Management: The final version of an anthropological research paper I’m working on connecting Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese psyche, the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks, and cult tropes in anime post-Aum. For anyone who cares to be patronized, thank you for patient with me when my blogging activity became slow to writing this damn thing. I managed a pretty decent grade on this paper, but my anthropology professor is ultimately just one (albeit highly knowledgeable) person who’s critiqued my work. I’d welcome more if you guys are willing to provide feedback.
With the emergence of Aum and its heinous crimes, a great many Japanese were shocked, lost their sense of logic, and screamed out hysterically in condemnation of it. But the “darkness” of Aum is connected with the “darkness” concealed in the subconscious of us all. We Japanese abhor confronting “darkness” and taking the media uproar as a form of catharsis, have refused to gaze at this “darkness.”
– Mori Tatsuya (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 148)
Now of course a mirror image is always darker and distorted. Convex and concave swap places, falsehood wins out over reality, light and shadow play tricks. But take away these dark flaws and the images are uncannily similar; some details seem to conspire together. Which is why we avoid looking at the image, why, consciously or not, we keep eliminating these dark elements from the face we want to see.
– Haruki Murakami (Murakami 2000, p. 229)
The mainstream Japanese reaction to the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks is the capstone to what Sakai Shinji, a writer for the Katorikku Shinbun’s opinion column, has called “the end-of-the-century unease (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 122).” The Japanese bubble economy had burst in the early 1990s. The Japanese Great Hanshin Earthquake had taken its toll in 1995. Popular political distrust and turbulence gripped the public due to the Japanese government’s widely perceived incompetence in handling these two crises. Just a few months after this natural disaster, an artificial one in the form of a religiously-motivated terrorist attack by Aum Shinrikyo (Aum) struck the Tokyo underground subway lines, killing twelve and injuring over a thousand (p. 123). Further revelations of heinous crimes and inflated coverage from the so-called Aum Affair in the ensuing weeks and months would further stoke the hostility and fear of mainstream Japanese toward Aum and whatever was widely perceived to be a cult like Aum. While the Aum Affair certainly terrified mainstream Japanese, the combined economic, environmental, and political trauma of the era were also responsible for the shaking the ease, security, and certainty they found in what Yukio describes as their modern myths:
…the myths of economic development and permanent employment based on a work ethic of loyalty toward one’s company, the myth of a secure environment guaranteed by modern technology and government administration, and the myth of a harmonious society based on national ethnic homogeneity (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 163).
The pressure that these repeated traumas inflicted on Japanese and the extent to which the Japanese obsessed over these myths played a part in contributing to the severity of mainstream Japanese reaction to Aum and cults.
Even decades later, the trauma still lingers in the Japanese psyche. This trauma reverberates throughout Japanese popular culture in the form of subject and trope matter about cults. The Japanese subculture of manga and anime are no exception. The narratives of many manga and anime feature humor, references, and commentary about cults and cultist behavior. Scholarly works such as Jolyon Baraka Thomas’ article, “Horrific ‘Cults’ and Comic Religion (2014)” and his book, Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan (2014), have led the academic charge in drawing connections between popular manga and anime films and the Japanese pre-Aum and post-Aum zeitgeist. In particular, Thomas’s book demonstrates, through his manga analysis of 20th Century Boys, that mainstream Japanese are “attracted to stories that present superhuman, righteous individuals and their unwavering efforts to save the world” despite “how much [they] may criticize specific religious groups” like Aum “for their deception, their fraud, or their violence (p. 152).” However, his analyses have tended to avoid manga and anime film examples that are not narratively tailored to what he defines, according to his book, as epics (p. 129). Furthermore, Thomas has also confined his analyses to popular anime films, neglecting the plethora of anime TV series that contain subject and trope matter about cults and cultish behavior in their narratives. Accordingly, this paper will analyze how post-Aum anime TV series are reflective screens into the Japanese psyche.
What is Aum Shinrikyo?
Aum Shinkyo is a New Religious Movement (NRM) founded in the 1980s by Chizuo Matsumoto, more infamously known by his self-declared moniker of Shoko Asahara (Petersen 2005, p. 153; Reader 1996, p. 19). Asahara’s primary role in Aum would transition overtime from that of spiritual mentor, to unquestioned master, and, finally, literal messiah. He has been characterized as incredibly charismatic, and was the source and director of Aum’s dogmas and activities. Though primarily Buddhist in nature, Aum incorporated syncretic elements from various established religions such as Daoism, Hinduism, and Christianity; prophecies from Nostradamus; and beliefs in science (Petersen 2005, p. 168-171; Reader 1996: 15-18, 23-24). Aum utilized existing religious traditions to create ritualized meditative practices that sought the enlightenment of the self. Aum also incorporated existing visions of millenarianism, eschatology, and apocalypse that Asahara and other members used to later justify the ordering and committing of violence. Aum utilized science in attempts to give tangible credibility to claims of supernatural abilities achieved through its prescribed spiritual practices and faith in Asahara. Aum also incorporated science to develop the sarin gas that Asahara and other members would later use in the Tokyo underground.
Why did Aum Shinrikyo members gas the Tokyo underground?
Aum Shinrikyo is world-rejectionist in the sense that it rejects the modern Japanese homogeneous worldview. In many ways, it is countercultural to modern Japanese homogeneous values. These values have their basis in a synthesis of Japanese traditional and Western globalized values that have together embraced materialism and secularism at the expense of what Aum perceives as spirituality (Petersen 2005, p. 169). The perceived lack of a moral regime based on spirituality in Japan was believed by Aum to be responsible for Japan’s economic, environmental, and political woes (156-158). Foreseeing catastrophe before the turn of the millennium due to the negative accumulation of karma built up because of the world’s sinfulness, Asahara presented Aum as the solution to save the world (p. 161-162). Asahara envisioned this solution as the popular embrace and globalized expansion of the Aum religion and Aum values throughout Japan and the world. Through wide embrace and expansion, Asahara believed the resulting spiritual, supernatural force generated by Aum would prevent the predicted cataclysm from occurring. Asahara’s and Aum’s ambitious expectations went largely unmet. Humiliation in the polls in its 1990 electoral attempts to win representation in the Diet was the most dramatic proof of Aum’s failure (Reader 1996, p. 43-46).
The sense of resentment Aum felt simultaneously coincided with a sense of persecution. Media exposes, local villages, citizens groups, lawyer litigations, and police investigations against Aum (p. 37-53) seemed to confirm to Asahara that Japan and the world were not only sought to reject Aum. They sought to repress it as well (p. 65-69). Despite being approved by the Japanese government for registration as a religion under the 1951 Religious Corporations Law (p. 35-37), a defensively hostile mindset developed within Aum among many of its members. This mindset also evolved despite Aum’s own complicity in fueling public disapproval and outrage. Aum made few attempts to rehabilitate its image from what was perceived by many mainstream Japanese as deviant and discomfiting. The public relations campaign for the 1990 Diet elections, for instance, featured Aum members wearing masks of elephants and their spiritual leader, dancing and chanting their spiritual leader’s name repeatedly (p. 44). Aum also made few attempts to reconcile what was perceived by many mainstream Japanese as dubious demands on its members. There were financial fees for Aum membership, financial dues for privileged access to Aum publications, and financial payments for Asahara’s spiritually-imbibed genetic material (Petersen 2005, p. 173; Reader 1996, p. 32-34). There were reported sexual advances by Asahara towards female Aum members (Murakami 2001: 339-340). There were also reports of bodily harm wrought by the severe asceticism Asahara required many of his followers to undergo, such as via extreme fasting (Reader 1996, p. 27-30). Most problematic of all, however, was the outrage Aum generated in threatening the institution of the family (p. 25-27). Many particularly dedicated members renounced any worldly attachments they possessed or could possessed. In addition to surrendering their remaining wealth to Aum coffers, renunciates severed existing family ties and affirmed commitments to celibacy.
In light of this resentment and persecution, Asahara shifted the focus of Aum from being humanity’s salvation to being salvation for humanity’s chosen few (Petersen 2005, p. 159-171). Naturally, those chosen few were Aum members. Armageddon would occur, instigated by the combined aggression of the US government, the Japanese government, the Freemasons, and the Jews (Petersen 2005, p. 166; Reader 1996, p. 62-63; Juergensmeyer 2000, 110). They would involve weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that would obliterate civilization. From civilization’s ashes, Aum would emerge from the ruins of cosmic warfare and establish its spiritually-based world order from Japan. To prepare for the apocalypse and post-apocalyptic world, Asahara tasked the upper echelons of Aum to arm the faith with powerful weapons for their own defense, for governance in the new world order to come, and for the hastening of Armageddon itself (Reader 1996, p. 71-88). These powerful weapons included sarin gas. Acting aggressively and, in some cases, violently to threats they perceived to the religion from within as well as without, Aum proceeded to incarcerate, torture, and kill recalcitrant members and violently target non-member opponents. This violence came to a head in what was only use of WMDs by a non-state actor: 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks.
From an overview of Aum Shinrikyo, common items often addressed in subject and trope matter about cults appear. Among them include: a cult of personality centered around a charismatic, eccentric, ominous, and/or megalomaniac leader; world-rejecting and anti-social behavior; eschatological, millenarian, and apocalyptic worldviews; claims to supernatural powers; eccentric, nonsensical, and/or suspicious deviancy; financial exploitation; sexual exploitation; conspiratorial thinking; brain-washing; fanaticism; and violence.
The next section will discuss seven TV anime series that feature the incorporation of these items in their narratives.
Two episodes of Bakemonogatari center on a girl negatively afflicted by a supernatural apparition in the form of a weight crab. Her mother, who had fallen into a religious cult in a moment of vulnerability, stands by as the cult leader almost rapes her daughter. The girl manages to fend him off physically, if not emotionally. In her moment of vulnerability, she rejects her mother, allowing a weight crab to remove both the emotional weight of the trauma as well as her physical weight. The end of these episodes has the girl’s weight return to her as daughter learns to forgive mother. Anti-social behavior, sexual exploitation, and brain-washing are on display.
One episode of Cowboy Bebop features a religious cult with a strange looking cult leader of a man advertising the use of technology reminiscent to Aum’s Personal Salvation Initiation, or PSI, units to achieve enlightenment. Coupled with this advertising are videotaped juxtapositions of a world embroiled in suffering, conflict, and evil and testimonies of members renouncing the world for the cult. An eccentric and ominous leader, world-rejecting behavior, and brain-washing are on display.
The plot of Death Note centers on a prodigy of a person murdering criminals remotely from the shadows. The notoriety of his shadowy activities earns him popular culture name of Killer, or Kira. Kira garners a dedicated cult following, defending him and worshiping him for the justice he dispenses supernaturally from afar. A charismatic and megalomaniac leader, supernatural powers, fanaticism, and violence are on display.
Comedy skits throughout Joshiraku feature sensational and avaricious religious proselytizers who consistently show up to sway the main characters into joining their faith, often by marketing salvation and exorcisms. The comedy skits involve cult members trying to recruit rich people, cult members getting scared witless when confronted with an actual demonic possession, cult members interrupting song sequences with prayers/sutras/jingles, a cult member getting socked in the face, and a cult member assassinating the particular main character responsible for socking said cult member in the face. Claims to supernatural powers; eccentric, nonsensical, and/or suspicious deviancy; financial exploitation; fanaticism; and violence are on display.
The plot of Mawaru Penguindrum features explicit visual references to Aum Shinrikyo with significant portions of episodes taking place in the Tokyo underground. As both children and as teenagers, the thoughts and actions of the main characters are intimately and profoundly affected by the events of a past terrorist gassing of the subway lines by a cult organization they also share direct connections to. In reference to a key opposition party to Aum’s recruitment activities within the show are families who lost most-to-all contact to family-members-turned-Aum-renunciates. In reference to Aum’s tenets is the fateful and destined coming of a revolutionary apocalypse catalyzed by a provocative action on the part of the show’s cult. A charismatic and ominous leader; world-rejecting and anti-social behavior supernatural powers; eschatological, millenarian, and apocalyptic worldviews; suspicious deviancy; conspiratorial thinking; and violence are on display.
The plot of Psycho-Pass centers on an antagonist running a cult of intelligent, culturally disaffected, and sociopathic individuals. While not religiously-motivated, the main antagonist and his cohort commit sophisticatedly heinous crimes together in an attempt to catalyze a revolution of a society whose system and mores they denounce as oppressive. Outside of the religious point of departure, the sentiments of societal rejection within this cult are not unlike the sentiments of societal rejection within Aum. A charismatic and megalomaniac leader; suspicious deviancy; conspiratorial thinking; and violence are on display.
The Tatami Galaxy
One episode of The Tatami Galaxy features a company the main protagonist joins whose culture conflates pyramid schemes with religious cults. The company’s sanguine atmosphere belies an undercurrent of anti-social resentment by members, suppressed by purging exercises and fanatical devotion to company philosophy. It is complete with an airship acting as an arc intended to save company employees from a coming revolutionary apocalypse. World-rejecting and anti-social behavior; eschatological, millenarian, and apocalyptic worldviews; claims to supernatural powers; eccentric, nonsensical, and/or suspicious deviancy; financial exploitation; brain-washing; fanaticism; and violence are on display.
From an identification of common items of subject and trope matter about cults in anime TV series, the next section will discuss what these items reveal about the Japanese psyche.
The Japanese Psyche
The anime subculture is a reflection of Japanese popular culture, and thus, the Japanese psyche. Appropriating Robertson’s use of the words, popular culture comprises of distinct social markers that are “everywhere” and have “been framed and mobilized as particularly salient” in “everyday life” (Robertson 1998, p. 35). Framing and mobilization of popular culture is usually accomplished “through a mass medium accessible and intelligible to the broadest possible population. (p. 35)” Anime, and particularly anime TV series, is a subculture because of its lack of general marketable appeal. The content of anime TV series are usually targeted to late-night otaku audiences, people dedicated enough to consistently stay up late to watch anime (torisunanohokori 2013). A partial definition of otaku, according to the Koujien dictionary, includes: “People who are interested in a particular genre or object, [and] are extraordinarily knowledgeable about it. (McLelland and McMackie 2015, p. 205).” People can be otaku about anime. However marketed anime happens to be toward an anime otaku audience, the production of anime TV series, nevertheless, occurs within and is influenced by its societal Japanese context. Attitudes and ideas from Japanese popular culture, perpetuated by gossip, reporting, and literature, bleed into anime narrative. Hostility and fear towards Aum Shinrikyo and, by extension, cults permeate throughout Japanese popular culture in the form of humor, references, and commentary.
Hostility and fear towards Aum within Japanese popular culture existed before the Aum Affair took place. What the Aum Affair did was exacerbate these feelings toward Aum and translate these feelings to apply to any perceived cult. The stigma associated with cults by mainstream Japanese is not unlike the stigma associated with otaku by same people. The complete definition of otaku, according to the Koujien dictionary, is: “People who are interested in a particular genre or object, are extraordinarily knowledgeable about, [and are] lacking in common sense (p. 205).” This definition of otaku illustrates a condescension towards otaku in real life by the makers of the particular Koujien dictionary this definition is found in. This definition also demonstrates that this condescension is derived from the societal Japanese context the makers of the dictionaries hail from. After all, the Koujien dictionary is a mainstream dictionary brand in Japan (p. 205). Otaku are seen by many mainstream Japanese as anti-social, in the sense that their behavior clashes with and threatens modern Japanese homogeneous values. Male otaku non-conformist consumption and sexuality betray normative ideals of Japanese sacrificing for their families through respectable employment (p. 209-214). Likewise, Aum members are seen by many mainstream Japanese in the same light for the same core reasons. Renunciates severed existing ties with their families and affirmed vows of celibacy (Reader 1996, p. 25-27). Many renunciates also gave up both respectable and lucrative employment in order to immerse themselves more deeply in their Aum beliefs (p. 25-27).
These similar reactions among many mainstream Japanese to the derided deviances of otaku and Aum alike point to what Mori Tatsuya of A (1998) and Haruki Murakami of Underground (2000) respectively refer to as the “darkness (Kisala and Mullins, p. 148)” and “shadow (Murakami 2000 p. 229)” that reside within the Japanese psyche. As someone who admitted to being repulsed by Aum, Murakami reflects on how many Japanese like him “actively rejected [Aum] by an effort of will (p. 228).” The key in this act, muses Murakami, is in active rejection as opposed to outset dismissal. As evidenced by specific examples of anime TV series, a symptom of how far Japanese have gone to actively reject Aum is reflected in how often subject and trope matter about cults and cultish behavior feature and center in anime. These anime are born in an environment characterized by the rise of the Japanese anti-cult movement (Lucas and Robbins 2004, p. 196-198) and the vehement sanction against the production any Japanese scholarship on Aum and other NRMs that did not explictly label either as societal pariahs (p. 198-200). The most visibly vehement proponents of the Japanese anti-cult movement were figures from the Japanese news media that hastily appropriated originally Western notions of what constituted a cult to their Japanese context (p. 196). A particular story was spun by the media in an attempt to distance more rank-and-file members of Aum from Aum’s upper echelons. The story was that most Aum members were brainwashed or mind-controlled (Kisala and Mullins 2001, p. 93-99). They were vulnerable men and women who were robbed of their individual agency and common sense (p. 152). They can return back to society after having been rehabilitated as result. They were not ultimately to blame.
This story contradicts the conclusion Murakami comes to after interviewing a number of current and former Aum members in the aftermath of the Aum Affair. Despite many of them having lost faith in Asahara and denouncing the violence he sanctioned, when asked about whether or not “they regretted having joined Aum,” almost all of them answered “No, I have no regrets (Murakami 2000, p. 360).” Juergensmeyer records similar feelings from a member-turned-traitor to Aum when he discussed of how Aum “spoke to the needs of people to find certainty” and lamented how much he missed “of what Aum offers to its believers (Juergensmeyer 2000, p. 118).” These sentiments, despite being both aware of and critical of the Aum Affair like many mainstream Japanese, are a far cry from the picture of brainwashing and mind-control that the Japanese news media and many mainstream Japanese have painted. This reaction to a deviancy in mainstream values by Aum members, as well as otaku, is a symptom of an aspect of Japanese sociology that Yama calls “The tyranny of homogeneity,” or the “tendency to participate in the collective unconsciously without sufficiently questioning the dominant cultural perspective or the importance of individual views (Yama 2013, p. 62).” While obsessively attempting to establish a clear perception of alterity from Aum and cults, many mainstream Japanese have either neglected or refused to consider how these men and women became vulnerable to being receptive to Aum’s ministry in the first place.
Expanding on Shinji’s and Yukio’s comments on Japanese unease and insecurity during the 1990s is Shimazono’s evaluation of Aum’s nationalism and millenarianism as a reflection about Japanese uncertainty about themselves, their future, and their identity in global society in the midst of combined economic, environmental, and political trauma (p. 117). Aum members rejected modern Japanese homogeneous values and embraced alternative, if deviant, values that gave them ease, security, and certainty in their lives that mainstream values did not. Similar to its existing condescension toward otaku, many mainstream Japanese, reaffirming modern homogeneous Japanese values, countered reactionally that these alternative, but nonetheless deviant, values are responsible for the unease, insecurity, and uncertainty in society. In condemning the alterity of Aum and cults, these mainstream Japanese have also doubled down on their mainstream values with a renewed sense of exceptionalism. This exceptionalism mirrors, in related but opposite ways, Aum’s own sense of exceptionalism toward their own values. Additionally, while Aum members and many mainstream Japanese acted on the uncertainty of the times in ways that were antagonistic to the other, they were responding to the very same uncertainty. Their antagonism toward the other is not because of an alien conflict. It is because of point of departure from the same conflict. This point departure is the “darkness (Kisala and Mullins, p.148)” and “shadow (Murakami 2000, p. 229)” many mainstream Japanese “abhor confronting (Kisala and Mullins, p. 148)” and “avoid looking at (Murakami 2000, p. 229).”
In addition to experiencing the trauma of the same social circumstances, one other core similarity between Aum members and mainstream Japanese can found in the shared socialization of their upbringing and rearing. Acknowledging “the well-known Japanese fondness for group and communal interactions (Doi 1996, p. 201),” Doi connects this fondness to preference for nonverbal communication born from amae, “the nonverbal feeling which the infant experiences in its emotional dependence on the mother” that translates into a Japanese appreciation of “what ordinarily passes unspoken in everyday communication (p. 200).” The combined result of this preference and fondness is the precious Japanese value of achieving “the sense of belonging (p. 201).” Both Japanese Aum members and mainstream Japanese exhibit this desire for group belonging. They just happen to express this desire in different ways. Doi describes this desire through classical Japanese duality of tatamae and honne. Tatamae are the social obligations of the groups Japanese belong to (p. 201). Honne are the personal considerations Japanese have for belonging to these groups (p. 201). In the context of the 1990s, the tatame and honne of many Aum members and mainstream Japanese corresponded with each in other in the groups they felt they most belonged to: Aum and the mainstream, respectively.
The frequency of subject and trope matter about cults and cultish behavior in anime TV series is a reflection of mainstream Japanese’s obsession with Aum Shinrikyo and cults in the wake of the 1995 Tokyo Sarin Gas Attacks. How this obsession among mainstream Japanese has persisted for as long as it has decades after the Aum Affair is connected to the nature of the Japanese psyche, as exhibited by mainstream Japanese simultaneous condescension of otaku. This connection to the Japanese psyche is expressed in terms of social circumstances of trauma Japanese collectively faced in the 1990s and the shared type of upbringing and rearing Japanese were socialized under. Some Japanese, like Aum members, rejected the modern homogeneous Japanese values of secularism, materialism, work, and family. Other Japanese, like many mainstream Japanese, rejected Aum members in turn and reaffirmed their mainstream values. All the while, both Aum members and mainstream Japanese sought group belonging badly enough that they sought to distance from the other. They alienated each other because they each felt their group was being threatened by the other group. All the while, this respective dynamic of reaction and reaction by Aum members and mainstream Japanese is taking place in an environment of unease, insecurity, and uncertainty that undermines the benefits and point of belonging to a group in the first place.
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