CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


by Yasushi KOIKE, MA.

A paper presented at the annual conference of Association for the Sociology of Religion at Anaheim, California (USA), August 2001.. The views expressed are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by CESNUR or its Directors.


"Life Space," one of the biggest self-improvement seminars in Japan, formerly offered est-like therapeutic courses but later transformed into a cult of guru. Self-improvement seminars can develop in one of two directions: (1) psychological programs for all walks of life; or (2) more spiritual practices for "New Age" niches. Facing a decrease of trainees, Life Space took the latter direction, influenced by the Indian guru system. Its leader, Takahashi, became a guru claiming supernatural powers. In 1999, Takahashi was arrested for keeping a mummified body, which he had claimed was "alive." It is argued that a therapeutic community outside "mainstream" institutions is likely to become spiritual, and the mummy incident encouraged Life Space to become more like a religion that allegedly "conquers" death.


The self-improvement seminar, or large group awareness training, is commercial group therapy for an individual's growth. Traditionally it is not intended to cure mental or physical illness. These seminars are held by commercial organizations, rather than religious groups. Famous self-improvement seminars include erhard seminars training founded in 1971, Lifespring, which began in 1974, and Arica.

Clients are mostly middle or upper class people in their 20s and 30s. A recent survey in Japan shows the average age to be just under 26 when they took the courses (Kokubo, Fujikura, and Koike 2001). According to the past surveys in US and Japan, the participants were highly educated, with one quarter of them in graduate school, and more than half of them were women.

Self-improvement seminars usually use a 3 step self-improvement system:

The basic 3-4 day course for a participant to know oneself.

The 3-4 day advanced course to break through psychological constraints.

The enrollment course over 3 months to realize one's potential in daily life through the practice of recruiting.

The program of a self-improvement seminar is a miscellaneous combination of such practices as human potential technique, hypnosis, Scientology, Dale Carnegie, and various pop psychologies. Feeling is considered superior to thinking, and experience itself is highly valued. Also, the growth of individuals, restoration of spontaneity, and development of human potential are pursued throughout the whole activity. The "teachings" of those seminars follow some general themes:

1. Every human being has a great inner potential.

2. You create your own reality.

3. You are responsible for everything in your life. Therefore, life is a matter of choice.

4. If you know the mental mechanism that constrains you, you can "break through" your limitations and realize your potential.

Self-improvement seminars are not always considered to be a main part of the New Age movement by devoted seekers, but are regarded by academia as an important movement in today's spirituality (Heelas 1996).


The history of self-improvement seminars in Japan started when Robert White of Lifespring came to Japan to establish Life Dynamics in 1977. Since then, many people who had participated in Life Dynamics branched out and started their own companies offering similar courses. Therefore, many of the self-improvement seminars you see in Japan today are actually Lifespring offshoots. Landmark Education Forum is another self-improvement seminar and is an outgrowth of est in Japan. At the peak of popularity, there were at least a hundred active companies offering self-improvement seminars, and more than 200,000 people had participated in the seminars by 2001 in Japan.

Life Space was established in 1983 by Koji TAKAHASHI (1938-), a licensed tax accountant, in Osaka on the west side of Japan. Takahashi was originally in charge of Life Dynamics' Osaka branch, but started Life Space as his own company after conflicts with the Life Dynamics headquarters. Life Space was the third largest self-improvement seminar in Japan by the end of the 80s. However, as Japan faced a recession around 1990, Life Space experienced economic problems. Though Life Space had already been operating an original meditation program in 1987, it now started becoming more spiritual in many ways.

By 1993 Life Space quit the traditional three-step system I have already mentioned, and numerous new courses for chanting or meditation appeared. In particular, Takahashi started the "Vision One" seminar, in which Takahashi reveals a client's "vision," or destiny. He also claimed to have the power to cure through Shakty Pat, which is the pouring of spiritual energy onto a person by patting the head. Fees skyrocketed as high as $42,000. More than half of his staff left the organization, and only devout followers remained.

Takahashi was infatuated with Sai Baba. He declared himself a guru and grew out his hair and beard. He even reorganized his organization as the Satya Sai Center in 1993, which later became the Shakty Pat Guru Foundation. It was allegedly for the promotion of Sai Baba's educational system. However, Sai Baba' s official representative in Japan strongly denied any connection with Life Space and even cautioned against the group on the internet. Takahashi later claimed he had been a disciple of Sai Baba for 2000 years and had received Sai Baba's message through channeling.

Around 1994 Life Space stopped paying salaries to the workers. It was no longer a commercial company, but a small community centered around a self-proclaimed guru. Its members with their children started living communally in apartments with Takahashi and supported their organization through donations and part-time jobs.

In 1995 a male university student died in a Life Space seminar. He was participating in a "hot bath practice" in "Vision One" seminar. He paid $4,200 for the privilege. The incident attracted a lot of attention in the press, and his parents sued Life Space for the loss of their son. Around 1996 an anti-Life Space organization called "the Association Concerned about Life Space" was formed. Life Space came to be regarded as a "deviant cult," and the organization started suing individuals and the press for labeling them a "cult." However, this court conflict actually strengthened the image of Life Space as a cult.


In 1999, Takahashi and other Life Space members began living in a hotel in Narita, Chiba prefecture. After Life Space had occupied the hotel for a year, police found the mummified body of Shin'ichi KOBAYASHI, a Life Space member. His wife and son were living with the body in the same hotel room.

Five months before his body was found, Kobayashi had experienced a cerebral hemorrhage and his condition was not improved by modern medicine. Takahashi told Kobayashi's family that the man needed the guru's Skakty Pat cure in the Life Space 3S Seminar. The Price was $67,000. Though Kobayashi died in the conventional sense shortly after he was transferred to the hotel, Takahashi claimed he was still "alive" and would get better under his spiritual guidance. At the time the police found them, Kobayashi's wife and son were taking care of the body as if it was still alive.

Takahashi had a press conference after police took the mummy away, but his strange remarks drew ridicule from the press. Finally, Takahashi was arrested for murder and Kobayashi's son was arrested for abandoning a dead body. The court trials are continuing and, in the meantime, Kobayashi's son has become disenchanted with Takahashi and claims he has severed ties with the guru. After the mummy incident, self-improvement seminars in Japan came to be associated with "strange cults."



Although Life Space is an extreme case, it still demonstrates the change in the whole seminar industry. There is a softening of verbal confrontation, an emphasis on meditation, the rise in fees, and the tendency toward Indian philosophy.

Take the case of est. est was transformed into the Landmark Education Forum in 1985. The goal orientation seen in est was softened, and the Forum has become more philosophical in outlook. est seems like a boot camp compared to the more mellow Forum. There is a de-emphasis of individualism, while monistic interconnectedness of the cosmos is stressed. Zen-like dialogue prevails, and Scientological concepts have become less visible.

Rodney Stark's theory of religion is insightful in its analysis of these changes that occur as those groups move toward spirituality (Stark and Bainbridge 1985). Stark's theory holds that humans try to maximize rewards and minimize costs, and religion and magic are systems which promise something not verifiable in this world. Religion gives a total world view concerning death, afterlife, and supernaturalism -- other-worldly benefits. Magic tries to bring to its participants the benefits of this world by scientifically unproven means. In this sense, self-improvement seminars as "magical cults" may be transformed into religious bodies. Stark pays attention to cases where the original therapeutic scheme failed to deliver its promised rewards and thus, promised instead to provide "compensators" of a greater scope. For example:

- Lay psychotherapy Dianetics became the Church of Scientology

- Process, a Scientology offshoot, established itself as a religious system with satan worship

- Synanon, a self-help group for drug addicts, claimed to be a form of religion at a certain stage of its history

- There was a shift toward supernaturalism in Transcendental Meditation by having "Siddhis Training," which includes levitation and occultic teachings. This shift occurred when the number of TM initiates began to decline.

Stark does not discuss clearly why people who originally wanted the rewards of this world eventually accept other-worldly compensators instead. My speculation is that the very acceptance of magical efficacy by members makes it easier to later support other-worldly promises, because both magic and religion are based on intangible assumptions. Also, a magical movement's increasing social attachments create an atmosphere which enables members to share intangible cosmology, and finally, to become more religious.

Life Space not only promised rewards of this world, but also promised to prophesy one's destiny. It finally tried to transcend death. In other words, it came to provide a compensator of greater scope. Although Takahashi's whole scheme seems to end up in failure, the Life Space case is a clear example of a psychotherapy cult becoming close to a religion. Usually New Age therapies are "world-affirming movements" in Roy Wallis’ term, but if it deals with life after death, it becomes more like a full-fledged religion.


Self-improvement seminars, at least in their original form, are part of buoyant "therapeutic culture," or "pop psychology." Their appeal is on the practical, such as improvement of personal relationships and knowing oneself. The self-improvement seminars happily connect one's spiritual virtue with one's worldly achievement. This is actually the dominant theme in American popular culture, with a strong affirmation of self as the central characteristic of the American popular religiosity.

Although self-improvement seminars stress that the total source of experience and authority is yourself, trainees rely on the external authoritative system, the seminar itself, for affirmation. With its manipulation and practice of recruitment, self-improvement seminars are considered deviant by orthodox mental health professionals.

From the Life Space case, we can infer that a therapeutic community outside of mainstream institutions is likely to shift eventually toward being religious. Not being satisfied with practicality, some inner core members reintegrate the movement as an all-encompassing way of life. However, the very fact of this "supernaturalization" makes self-improvement seminars more like cultic organizations.


Though Life Space initially aimed at enlightenment in this world, supernaturalism was inevitable and the movement came to be marginalized. Like other popular psychological movements such as Spiritualism and mesmerism, Life Space's destiny was characterized by initial fervor, with antagonism by society, and later, marginalization.

The Life Space incident gave the whole seminar industry a bad image of mind control and strange cultic activity. Self-improvement seminars became a target of the anti-cult movement, and negative opinion on the internet makes recruitment even more difficult these days.

In Japan, lacking recruitment from young urban workers, seminars recruit university students on the streets and workers in small local companies to participate as a part of induction training. Self-improvement seminars are no longer "lonely hearts clubs" of the urban rich.


The self-improvement seminar was the largest aspect of the New Age movement in the broad sense of the term. Life Space in Osaka - Japan evolved from the Lifespring-type seminar that prospered in the 80s. Facing a decline in attendance in the early 1990s, its leader, Takahashi, took more spiritual and expensive approach for a limited clientele. Finally, by accident, the "guru" Takahashi tried to transcend death. So with Life Space, we can see the emergence of a religious movement out of a popular but unorthodox psychotherapy. Its conflict with society at large is a typical example of the cult controversy.


Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

KOIKE, Yasushi. 1997. "Self-Improvement Seminars as Commercial Merchandise." In Contemporary Japanese Culture 8: Desire and Consumption, edited by Hayao KAWAI and Chizuko UENO, 125-154. Tokyo: Iwanami (in Japanese).

KOKUBO, Atsushi, Yoshiro FUJIKURA, and Yasushi KOIKE. 2001. The Internet Survey on Self-Improvement Seminar Trainees. <http://isweb16.infoseek.co.jp/school/semian/> (in Japanese)

Stark, Rodney, and William Sims Bainbridge. 1985. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Author’s afterword: Probably there is no official connection between Scientology and The Process. I did not study Scientology by myself. All information regarding Scientology and its "offshoots" is from Stark and Bainbridge’s 1985 work.

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