Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Scholarly Reactions to the Aum and Waco Incidents

Academic journal article Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Scholarly Reactions to the Aum and Waco Incidents

Article excerpt

This article investigates some scholarly reactions towards the Aum incident of March 1995 and the incident of 1993 involving the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. The Waco incident began on 28 February 1993 with an armed exchange in which four federal agents and six Branch Davidians died, and ended on 19 April 1993 with the deaths of seventy-six Branch Davidians. While both incidents highlighted questions that democracies face in terms of the balance between protecting religious freedom and guaranteeing public safety, they also highlighted stark cultural differences in reactions, approaches, and expectations between scholars in Japan and the West, particularly the United States. There is, of course, a danger in attempting to compare the same research methods and assumptions scholars generally operate on in one region to another, in conjunction with prevailing social and cultural attitudes. Nevertheless, the growing field of new religious movements, or nrms, necessarily requires at least some consideration into scholarly methods and assumptions from an international perspective.

keywords: Branch Davidians-new religious movements (nrms)-fieldwork- Waco

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The Waco incident of 1993 involving the Branch Davidians stands beside the Aum subway gassing incident as a major event of the 1990s that drew international attention to the potential dangers associated with so-called new religious movements (hereafter, nrms). Since the Waco incident, the study of nrms has grown significantly in the West, and particularly in the United States. Although the study of Japanese nrms was relatively popular in Japan from the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, the Aum Affair appears to have contributed significantly to a drop in such studies. Shimada Hiromi, a religious studies scholar who had done some work on Aum and was perceived to have endorsed the group in some way, lost his university position as a result. In the years after the Aum incident, the public perception of religion in Japan took a serious dive (see the Editors' Introduction in this issue).

In the us, the growth of the field can be partly attributed to the activities of scholars who strove to place the subject of nrms on the public agenda in the wake of the Waco incident. This field had begun to develop in the 1970s as scholars became interested in the rise of movements (often originating from Asia) that were linked to the counter-culture of the 1960s, and developed further after the Jonestown mass murder/suicide involving the Peoples Temple in 1978. The Waco incident of 1993 definitely gave it a further strong boost, as it gave scholars who had worked in the area a chance to voice their concerns and establish the legitimacy of the study of nrms. The development of the field manifested in a greater presence and voice at academic conferences by scholars of new religions, more interactions between scholars in the media, larger numbers of students enrolling in classes on new religions, and the foundation of a journal, Nova Religio, specifically focused on the study of new, emergent, and alternative religions, and which provided scholars with a forum for their studies of such movements.

The Japanese case stands in stark contrast to this. Even if we consider a recent, major new work in Japanese on the Aum case, which focuses on new information that was not available soon after the sarin gas attack (Inoue 2011), the amount of Japanese scholarship specifically dealing with Aum is minor compared with that on Waco, and the public engagement by Japanese scholars has been virtually nonexistent (particularly from the public's point of view).1 There are, of course, significant factors that need to be taken into account regarding these differences, such as the sheer numbers of scholars studying religion of any kind, the role of the media, and fieldwork methods that work in one country or region but not another.

Scholars studying the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo tend to consider them as nrms, or new religions (shinshukyo, the phrase that is most used in Japan). …

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