Major: Global and International Studies & Japanese
Daito Bunka University, AY 18-19
Don’t you hate it when you get all excited to go to church, excited to praise The Lord, and you accidentally end up at a doomsday cult meeting instead? I mean, it happens to the best of us. Even me.
During my study in Japan, I thought it would be interesting to visit different churches here. According to a survey carried out in 2017, approximately 1.5% of Japanese consider themselves Christian. The major religions in Japan are Shintoism and Buddhism. Since Christianity is pretty rare here, I thought it would be fascinating to see what sermons are like here.
And instead I went to a cult… whoops.
An acquaintance of mine (let’s call them Sally) has been going to a church in Ōmiya (大宮), a ward in Saitama City, for a while now, so I decided to see if I could tag along to see what it’s like. That seemed like a better idea than trying to check one out on my own, since I still have some trouble speaking and reading Japanese. I didn’t research this church beforehand. I thought it would be fine since Sally attends. Oh boy was I wrong…
The church is located in an unmarked building. There are no signs on the building whatsoever letting you know what’s there. I go in and realize it’s just a large house. That’s fine. I’ve been to church services held in people’s houses or basements before. It’s a wee bit strange, but not a huge deal. The house had three floors, I believe. The first floor had the entryway, along with a meeting area with tables and chairs. The second floor had a kitchen and bathroom. I was told that the church members usually ate little meals and snacks here together in between services. Finally, the third floor is where the sermons take place. There were two sections of seating, one side of the room was for the men and the other side was for the women. Yes, they separated the sexes. I didn’t understand this. What if you go with your whole family? Wouldn’t you all want to sit together? But no, that was not allowed. In the front of the room, there was a large projector screen where the sermon would be streamed from the head church in Korea.
Once I sat down in the women section, a church member came and greeted me. She was quite friendly, asking me about where I was from, what I was doing in Japan, if this was my first time attending church, and so on. Actually, she asked Sally. She kind of treated me like I was some foreign species. I even answered most of the questions in Japanese, but then she ignored me and continued to ask Sally. As the lady was going back to her seat, she handed me this little bag. I looked inside and there was a light purple veil inside. I was confused until Sally explained that all of the women in the church had to wear them during the service. I was not comfortable with that, so I asked if it was okay if I didn’t wear it since I was just a visitor anyway. Nope. Sally said I really did need to wear it, so I did. It was right about at this point that I thought something was funky here.
The service started, and they sang the gospel in Japanese. Sally had the songs and the Bible in both Japanese and English. I read from her music since I didn’t have my own. After that, the actual sermon started. It was projected on a large screen in the front of the room. It was interesting, although I could barely understand the complicated Japanese. The whole thing felt really cold and eerie. Usually when I go to church, it feels warm and welcoming. Not this time. Once the sermon was over, I told Sally that I needed to get going. I actually did have other plans that I needed to get to, but I also felt super uncomfortable and wanted to leave. The woman from before came over and asked what I was doing. When I said I was leaving, she was confused. “Aren’t you staying for the whole day?” she said. Sorry, what? Sally explained to me then that most of the members arrive for the first service at 9am, and they don’t leave the building until after the last service at 8pm. There are only three services in total, but everyone stays there, usually spending the time praying or eating together in the small kitchen. No one is really supposed to leave. I explained to the woman that I had to meet with someone at a certain time, so I really couldn’t stay. She was reluctant but didn’t push it further. As I was exiting, she said she really hoped I would come back next week. I told her, “Oh, yeah, we’ll see…”
I booked it back to the train station. To be honest, at this point, I still didn’t know that I had stumbled upon a cult. I thought maybe it was just a different denomination of Christianity than I’m used to, maybe some cultural differences. I wouldn’t expect it to be the same in Japan as it is in America. It was when I was texting one of my friends back home that I found out. I explained what happened over text while I was riding the train back. My friend asked what the name of the church was, and he Googled it. He replied almost right away saying I needed to look it up now. I did, and right away there were headlines saying, “Doomsday Cult”, “Brainwashing”, “____ Lawsuit”, “_____ Kidnapping”, etc. Oh boy. What did I just attend?
As long as you are careful and aware of your surroundings, you should be fine trying out places that have your same interest. Just… keep your wits about you. Needless to say, I have not returned to the cult in Ōmiya.