• ONE WAY TO DESCRIBE THE MASS POISONING IN TOKYO IS AS a gruesome practical joke. Behind every practical joke is someone trying to play God. The murderous joker remains unseen, deciding the fate of others as though by divine intervention. The more the panic-stricken victims search for the source of their misfortune, the more the killer enjoys the spectacle, reveling in a feeling of omnipotence.

    Religious leader Shoko Asahara, who is being sought for questioning in connection with the subway attack, could strike one as such a figure. Of course, the Japanese are hardly the only people to produce mimics of God or apocalyptic cults. Think of Jonestown or Waco. But what is distinctive about postwar Japan is the number of people pretending to be God. The country is riddled with cults and so-called new religions.

    The Japanese have never followed only one religion. Shinto, an animistic nature cult, has coexisted for centuries with different Buddhist sects; there is also a Christian minority. But starting in the late 19th cen-tury, an official attempt was made to bring all Japanese under one spiritual roof. The nation was taught to follow the imperial cult, called State Shinto: the belief that the Japanese Emperor is divine, that the Japanese are de-scended from their ancient gods, and that any order from a superior-in the government, in the army, at school-must be obeyed without question. State Shinto turned the Japanese state itself into a cult that reached its most extreme form from the late 1930s until the end of World War II.

    Much of State Shinto was invented, but like many religious cults, it was based on traditions. The 20th century Emperors, in their role as commander of the Imperial Japanese Army, cut Napoleonic figures, riding white horses in splendid military uniforms, but they were also the high priests of State Shinto, donning traditional ceremonial garb and communing with the Sun Goddess in ancient shrines. If the forms were sometimes very old, the idea of the Emperor as the apex of a modern state religion was new.

    Every Japanese school had a shrine that contained a picture of the Emperor. Every Japanese had to jump to attention at the mere mention of the imperial name. History lessons began with myths told as truth about the divine ancestry of the Emperor and, by extension, the Japanese race. Self-sacrifice was extolled as the highest virtue. When winning the war had become hopeless, the Japanese people were told to prepare for a suicidal last stand.

    Not every Japanese believed in the imperial cult, but for nearly two decades State Shinto monopolized Japan's spiritual and political life. No wonder that when the cult was abolished by order of the Allies after their victory in 1945, it left a lot of confused Japanese behind. What had been inculcated as religious doctrine was suddenly forbidden as dangerous militaristic propaganda. The Emperor could stay on his throne, but had to renounce his divinity. It was, perhaps, the first time in human history that God had to declare himself dead.

    This made some Japanese permanently cynical: they would never believe anything again. But the spiritual vacuum of the postwar years provided fertile ground for all kinds of new cults and creeds. Most of them were organized around a charismatic figure. It was as though the demise of the Emperor as a god produced many little emperors, all with their own worshippers.

    The most famous new religion is the Soka Gakkai, a sect based on Buddhism. Its leader is a man named Daisaku Ikeda, who is treated by his followers more like a monarch than a priest. Then there are more obscure figures who claim to have found the secret of universal happiness and peace for all time. Though these leaders may collect a great deal of money from their followers--and though the involvement of the Soka Gakkai in national politics through its own political party, the Komeito, is widely criticized--most of these religions are relatively harmless.

    More threatening are the groups that wish to restore the imperial cult. The writer Yukio Mishima collected around himself a band of uniformed young men who shared his passion to make the Japanese--the military forces in particular--once again worship the Emperor. His student followers ended up by worshipping Mishima, and one joined him in his samurai-style suicide in 1970. Even today there are groups of right-wing Emperor worshippers who go around assassinating those they regard as unpatriotic. The mayor of Nagasaki was shot by a right-wing extremist in 1990 after saying the late Emperor Hirohito some responsibility for the war.

    The tendency to see the highest virtue in self-sacrifice and violence was also a feature of Japan's left wing. A Japanese United Red Army man raked a crowd of passengers with machine-gun fire at Lod International Airport in Israel in 1972. Revolutionary splinter groups tortured and bashed to death several of their own members. This kind of violence is usually a sign of hopelessness, of desperation, when messianic dreams reach a dead end.

    None of this is unique to Japan. Nor do countries where God is proved to be dead automatically fall prey to violence. On the whole, Japan's is a remarkably peaceful society. But a century of wars, natural disasters and political extremism has produced spiritual confusion. Out of this have emerged those self-elected gods and followers who not only destroy themselves but also insist on taking others with them.

    Ian Buruma, the journalist and author, has written several books about Asia.