The sect, which flourished in Saikyo between the wars, was based on Shigeyama’s idiosyncratic reading of Japanese history and Buddhist metaphysics. Shigeyama taught that there were two worlds: the Floating World of earthly pleasure and delight, and the Sorrowful World, which overlaid, veiled, and hid the former. It’s clear that the Edo-era culture of Yoshiwara, barely a generation removed from Shigeyama’s lifetime, was the inspiration for his “Floating World” just as the Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth inspired his “Sorrowful World.”

Shigeyama preached a sort of prosperity gospel to his followers, promising them that their dedication to pleasures of the flesh and rejection of the “Sorrowful World” and its denizens would bring unprecedented prosperity. It was a philosophy that found many takers, since the postwar prosperity in Japan had given way to the Depression and austere militarism was on the rise. To be fair, Shigeyama preached a very Japanese message in Saikyo, and the things he and his followers engaged in were versions of older art forms like kabuki, geisha, and the like (albeit generally racy, sexualized versions strongly influenced by Jazz Age debauchery).

Japanese authorities tolerated Shigeyama at first, largely because of the wealth and power of his followers. However, as his movement grew, the military grew nervous over reports that the sect was stockpiling captured weapons from China and attempting to extend its power into Saikyo’s government infrastructure. When the city moved to a mayor and council form of government, all of the new positions were dominated by Shigeyama men. This was enough for the Army to begin an investigation; the mysterious deaths of the investigators two weeks later caused the General Staff Office to deploy a regiment of troops to the city to “restore order.”

Shigeyama declared that “the forces of the Sorrowful World were at the doorstep” and his followers resisted the incursion with the very weapons they had been suspected of possessing. The incident was strongly censored in the Japanese press, who referred to it only as the “Saiko Anti-Gangsterism Police Operation.” Casualties are difficult to estimate thanks to the destruction of most major archival sources, but material compiled by American occupation forces after the war indicated that as many as 1000 people may have died in intense urban combat, with military casualties being assigned to units in Manchuria and China to cover up their loss. They also uncovered evidence of an extensive tunnel network beneath the much-reduced city of Saikyo, and evidence to suggest that an armed uprising against “the forces of the Sorrowful World” was in the early planning stages.

The sect leader Shigeyama was never located. A number of tunnels had been sealed from the outside by Japanese Army Engineers during the fighting using high-explosive charges, and it’s thought that Shigeyama remains there, entombed with his most loyal followers in an eerie preview of the fate that befell many of his attackers just a few years later.

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