Mahikari belief: people can heal themselves and purify the world through "true light." It is also the feature that best demonstrates the way this religion responds to situational, "results-now" expectations among younger members. Bryan Wilson writes that "all new movements of necessity offer something unavailable in older religions...a surer, shorter, swifter, clearer way to salvation" (196). Salvation, in Mahikari terms, has a strong component in the here and now. Its "swifter" path comes through the vehicle of "true light." As Winston Davis put it in the first book-length study of Mahikari, "members claim to be able to heal all kinds of diseases, repair broken appliances, improve the taste of food, open the eyes of the dead (or cause froth to appear on their lips), resurrect dead goldfish--all by raising their hands" (11). Essentially, true light is a panacea for all problems in this life and beyond.
Members believe that the light of their parent god, called Su-god, flows through their outstretched open palm into anything toward which it is aimed. Light gives each member the power to perform the kind of miraculous healing that, in the past, was reserved only for major figures such as Buddha and Jesus. This "democratization" of divine healing (Reader 119-20) appeals to adherents because it reinforces the Japanese tendency to play down distinctions between humankind and the divinity. As New Agers might put it, there is a little bit of God in all of us.
In Mahikari this god-like power to heal is accessible to anyone--that is, anyone who completes the initial training. Aspiring members pay a fee to take the three-day course, after which they receive an amulet (called an omitama) to be worn at all times. This amulet qualifies adherents to "give light" from that time forward. Certainly light (okiyome) from some individuals--namely, Okada Sachiko, the current world leader of Sukyo Mahikari--is considered more powerful than that of lay members, but the general belief is that the light of Su-god can be directed through the palms of any believer. Light directed toward body parts below the head is intended to heal physical maladies, whereas light directed to the head aims to address psychological and spiritual problems. Adding to the self-help nature of Mahikari, members can even direct light to themselves (though they are advised not to give okiyome to their own head, presumably because it may precipitate the arrival of "attached" spirits). Interestingly, one does not have to be a Mahikari member to "take" light and thus to benefit from the alleged healthful effects of Mahikari. After I visited the head of a U.S. Mahikari center, for example, he invited me to "receive" light after our conversation.
Apparently, the act of directing light through the palm did not originate with Mahikari but instead was a part of earlier New Religions. Before founding his own sect, Okada belonged to a New Religion called Sekai Kyusei Kyo (Davis 3). Members of this group also believe that light can be directed from God through the palm in a process called jorei. It allegedly cures physical ills by helping to purify and remove spiritual "clouds" that build up in the body as a result of "bad emotions, desires, and evil spirits" (Yamada 153). Like Mahikari, Sekai Kyusei Kyo requires members to wear a pendant that provides the power to perform jorei. An even earlier source for Okada was the Omoto sect, which used an okiyome-like healing technique named miteshiro or "honorable hand-substitute" (Davis 74). Thus, Okada derived basic Mahikari beliefs from at least two other New Religions that stressed healing.
Given the emphasis on using light for healing, not surprisingly the most common reason people give for joining Mahikari is health (Davis 307). The Mahikari leadership knows that prospective members, especially in today's culture, want to see results before they make a major commitment. Potential converts are encouraged to make their commitments incrementally and to "try it" first. So often in Japan, religion seems to be connected to situations and actions rather than to religious doctrine. Ironically, this results-oriented approach to membership can damage an organization even when the healing works. One writer reports that he once encountered an acquaintance who had previously belonged to a Buddhist-based New Religion that stressed healing. When the writer asked why his friend was no longer a member, the man replied, "I got better" (Reader 18-19). Indeed, Mahikari suffers from high drop-out numbers. Over half of those who complete the three-day Mahikari introductory training course "drop out of the religion fairly soon afterwards" (Davis 229).
Mahikari's high turnover rate highlights the need for continuous recruitment for survival. The sect appears to take mostly a "word-of mouth" approach by recruiting heavily among friends and acquaintances of members. Winston Davis (100) notes that in a survey of one Dojo (Mahikari center), he found that the top three sources of information about Mahikari were recommendations from relatives (39%), information from newspapers and advertising (23%), and recommendation from friends (22%). Several Mahikari sects even have Internet web sites and use sales language to "push their product." The Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan web site I visited made the following pitch: "We offer 7-day trial with no obligation. We are waiting for your visit!" (Sekai web site).
Spiritualism and Mahikari
A second major feature of Mahikari, belief in attached spirits, dovetails with the emphasis on healing. Mahikari doctrine asserts that people encounter sickness, personal disasters of every kind, and unhappiness because spirits of the dead "attach" to them in daily life. One's own "karma" becomes so intertwined with that of one's ancestors that okiyome is required to pacify spirits. When calmed, these spirits return to the "astral world" from which they either left or escaped.
The Mahikari cosmos has three levels: physical, astral, and spiritual. The physical world comprises life as we know it on earth. The astral world is home to those who, at the time of death, have been purified enough to reach the spiritual world. This group must complete "training" at the end of which they are reincarnated in the physical world. Here they try once again to live such that they will deserve to enter the spiritual world after death.
The process of exorcism used to remove attached spirits can involve some drama and shows how rituals of some "New" New Religions differ from those of their more sedate forebears. In his survey of one Mahikari center, Davis determined that there were those who had been possessed by ancestral spirits, those who had been possessed by human spirits other than ancestors, and those who had been possessed by spirits of animals. Of the group possessed by ancestors, there was the following additional breakdown as to the type of possessing spirit (121-22):
Grandparent 29% Warrior 27% Father 14% Mother 14% Brother or sister 13% Diverse other groups 48%
Perhaps the most energetic exorcisms occur among the 27% who have samurai warriors removed from their bodies and minds. During okiyome, individuals receiving light may appear to be in a trance-like state while they perform warrior-like movements, afterwards returning to a mild-mannered life in modern Japan.
Just what occurs during this ritual? Perhaps only the participants themselves know for sure, but one interpretation might be that it gives members the chance to relieve guilt about ancestors--this in a culture that has long emphasized rituals for the dead. It also has cathartic value, in that participants have the chance to apologize to ancestors for neglect. Likewise, spirits presumably have the chance to apologize for their infractions, such as escaping from the astral world to plague their living kin (Davis 156-57). In any case, whether or not one accepts the premise of astral world spirits, Mahikari gives its members the opportunity to take part in a safe, seemingly therapeutic venting. As Ian Reader puts it:
The modern setting of the Mahikari center and its okiyome allowed the man...to become a samurai, safely untroubled by any need actually to endure the pains, strife, and danger of a real warrior's life, and to step outside his everyday life for a while, after which he would return, imbued with his warrior's strength, for the continued struggles of the present. (231)
Apocalypticism and Mahikari
As the year 2000 approached, apocalyptic groups became a common and sometimes frightening part of Japan's cultural landscape. Yet millenarian thinking is not new to the country. It was common in many New Religions from earlier in this century until the end of World War II. Some early millenarian groups include Omotokyo, Tenri Honmichi, Shinto Tenrokyo, and Matsushita Soshindo (Tsushima 59). Some later New Religions, such as Mahikari, have also incorporated millenarian thinking into their theological framework. Before elaborating on Mahikari's apocalyptic vision, it is important to clarify some terms that are often confused:
Apocalypticism: belief that the end of history as we know it is near.
Millenarianism: belief that the end of history and some kind of accompanying retribution is near.
Millennialism: belief that Christ will return to rule on earth for 1000 years after the apocalypse.
Premillennialism: belief that antichrist will rule earth before Christ arrives to defeat antichrist at Armageddon, after which the millennium will begin.
Postmillennialism: belief that humankind by its own actions will create the Christian millennial kingdom, after which Christ will return to rule.
(Robbins and Palmer 4, 9)
The last three terms have acquired a context beyond Christianity and can be related to apocalyptic views of New Religions like Mahikari.
Depending on how one interprets Mahikari's religious tracts, the religion seems to be perched on the precipice between premillennialism and postmillennialism. Postmillennial features are evident in its belief that "the Creator God sent Kotama Okada into the world in this confused age as humankind's last chance to receive salvation." This "heralding messiah" arrived while the physical world is undergoing its "baptism by fire," which includes strange weather and climate patterns, earthquakes and other disasters, and increased social and medical problems (Sukyo Mahikari brochure #2 19). Presumably, if enough people are able to undergo the transforming and purifying power of okiyome, they will prevent destruction before the millennium. The other and more likely possibility seems to be the premillennial vision of increased dislocation and disruption in society, followed by a crescendo of destruction at the end of which humankind is annihilated in firestorms.
For both scenarios, Mahikari aims to purify and train enough of what it calls "seed people" to cleanse the physical world while there is still time. As the current Mahikari leader said in a recent monthly address, "Unless humankind's innermost attitude becomes 'spirit-centered,' it will not be possible to save the world" (Oshienushisama). These spirit-centered seed people will form the foundation for a new civilization, whether it occurs according to a pre- or postmillennial vision. If the former, they will gather together at their international holy place, where they will be shielded by true light from the apocalypse.
Exactly when the apocalypse will occur, if at all, is not specified in most Mahikari literature I consulted. However, there is one source that does hazard a guess: A. K. Tebecis, the Mahikari leader in Australia and "the man who has become the main spokesman of Mahikari for the West" (Cornille, "Phoenix" 277). Insiders often mention his book, Mahikari: Thank God for the Answers at Last, as a source of information about the movement. (I was referred to the text by a high-level official of Mahikari U.S.A., who said it would give an accurate picture of the movement.) Tebecis cites a number of sources, from Nostradamus to Jean Dixon, to suggest that cataclysmic events will occur near the turn of the century (Tebecis 34). Interestingly, the other main branch of Mahikari--Sekai Mahikari Bunmei Kyodan--appeared more bold in predicting at least some of the preliminary events. Its "Mahikari International" web site noted the following:
On August 19, 1999, 10 planets of the Solar System will form a cross [a prominent Mahikari symbol]. The Grand Cross suggests the end of material-primary civilization, and at the same time, it symbolizes the beginning of the new spirit-primary civilization. In order to live in the new civilization, a person's soul has to have the vibration of altruistic love.... The 21st century is approaching us, and we have [a] strong wish to hold "The Grand Ceremony of All Human Race" on August 1, 1999, with people from all over the world. When the harmony of our vibration and prayer reaches to the Creator, we are taught that the whole spiritual world will be purified, and the vibration of altruistic love will pervade the whole physical world. We hope as many of you as possible will join this big "attuning." (21 Jan. 1998)
Readers were left with the question, "Will this 'attuning' usher in good or bad news for mankind?" Mahikari may have been hedging its bets, but certainly it was not the first apocalyptic group to do so. Groups that hazard specific predictions about the end of time may encounter what has come to be known as "The Great Disappointment," which refers to the failure of the Second Coming to occur on October 22, 1944, when it was predicted by the then-famous Millerites. Stephen Jay Gould recently wrote that "nothing dulls enthusiasm quite so effectively as the spectacular failure of a central prediction." Then he adds that "nothing can shake the faith of a true believer either" (49). It is not yet clear whether a failed prediction by Mahikari leadership decreased or increased its position in the marketplace of Japan's New Religions.
Japanocentrism and Mahikari
Although most religions see themselves at the center of religious history, Mahikari goes one step further by placing itself above the fray. The first page of a Mahikari tract includes the following claim:
Sukyo Mahikari is MORE than a religion. It encompasses the principles of science, education, economics, history, and medicine. It is not a sect, but is the core of fundamental principles and universal truth found in the original teachings of all major religions. (Angels of Light 1)
Mahikari claims to transcend mere religious doctrine and--as a so-called "Supra-religion"--to synthesize everything of importance in Eastern and Western thought. Furthermore, it places Japan at the center of its world view.
Mahikari teachings are clear about the fact "that the history of the human began in Japan" (Tebecis 352). This Japanocentric focus, allegedly supported by a number of written records, is particularly connected with the mythic lost continent of Mu. Mahikari's Divine Teachings claim that in Japan, the cultural center of Mu, the Su-god created five races: Red, White, Blue-Green, Purple, and Yellow. The last included the Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese, with the Japanese being dominant over all others. The Japanese also had built the most advanced civilization on earth. There was political peace, the people lived long lives, and the culture developed technological marvels beyond what we have today.
Mu's Japanese emperor sent emissaries throughout the world to lead civilizations in regions such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, and India, so that every place on earth was influenced by the ancient Japanese (McVeigh 74). However, all was not right in paradise, and the land of Mu drifted toward materialism and corruption that brought conflict to its people. Finally, nuclear war between Mu and Atlantis sunk the continent and destroyed much of civilization. Although various peoples have populated the earth since those upheavals, the earth continues to be threatened by destruction that can only be prevented by the divine light distributed by, of course, Mahikari adherents. Mahikari's main goal during the current "baptism of fire" is to reunite all the world's races and religions so that a "spiritual" civilization can be achieved.
This Japanocentric view of the world is particularly evident in Mahikari 's understanding of religious history. According to the writings of the founder, all the world's great religions started in Japan. Shrine records supposedly show that Moses, Mohammed, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, and Jesus visited Japan for spiritual training before beginning work in other parts of the globe (Davis 70). Of special note is the manner with which the myth accepted by Mahikari rewrites biblical history to give Christianity a Japanese focus. The Mahikari version of Christ's life appears to be based on the so-called "Takenouchi documents" often cited by Okada. Discovered in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, these ancient papers allegedly present a version of Jesus' life which again makes Japan the religious center of the planet. For example, Jesus is said to have traveled to and died in Japan.
Specifically, Mahikari accepts the following details of Christ's life, as allegedly revealed in the Takenouchi documents: Jesus was born in 37 B.C. and proceeded to travel through China and India on his way to Japan, where he arrived when he was 18. After acquiring magical Shinto powers, he left Japan and practiced his powers in many countries before arriving in Judea. There his performance of miracles caused him to be sentenced to death by the Romans who controlled the country. But Jesus' brother, Isukiri, allowed himself to be crucified in place of Jesus. Later when he was 36, Jesus began a four-year odyssey back to Japan, which took him through Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Once back in Japan, he married a Japanese, had children, and lived to be over 100 years old (Camille, "Jesus" 94-95).
This rewriting of biblical history dispenses with perhaps the most central tenet of Christianity--that Christ died on the cross for mankind's sins. But the revision serves Mahikari interests well by reinforcing the notion that Japan is the spiritual center of the universe, that the Japanese are its chosen people, and that Su-god delivered Mahikari's founder unto Japan to complete the work of Jesus (Cornille, "Phoenix" 279). Another version of this story has Jesus settling specifically in the town of Shingo, near Lake Towada in northeast Honshu (Koedyker 167). Oddly enough, in recent years the Associated Press carried a story that connected Jesus and Shingo. Apparently, the crosses at the supposed graves of Jesus and his brother were sawed down by vandals. The article noted that although there are no Christians in Shingo, the graves are visited annually by 100,000 tourists. In fact, the park surrounding the grave sports a billboard that reads, "Shingo, Hometown of Christ" (Sakurai 3).
A final comment about Christianity and Mahikari concerns symbolism. Obvious examples of Christian/Judaic symbols appear throughout the World Shrine in Takayama. For example, the roof is in the shape of a huge golden ark, the main shrine contains a large Star of David and floor-to-ceiling cross, and about one-third of the hymns in the missal include references to Jesus (Young 20-21). In many ways, therefore, Mahikari has appropriated and revised Christian ideas, lore, and symbols to support its own mission as a "universal religion."
Science and Mahikari
Manabu Haga and Robert J. Kisala state that New Age religions often "use scientific language coupled with a postmodern suspicion of science itself' (236). This accurately describes the way Mahikari views the purpose of science. On the one hand, adherents seem to believe that science has had an important role in developing technology and in dispelling certain types of myth. On the other hand, the scientific method is not up to the task of explaining important phenomena such as true light and miracles. In other words, Mahikari seems willing to accept science only to the degree that it can be used to bolster its own belief system.
A good example of its selective use of science is found in a book by one of Mahikari's best-known practitioners, A. K. Tebecis. With a Ph.D. in neurophysiology, Tebecis alms to show that even those trained in science can adopt Mahikari, with all its seemingly nonscientific features. This point rings forth from the very first words in the book, a "Preface" written by Professor Z. Yoshizawa, described as a biology professor with both Ph.D. and M.D. degrees. Clearly, the professor's scientific credentials are meant to make the following quite unscientific passage more acceptable to skeptical readers:
In particular, in Nature there exists a fourth and even higher dimensions [sic] above this third (physical) dimension. The phenomena which pertain to such higher dimensions are subjects completely different from today's third dimensional science. In general, not only scientists, but also the majority of lay people are unconcerned with or even ridicule phenomena that are not readily explained by conventional scientific theories, despite the clear existence of facts.
Much of the book turns on this separation of the limited world of scientific method from the "facts" that make up the Mahikari world.
If Mahikari simply claimed that science and religion could never be reconciled, it would not be much different from other religions that believe in a world beyond the material. However, Mahikari goes in a different direction to undergird its "true light" doctrine. That is, it redefines "science" to explain the effect that divine light has on phenomena or matter as diverse as people, plants, washing machines, classroom students, and world peace. No longer restricted by traditional scientific rigor, Mahikari creates new terms--like "true science"--to describe a synthesis of the spiritual and material worlds:
The pursuit of knowledge using only a materialistic approach has resulted in a limited, low-level science, a human science that is based on analysis rather than synthesis.... If human science is combined with Divine science, on the other hand, the result will eventually be a profound understanding of the marvels of the universe...[this combined approach] has the power of transcending all limitations. (290)
Now Mahikari is free to use testimonials and other less academically acceptable means to explain a wide variety of phenomena influenced by true light. For example, one Mahikari web site shows a before and after shot of a polluted water crystal that has been purified by okiyome. On the left side sits a glass of obviously polluted water. On the right is a magnified clear crystalline structure that is pure, transparent, and regular. Tebecis's own book includes photos showing the effect of true light on the growth of food. Treated rice stayed fresher than untreated rice, treated mung bean plants grew faster than untreated plants, and treated mold in a petri dish grew faster than untreated mold. What Tebecis calls the "divine science" of Mahikari has done its work, apparently without having to undergo the scrutiny of the scientific method as we know it.
Despite the tendency of Mahikari literature to use "science"--or what some might call "pseudoscience"--to explain changes that result from true light, it should be noted that some adherents have no problem distancing themselves from traditional science. On the first day of an introductory training course, a lecturer said to Winston Davis: "You must get rid of the idea that science is everything and get ready to believe in the unseen. Science can't explain the miracles that you are going to see" (30-31). Clearly, Mahikari fits comfortably within a contemporary culture that continues to have a love/hate relationship with the methods and results of science.
While traditional religions have struggled to maintain a robust presence in contemporary Japan, New Religions like Mahikari have prospered. In an urban culture with fewer family ties than in the past, Mahikari offers adherents an organization that gives coherence to a chaotic world. First, the approach to healing lodges the power of change in the individual. Second, an emphasis on spiritualism maintains the tradition of ancestor worship while giving adherents an opportunity for cathartic relief during exorcisms. Third, a premillennial bent certainly lends urgency to the Mahikari message and echoes the apocalyptic tone that attended the change in centuries. Fourth, Mahikari's obvious Japanocentrism feeds the xenophobic appetite of a nation where many continue to see their nation as "uniquely unique." And finally, Mahikari's curious approach to science seems calculated to satisfy adherents who have grown skeptical of science but who are still influenced by quasi-scientific language. Little wonder that Mahikari fares well in Japan's Postindustrial Age.
William Sanborn Pfeiffer is a professor in the Humanities and Technical Communication Department at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, GA.
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