May 30, 2006

Japanese Turn to Past Lives for Future Comfort

By Chisa Fujioka

TOKYO -- The room suddenly grows quiet as Hiroyuki Ehara stares at the Japanese actress in front of him, closes his eyes and leans forward in deep thought.

Moments later, the wide-eyed actress' past life is revealed -- she is the reincarnation of a British nobleman's daughter.

"You should never go to Britain," she is told. "You have too many painful memories there.

"You couldn't marry the man you loved and were instead forced to marry someone else. But that family was ruined and for the rest of your past life you were impoverished."

The popularity of the bearded Ehara, a self-professed spiritual counselor, and his weekly television show where he looks into celebrities' past lives and reads their "auras," has set off a boom of Japanese seeking comfort in their inner selves.

Spiritual books, counseling centers and even "power stone" jewelry have become hits in a country where spiritualism has a long tradition but has met with skepticism in modern times. Ehara's books alone have sold more than 7 million copies.

The fascination, social commentators say, appears to reflect growing anxieties over work, family and lifestyles in general that have led many Japanese to feel a loss of identity.

For Yukari Kato, head of a company that makes teaching materials, visits to spiritual counselors are an annual ritual.

"I saw two different counselors and I was surprised how they used the exact same expression to describe my social and business network just by looking at me -- that it was like a spider's web," she said.

"They said they were speaking with 'someone' next to me, someone like my guardian angel," she said, admitting to spending 20,000 to 60,000 yen ($180-$360) an hour for the readings.


The popularity of Ehara's show, co-hosted by a cross-dressing singer said to be the reincarnation of a 17th century Christian revolutionary, seems to have surprised even its producers.

Some experts say the phenomenon is no passing trend.

Spiritualism has a long history in Japan, with books on the subject dating back to the late 8th century.

Shinto, the country's native religion, is a form of animism, and many customs -- such as groundbreaking ceremonies to bless new buildings -- are based on a belief in spirits.

"Spiritualism has always been an undercurrent in Japanese society," said Toji Kamata, professor of religion at Kyoto University of Art and Design, noting Japanese religious mythology and spiritualism are prevalent in pop culture, most famously in the works of "Spirited Away" anime director Hayao Miyazaki.

"There have been lapses every few decades, whether it be due to some social event or government clampdown, but spiritualism has always found its way back into the Japanese psyche," he said.

Spiritualism fell into disfavor for years after members of a doomsday cult carried out a 1995 nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway that killed 12 and made thousands ill.

The attack sparked distrust in religion at a time when public morale was already at rock bottom due to an economic slump.

Kamata said perceptions of religion and spiritualism changed with Islamic militant attacks on U.S. cities on September 11, 2001.

"People came to the realization that religion is something that can't be ignored," he said. "Japanese also suffered a loss of identity as they began to doubt Western values."


Along with the rising popularity of self-help books, more people are also turning to psychotherapy despite a lingering stigma attached to such counseling.

Takashi Kuroiwa, a Tokyo psychologist, said his clientele was growing partly because of the spiritualism boom and increasing interest in past-life regression -- an exercise that uses hypnosis to try to help people remember lives they supposedly lived in the past.

With lights dimmed and the room filled with soothing synthesizer music, patients lie on a bed and close their eyes as Kuroiwa's soft voice guides their thoughts to a place "high above the clouds" and then back down to a past life.

"What are you wearing on your feet? What do you see around you?" he asks gently, encouraging the patient to speak freely until their journey into the past ends with "death."

Skeptics say such memories could be pure imagination or stem from experiences in one's present life, but Kuroiwa says some patients have overcome problems through discoveries of traumatic events in prior lifetimes.

"People see television shows and books about past lives and want to try out the experience firsthand," he said.

"Most patients come for past-life regression as a last resort to curing depression, but there are many who come just out of curiosity, wanting to learn more about themselves."

($1=110.30 Yen)