Religions' tax-exempt status to come under scrutiny in Japan?
Japan is not only one of the more atheist nations out there, it even has separation of church and state embedded in its Constitution in the clearest terms possible:
No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious act, celebration, rite or practice. The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.
Alas, there is an exception to this common-sense business of keeping religion and government separate. In Japan, as in much of the world, an organization can receive all the benefits of government and the public sector, without paying its share of those services through taxes, by invoking the name of some god or gods. This applies not only to the country's large Buddhist and Shinto sects, plus the smaller sects of well-known religions such as Christianity, but also to the so-called shin-shuukyou – the "new religions". (It's a nice word for what many people would call "cults".) The thousands of such "new religions" range from scholarly Buddhist offshoots to scary apocalyptic sects to wackos with "descendants of Israelite tribe" delusions. But big faiths or small, they all share one thing in common: they call themselves religions, and thus from 1951 have been exempt from paying taxes on their profitable activities.
And profit they do. Sects in Japan charge princely sums for religious services and fake cures. They engage in general business activities as well, as noted recently in a Japan Times overview of Japanese weeklies' reports on religion:
..."side businesses" operated by large religious groups, which are said to include schools, hospitals, cemeteries, golf courses and — bless their hearts — love hotels. A sidebar item mentions the "black market" for purchasing a "dormant religious group" (i.e., one still recognized by the government although not engaged in any activities), the going rate for which is said to be ¥100 million.
Hmm, that latter item sounds crazily like some modern-day reverse indulgence relieving a business of tax obligations. If the state grants religion special powers to make money, then of course religions will be bought and sold like any other resource. It makes absolute sense from a business perspective.
What's at question, though, is whether it makes sense for society. The New York Times recently offered opposing voices on tax breaks for churches, while Paying for the Delusion paints a harsh picture of government complicity in Japan and elsewhere in the money-making schemes of religions. Without question, religious organizations can and do perform some good works, including collections of donations for victims of Japan's huge earthquake last year. But any income given away as charity or otherwise put to use in public service could easily be marked as not subject to taxation, in the same manner as legitimate business expenses. For what possible reason do governments give religions special dispensation where flat-out profits are concerned?
Fortunately, there are faint signs of authorities recognizing the problem. In Korea, a high-ranking government official recently opined that religions should pay taxes the same as anyone else. And the Japan Times article noted above quotes Japanese weeklies as suggesting that one political kingmaker would like to see religions lose tax-exempt status in Japan.
Not to be outdone, Shukan Post (May 4-11) ran a series of six articles totaling 17 pages under the headline, "A complete dissection: Japan's religions' 'money' and 'power.' " One of the articles suggests that political bigwig Ichiro Ozawa might be inclined to use his influence to push for elimination of religious groups' tax-exempt status, a move that could add as much as ¥4 trillion to the government's coffers annually.
It's not much of a statement, nor is there at present a major public debate going on – but it's hopeful to think that Japan, where religion for most people is more a matter of following traditional customs than of imposing beliefs on others, could set a fantastic precedent by following its own Constitution and removing religion's favored monetary status.
Actually, Japan has revoked a religious sect's tax-exempt status in recent times. From its tiny start in 1984, the cult Aum Shinrikyo (still doing business as Aleph) was able to grow to thousands of members in just a decade, thanks in part to its exemption from taxes. That taxpayer support let the cult amass money, businesses, and assets – which included drugs, explosives, biological weapons, AK47 assault rifles, a military helicopter, and equipment to manufacture sarin and VX nerve gas. Weapons that were turned against unwitting taxpayers on the Tokyo subway system. It took Japan's worst terrorism incident (as well a nerve gas attack against civilians the year earlier, among other murders) before the Japanese government disbanded Aum and took away its tax-exempt status in 1995.
Let's be clear: few religions pose the horrific danger of Aum (many genuinely do some good work!), and there's no reason to try tainting all religions with Aum's deadly brush. But the valid question remains: Is there a reason for government to grant any religion a special money-making license? Any reason at all?