An Encounter With a Cult in Tokyo
My housemates buy overpriced drinks and sit down at the window seats inside the Starbucks across from us, camera phones at the ready.
I nervously wait with two Swedish guys I met last week outside the west gate of Ikebukuro station. It’s already dark and the humidity is off the charts. Japan is sweltering in summer, even at night.
“I think that’s them,” whispers a Swede.
Two figures walk towards us. I glance at my friends at the window and brace myself.
The cult members have arrived.
A week ago, in Yotsuya – at the famous staircase from the film ‘Your Name – I met two Swedish travellers posing for photos. Like all good tourists, we helped each other snap pictures, and the topic of life in Tokyo arose.
“Actually, we met these two Japanese girls in Ikebukuro who we think are trying to scam us.”
“What do you mean?”
According to the Swedes, a pair of attractive females had approached them in the street to talk about their tattoos, then swiftly changed the topic. They started asking if the Swedes wanted to visit a trendy temple in Tokyo.
Apparently, this temple looked just like “a normal office”. The girls refused to take no for an answer.
“You should totally go!” I said to the Swedes with excitement, scanning the correspondence. Without agreeing, they laughed nervously, and we exchanged Instagram handles to stay in touch.
A few days later, after a lot of convincing, the Swedes arrived at my hostel door. With a message, we arranged to meet the girls. When they gave us the address, we eagerly Googled the station nearest to figure out how to get there. The term the search bar suggested took us by surprise: Tokiwadai cult.
Giggling with disbelief, we started looking for more information. Up popped anecdotes written by foreigners on various websites outlining a situation similar to that of the Swedes’: Japanese people had approached them and proposed visiting a great temple.
“What’s the name of your organisation?” we texted the girls.
We Googled it.
Buddhist group admit holding nonconvert captive, blared a headline on the Japan Times.
My Path to Cultdom, read a blog post.
2 Buddhist group members arrested over confinement of student, said another.
Instead of panicking, we laughed again – though a little more frantically this time.
In the age of Netflix murder mysteries and true crime podcasts, has the easy access to crime stories desensitised us to real danger?
It seems like we’re always itching for the next gruesome murder tale, forgetting the loved ones behind the stories and the danger these events posed. Why do we get so engrossed in accounts of cults and programs about people like Ted Bundy and the Manson family?
I have lost a loved one to knife crime, and have friends who’ve suffered the same tragedy, but even I still tumble into this world of suspense and curiosity. Even you — you’re reading this story for the same reason.
“Should we still go? Are we going to be safe?” the taller Swede asked.
Two of my housemates suggested they accompany us, but from a distance so that they could swoop in if things turned dodgy. I called a Japanese friend for help.
“No way!” he said. “You can’t go inside there!”
He went on to explain that the organisation is known to be very intense and shady.
A sense of fear started to creep in.
“Why don’t we meet at a different station? I don’t want to go inside the temple,” said the tall Swede.
After a pause, we all agreed and asked the girls to instead meet at Ikebukuro station – one of Tokyo’s largest.
“We should have some roadies,” my housemate exclaimed. He was right: this was a mission that required the consumption of Strong Zeros.
After arriving at the station, my housemates settled inside the Starbucks. When a Swede pointed out the two girls walking towards us, my stomach flipped.
The conversation itself wasn’t terrible, just very intense. We introduced ourselves and the girls became excited when I attempted to talk to them in my bootleg Japanese.
“If you wish at our temple, Buddha will make your dreams come true. The temple is very trendy. Do you know the popular anime Naruto?” one girl asked, as if she had rehearsed the conversation many times.
We nodded, and she started to push our need to hurry.
“We’re Christian,” we protested.
“The station seems so far!”
“It’s a bit late…”
Each of our excuses was met with blunt insistence. Frustrated, I decided to bite the bullet and reveal what we had learned.
“Those people are liars and always try to give us a bad image,” retorted one of the girls.
I frowned in confusion; I doubt the Japan Times lies.
The other girl, who had been quiet for most of our exchange, then pulled out a folder filled with what looked like piles of newspapers. They were posters. Propaganda posters.
Me and the Swedes look at each other; these girls had come prepared.
On a phone, the girls opened up the organisation’s website and began to give us a lecture about their religion, its leaders and why people lie about them out of fear. When they passed the phone to me so I could have a closer look, I scanned the Google reviews of the building. Most comments were from people warning others not to go.
“We won’t go to the temple today, but can we keep this? We want to study this and message you after so we can visit,” we lied.
“This moment could change your life!” came the response, but after looking at our unimpressed faces, the girls agreed to our proposition.
With our new friends safely out of sight, we ran to Starbucks.
An old man yelled out to us in Japanese: “This religion is scary and dangerous!”
I explained how we already knew this information, and his eyes lit up. Suddenly, we were surrounded by a group of elderly people with more white folders. They handed us piles of flyers about another religion – one where you pray to Mount Fuji.
“Are you free to visit our temple?” asked the man.
Trying to stifle our laughter, we politely declined, so he gave us a flyer for a free Japanese classes instead. Hands full of all the paperwork we’d received, we bade him goodbye and skipped down the subway stairs to drink more Strong Zeros.
Cover by Ving N