Dynamism and the Aging of a Japanese 'New Religion'

Transformations and the Founder

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Ian Reader, Erica Baffelli
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Publishing
    , December
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In October 2018, I visited Agonshū’s main temple in Yamashina, near Kyoto, Japan, and attended one of the movement’s monthly rituals. I wondered whether one day a comprehensive book, in English, would be published about this important Japanese “new religion,” and one updated to its post-charismatic phase inaugurated by the death of the founder, Kiriyama Seiyū (1921-2016). My wish was granted by this fascinating, splendid book, which will remain the definitive treatment of Agonshū for many years. Dynamism and the Aging of a Japanese ‘New’ Religion offers more, as it continuously compares Agonshū with other Japanese new religions, and in the end, calls into question the well-established academic categories such as “new religions” and “new religious movements” in general.

As veteran scholars of Japanese religions, Erica Baffelli and Ian Reader start by situating Agonshū within the context of what, in Japan, are called shinshūkyō (new religions), and shin shinshūkyō (“new” new religions; i.e., those that emerged since the late 1970s). Indeed, Agonshū shares certain common characteristics with other groups labeled as “new religions,”—including the charismatic and gradually divinized leader, a focus on the special spiritual role of Japan, millenarian teachings, an interest for esotericism, and the peculiar Japanese passion for the prophecies of French 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame, 1503-1566). Kiriyama later claimed that if some traits were common, it was that other new religions in Japan had copied Agonshū. Perhaps, with some exaggeration, he insisted that both the focus on Nostradamus, and the mykkyō būmu of the 1970s-1980s—the “boom” in the interest for esoteric Buddhism and supernatural powers—were created by his lectures and books.

As the authors note, there is no way to reconstruct the life of Kiriyama independently from his personal accounts, and the movement’s hagiographyThere we found five “turning points.” First, there were the early physical and moral misfortunes of Kiriyama, who was jailed in 1953 for his involvement in an illegal, alcohol-making enterprise. He attempted to commit suicide in 1954, only to change his mind at the last minute, after noticing a copy of the Kannon Sutra on the beam where he had thrown his rope. Next, was the founding a devotional group called Kannon Jikeikai in that same year (1954); and then, in 1970, Juntei Kannon, the apparition to Kiriyama—one of the manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion—entrusted him with a global religious mission. 

The third “turning point” was Kiriyama’s claimed discovery, in 1978, that the Āgamas—the early sutras—were the keys to the whole of Buddhism, and should be interpreted in connection with Japanese esoteric traditions. This led Kiriyama to establish a new movement, Agonshū, and proclaim that it was the only purveyor of “original Buddhism” and “complete Buddhism” in the world. Then, in 1980, Kiriyama visited Sahet Mahet, the site of the first Buddhist monastery in India, and claimed that the Buddha himself had passed to Kiriyama the mantle of universal Buddhist leadership. Lastly, in 1986, after he had established in Yamashina the “new Sahet Mahet,” Kiriyama received a “true relic of the Buddha” (shinsei busshari) from the President of Sri Lanka. Kiriyama then proclaimed that most of the other relics of the Buddha in Japan were false, and that the casket with the shinsei busshari, miniature reproductions of which were placed in the members’ homes, should be the main focus of Agonshū’s worship. 

The latter events correspond to the period of greatest success for Agonshū. Its yearly goma (fire) ritual—the Hoshi Matsuri—where devotees take care of their bad karma, and pacify the wandering spirits of the deceased—who are responsible for any misfortunes—attracted large crowds. Members grew to a half-million. Kiriyama established himself as a nationally respected religious leader, with the help of an astute public relations campaign managed by a leading Japanese firm.

One of the strengths of this book is that it does not stop there. It also tells a different story, that of the ageing and decline of the movement in Kiriyama’s old age. In 1995, the terrorist attacks perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyō made all Japanese new religions unpopular, and Agonshū in particular, when it was revealed that Aum’s founder, Asahara Shōkō (1955-2018), had been a follower of Kiriyama, although only for a short time. Perhaps, as a reaction to this incident, Kiriyama, who had been initially critical of the Japanese involvement in World War II, revised his earlier positions and adopted an increasingly vocal Japanese nationalism. His rituals focused on pacifying the souls of the Japanese soldiers who died in World War II, and in bringing back to Japan the gods of the territories occupied by the United States and Russia after the war.

Agonshū, however, did not disappear after Kiriyama’s death in 2016. The movement transformed itself into something else, giving it the chance to survive, if not prosper. Kiriyama’s successors, senior priest Fukada Seia and chief female disciple Wada Naoko, effectively transformed Agonshū into a cult of the founder, who was recognized as the new Buddha and, in fact, a spiritual figure higher than Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Kiriyama’s relics preside at all rituals, and messages from him are regularly received from the afterlife. As the authors observe, Agonshū avoided the schisms over questions of succession after the founder’s death, which are so common in Japanese new religions by proclaiming that, in fact, Kiriyama has no successors, and is still leading the movement from the spirit world.

Baffelli and Reader comment that this is not unique in Japanese new religions. The posthumous divinization of the founders also happened in Gedatsukai and Tenrikyō; while in Kōfuku no Kagaku the founder, although still alive, has already been recognized as the Eternal Buddha and the Supreme God. However, this is also a feature of traditional forms of Japanese religion. Kūkai (774-835), the founder of Shingon Buddhism, was divinized after his death as Kōbō Daishi, and similar processes have always been at work in Chinese religions. So, in conclusion, the authors may come back to their original question: is there really an essential difference between “old” and “new” religions in Japan (and elsewhere)?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist and Managing Director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, in Torino, Italy.

Date of Review: 
July 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Erica Baffelli is Senior Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Manchester.

Ian Reader is Professor Emeritus at the University of Manchester.


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