Only around one percent of the population of Japan claims Christian affiliation, so most Japanese have little resonance with the traditions and symbols of Abrahamic faiths. As a result, residents generally perceive the imagery of the Devil as an 'edgy' aesthetic choice rather than a blasphemous expression.
Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub… these names may conjure a negative knee-jerk reaction, or at least a concerned eyebrow raise among the general public in Western countries where Christianity has had an immeasurable historical and cultural influence, and belief in literal spiritual warfare remains surprisingly pervasive.
While the nontheistic Satanism of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan (founded 1966) and The Satanic Temple (founded 2013) have become increasingly visible in the public eye, fear, suspicion, and even anger toward those who willingly identify with the figure of the Devil remain powerful among certain segments of the population.
But what about countries without that heavy Christian influence?
Only around one percent of people in Japan profess to be Christians. How is the Devil viewed without the theological perspective that demons and Hell literally exist? Does the image of the archfiend as a symbol of freedom from theistic tyranny or of enlightened rebellion still hold the same resonance for those not invested in the religious culture wars of countries like the US? How does Satanism in Japan reflect the country’s distinct spirituality, culture, history, and politics?
To answer these questions, award-winning blogger, author, and journalist La Carmina sits down with cultural anthropologist and Japan specialist Dr. John Skutlin to shed a Luciferian light on the small but vibrant presence of Satanism in Japan and to reminisce about their favorite Satanic haunts in the Land of the Rising Sun.
La Carmina is the author of the upcoming publication The Little Book of Satanism: A Guide to Satanic History, Culture, and Wisdom (Simon & Schuster), and Dr. Skutlin has researched and written a thesis about Goth subculture and Satanism in Japan. Together they are the hosts of Satanic Show + Tell on TST TV, where they interview notable guests about their unusual and macabre possessions.
La Carmina: It has been several years since we have set foot in Japan due to the pandemic and the country’s ongoing reluctance to fully open to tourism. However, from the mid-2000s to 2020, we spent an enormous amount of time in Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka. You lived in the country for a decade, and then returned to visit at least once a year as I did.
During those glory days—as we refer to them in hindsight—we participated in Japan’s lively and welcoming Satanic subculture. We became friends with Satanists, attended dark ritualistic events, and researched and wrote about Japanese Satanism. Let’s begin by chatting about Japan’s Satanic community, and what we love most about it.
Dr. John Skutlin: I’d be delighted to. So, my first proper encounter with Satanism in Japan was through the Goth subculture in early 2008. The second club event I attended there was Black Veil in Osaka to celebrate Walpurgisnacht, and you and I met shortly after that. For those who don’t know, Black Veil is a Gothic all-night event that started in 2000 and, being already quite immersed in Gothic music and fashion myself, what struck me most was the Satanic imagery everywhere. Sigils of Baphomet, 666, inverted crosses…the works. It was all over the flyers for the party and it was very much a strong element of the fashion. Keep in mind, this was before occult-laden Western Nu-Goth brands had come into existence.
Now, I’m from the US, and the Goth scenes I was most familiar with had always treated Satanism and any association with it as anathema—true Goth was a fashion, music, subculture, and lifestyle, and had nothing to do with antisocial behavior or Satanic Panic nonsense, which was more related to heavy metal music anyway. So this pervasive presence of explicitly Satanic imagery in Osaka really impressed me and led me to look more into what made it so popular among the Japanese people in the subculture.
The key figure responsible for the Goth scene in Osaka, and for its heavily diabolical leanings, was a man named Taiki who sadly just passed away earlier this year. Taiki had started making music in 1982 as the vocalist of a hardcore punk band but soon moved on to the Devil’s music with a dark ambient unit called Diabolic Art that combined ambient noise with Western demonological elements. From around 1996, Taiki was a regular in the New York City Goth scene and, while hanging out with people like tattooist Paul Booth and musician Voltaire, also claimed to have undergone a magical initiation in the dark arts.
Also in 1996, Taiki opened up his Satanic Shop Territory in Osaka, which in many ways became a storage space for his massive collection of occult oddities and antiques—everything from a human-sized Baphomet statue and his pet crow Damian to Freemason antiques and a replica of Linda Blair from The Exorcist. Of course, he also sold some of his collection, as well as books, CDs, and various accessories and clothing featuring his distinct occult logos.
In 1999 in the same space he opened what was called the first Gothic music bar in Japan, Bar Sabbat. Black Veil started the following year, and Taiki was the star DJ at the center of a constellation of Gothic luminaries, including Hocico, Combichrist’s Andy LePlagua, and Juno Reactor, who all performed in Osaka alongside him.
I once asked our friend DJ SiSeN, a popular figure in the Tokyo underground scene, what he thought of Taiki. His reply: “Kami (a god).”
As you can imagine, Taiki was a very popular figure, and his knowledge of the occult, which I can say from my own conversations with him, ran quite deep. This naturally affected the subculture he was a part of, and I remember hanging out with friends who loved to venture down into that subterranean shop in the heart of “America Village,” or Amemura, as the trendiest part of Osaka’s Shinsaibashi district was known, just to have a chat with Taiki and pick his brains about things like the use of incense in ritual or even just life advice.
His fashion designs that I mentioned were also quite ubiquitous. I could be in a Goth club in Tokyo and if someone saw my leather Territory bracelet, with its metal Baphomet sigil clasp, they might show me their own and we’d have this kind of instant connection. The underground scene in Japan really won’t be the same now that he’s gone.
La Carmina: Taiki was a monumental figure, and Satanism wouldn’t have flourished in Japan as it did without him. While his Osaka shop and club night have now closed, there are other key figures in Japan that are keeping the gates of Hell open.
I remember my first visit to Bar Midian in Osaka around 2009: it’s a small gritty bar run by Fu-ki, the former vocalist of Visual Kei band Blood (a Japanese musical genre typified by heavy metal sounds and glam rock aesthetics). Similar to your first Black Veil experience, I was mesmerized by the space’s prominent use of Satanic imagery including a poster of a red-faced devil and inverted pentagrams, and dark red cocktails that cost ¥666.
Not long ago, Fu-ki posted a birthday photo of his young daughter holding a Baphomet plush toy in front of a red-and-black sign that read “Happy Satan Day” and decorations of cute horned bats. If this is any indication, I’m certain Japan’s Satanic underground will continue to thrive and be carried on by the next generations! Speaking of devilish bars, there’s a very special one in Kobe that we’ve visited together…
Dr. John Skutlin: Ah, IDEA in Kobe is amazing. So, I was talking with Taiki back in 2009 as I recall, and he mentioned his cousin who worked at a fetish club called DOMA in the nearby city of Kobe, which is like a second home to me. My friend and I decided to check it out and met his cousin, Midori, a truly lovely S&M mistress who is extremely proficient in the Japanese art of shibari rope-binding. There were some whippings involved and, well, I’ll just leave it at that!
At any rate, it turns out that the following year on July 4, Midori opened her own “Mystic, Fetish & Gothic Bar” called IDEA [pronounced as the original Greek, which refers to “form” in the Platonic sense]. She really pulled out all the stops with the design of the place as well, with a lot of help from her cousin, Taiki.
The bar is a bed of nails with removable glass covers so guests can climb up and recline on the spikes if they so choose. Lining the shelves behind the bar are three sets of six bars each—666—and the number of iron bars lining the walls of the restroom number 72—one for each demon of the Ars Goetia grimoire. Demonic tomes and art abound, of course, and the soundtrack is mostly dark electro mixes courtesy of Taiki, who also designed Midori’s unique pentacle sigil for the bar.
That’s all looks though—the best part of IDEA is the people. Midori is one of the warmest and kindest people you’d ever hope to meet, and she has a talent for finding interesting young ladies (sometimes men) to work at the bar who are fantastic conversationalists and, of course, knowledgeable about the fetish and occult world. The parties she holds, which fall on the holidays marking the Pagan Wheel of the Year, involve everything from your standard rope tying and dripping candle wax to suspension performances and scarification.
One particular event stands out intensely in my mind. It was the Walpurgisnacht event not long after the March 11, 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and Japan was still reeling from the disaster and dealing with nuclear fallout in Fukushima. As part of the event, she performed a ritualistic rope-binding in the narrow and crowded bar area, lights dimmed and dark ambient music pouring through the speakers. She ceremoniously lit candles, held up a skull engraved with occult symbols, performed the shibari, and put out the candles. The whole performance had a solemn, almost religious feel, and when I asked her afterward what she was thinking about while doing it, she told me that it was a kind of prayer for Japan’s recovery, sending concentrated energy outward to affect positive change. This struck me, of course, as a very Satanic idea, despite Midori not being of any particular religious affiliation.
I later ended up working behind the bar for a couple of months as a part of my research, and I discovered that this kind of polymorphous approach to ideas about the occult and Satanism were quite common among people in that general circle. I found it refreshing and liberating.
La Carmina: It’s a free-flowing approach that Harajuku fashionistas take as well: they tend to mix and match street styles, rather than sticking to a uniform “tribe” aesthetic. As a result, it isn’t unusual to see Japanese teens wearing spiked pentagram harnesses and horns with “kawaii” pastel dolly dresses.
Speaking of the Devil, I’d love to talk more about how Satanism in Japan differs from Satanism in the West. The latter is the focus of my The Little Book of Satanism; in tracing the roots of the religion, I began with Satan’s debut in the Bible and tracked his influence on Western culture and historical events that lead us to “the Devil we know today.” The emergence of Modern Satanism is predominantly focused on European and American individuals – such as Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey, religions from The Process to The Satanic Temple, and historical moments like the witch trials and Satanic Panic.
Japanese Satanists come from a very different cultural context, but in my experience, they are just as sincere in their religious identification as their Western counterparts. What are your thoughts on how people in Japan perceive Satanism and come to self-identify as Satanists?
Dr. John Skutlin: So the first thing we should say about this is that identification as a follower of “X religion,” particularly as a marker of absolute identity, is not something that most Japanese people think about—or they think about it in quite a different way than many individuals in “Western” countries tend to. For example, figures for membership in religious organizations regularly exceed the total population of Japan, which is simply because people feel entirely comfortable claiming affiliation with more than one “religion.” It’s a common saying that Japanese people are “born Shinto, married Christian, and buried Buddhist,” which is a rather accurate description of the roles played by each of these religions in major life events.
This is really a testament to the fact that, for the majority of Japanese people, religious affiliation is not something that intensely defines their identity. In this way, many of the seemingly “religious” aspects of their lives, such as temple and shrine visits and ceremonies, are more akin to cultural traditions. Similarly, vocal identification as a “Satanist” as a large part of one’s identity was largely absent among most Japanese I interviewed, even those with a great understanding of Satanism and Satanic tattoos engraved on their bodies.
For some, Satan was a great source of inspiration. I’ve talked to Japanese people without religious backgrounds who found that Satan—in the Miltonian sense—was the original “punk,” a pure Byronic rebel who symbolized their own rejection of the mainstream. Others, meanwhile, had experiences with religion in early life, whether it be a classmate taking them to church or parents who were involved in a new religious movement, which lead them to feel a sense of dissatisfaction with the constrictive and proscriptive precepts of those beliefs and embrace the symbol of Lucifer as rebel and lightbringer. There were even some who adopted devils as their saints, with one young woman telling me she thought of Baphomet as a figure she could talk to in times of need, and Amdusias was like her guardian demon, a Great King of Hell said to be in charge of making music in the infernal regions.
I also found that Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan was a prominent touchstone that many people were familiar with through popular culture or otherwise, and even encountered some card-carrying members. Of course, the Church’s sigil of Baphomet featured prominently among the Satanic images used by the Japanese people I interviewed, although many also altered it to make their own personal sigils in line with Satanic values of individualism.
In fact, my friend Yoshiki Takahashi, who is a filmmaker, author, and critic, is very open about his Satanism and has even published a book called Satanic Advice that is brimming with humorous and insightful life advice from a diabolical perspective. The book also includes Japanese translations of LaVey’s Nine Satanic Statements, Eleven Satanic Rules of Earth, and Nine Satanic Sins.
Inasmuch as modern Satanism has traditionally been described as a “self-religion” that holds embracing one’s authentic self as one’s own god, Satanic imagery certainly holds great resonance for some Japanese people, who live in a society that is often characterized as highly conformist and collectivist. This is, perhaps, the greatest appeal that Satanism holds for a Japanese person already sensing a feeling of alienation and isolation from the society around them.
Meanwhile, the very individualistic and flexible nature of Satanism as a religion necessarily allows for a degree of ambiguity that cannot be quantified through conventional notions of religious affiliation, which also resonates with the Japanese tendency to not be permanently linked to one particular religious identity. This is one major difference in how Satanism is often viewed.
La Carmina: Similarly, Satanic symbols are perceived differently in Japan than they are in the West. As I write in my upcoming book, “Only around one percent of the population claims Christian affiliation, so most Japanese have little resonance with the traditions and symbols of Abrahamic faiths. As a result, residents generally perceive the imagery of the Devil as an ‘edgy’ aesthetic choice rather than a blasphemous expression.”
Here’s a fun example: In 2010, I went to a concert by a Visual Kei band called Satan. Quite a few fans wore “I Love Satan” t-shirts and threw the sign of the horns as they headbanged to the spooky music. In Japan, a person wearing an “I Love Satan” shirt would not be deemed a Devil-worshiper or associated with evildoings; they’d simply be seen as someone who enjoys alt culture. There’s a sense of safety in engaging with that symbolism due to the absence of Christian fundamentalism in Japan.
Dr. John Skutlin: Exactly, and this relatively low Christian influence has a historical basis. Under the Tokugawa Shogunate from 1603 to 1868, Japan was a “closed country” with virtually no contact with other countries. Christianity had made some headway in Japan thanks to Portuguese missionaries, but a peasant uprising called the Shimabara Rebellion, in which Christians participated, was the last straw for Japan’s rulers, who then tightened the national seclusion policy and violently suppressed Christianity, which had already been banned for various reasons, including loyalty to the Pope or God over the Shogun or Emperor.
So for 265 years, Japan really was not subject to significant Christian influence, and the modern period still has not significantly enlarged the overall population of those adhering to such beliefs.
It’s also worth mentioning the larger religious and historical context in Japan, which encompasses the idea that different religious traditions can be compatible or complementary, at times fusing in what is commonly referred to as syncretism.
For example, the “religion” we call Shinto, which is really a codified agglomeration of local animistic beliefs dating from prehistoric times, had no problem absorbing Buddhism, just as Mahayana Buddhism took on characteristics of the religious beliefs of the countries to which it was imported. In Japan, specifically, there was a concept known as honji suijaku [original substance, manifest traces], stating that the Japanese deities of Shinto were actually incarnations of the Buddha and bodhisattvas—or vice-versa.
Religions are not monolithic and unchanging, and this is true anywhere in the world.
La Carmina: And let’s not forget that symbols are also not static, but can take on very different meanings in other countries. For example, the five-pointed star, or pentagram, is a symbol of harmony and well-being in many cultures worldwide, including Japan. Foreigners may be surprised to see black and red pentagrams all over Seimei Jinja, a Shinto shrine in Kyoto. But this isn’t a Satanic space; the shrine honors Abe no Seimei, a 10th-century practitioner of Onmyōdō, or Japanese occult divination who supposedly invented the symbol in Japan.
Another example: visitors to Hong Kong or China may be stunned to see middle-aged “aunties” walking around in sweatsuits marked with 666! (My own aunt in Hong Kong has a shirt covered in the numbers). The Chinese are the most atheist people in the world, and in their minds, 666 doesn’t signify the Number of the Beast or Satanism. Rather, six-six-six translates to liu-liu-liu (in Mandarin) or luk-luk-luk (in Cantonese)—a slang word to signify that someone is cool or slick. Isn’t that…666?
Dr. John Skutlin: It is indeed! Speaking of differences, we’ve talked a bit about LaVey’s Church of Satan, which tends to eschew politics in favor of personal development, but in recent years we’ve seen the rise of “socially engaged” Satanism in the US and elsewhere, most prominently in the form of The Satanic Temple (TST) and its political activism. This brings up another interesting variance in the reception of Satanic ideas in Japan. Some of the greatest causes of TST involve the pursuit of religious freedom and pluralism and preventing encroachments upon the separation of church and state, which are virtually exclusive to Christian fundamentalist interests.
Japan, meanwhile, has freedom of religion and separation of church and state laid out in Articles 20 and 89 of its current constitution, which was mostly written by US officials during Japan’s post-WWII occupation. The articles were intended to ensure religious freedom, but also to prevent the rise of the state Shinto that helped give rise to Japan’s imperialist aggressions. This was complicated by a sort of paradox in the constitution, which simultaneously placed the Emperor, a position intrinsically tied to a wide range of Shinto ceremonies, as head of state.
Without getting too deep into it, let’s just say that there are contentious issues concerning separation of church and state to this day. For example, when an emperor abdicates or ascends to the throne, elaborate ceremonies are held at the expense of taxpayers. Are these religious ceremonies, or simply state traditions rooted in history predating the Japanese state as we know it? Some Japanese feel that publicly funding these ceremonies violates the principle of separation of church and state and have pursued litigation to that end.
For TST, fighting against theocratic infringements upon religious freedom that stem from a fundamentalist Christian element of the US population, the figure of Satan is perfectly suited to symbolize their cause, even if they didn’t already identify with Satan as representing justice, reason, and rebellion against tyranny. It’s hard to imagine Satan assuming the same kind of role in debates about Shinto, the Emperor, and Japan’s constitution. TST also pursues a wide range of campaigns for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ causes, sobriety, and so on, but the real enemy behind what TST fights against seems to be specific and deeply rooted fundamentalist Christian ideas and their harmful effects. When the opposition is not explicitly entrenched in Christianity, as is the case in Japan, Satan perhaps becomes less obvious or appropriate as a banner to rally beneath.
Even so, while I have yet to see any evidence of this personally in my research, I do feel that there is some potential for those in marginalized positions of Japanese society to adopt this kind of socially engaged Satanism in pursuit of their causes.
La Carmina: That’s true, and there is a growing awareness of TST and it’s even been featured in news articles and on TV in Japan. Many of our Japanese Goth friends are familiar with The Satanic Temple at this stage, and have expressed interest in learning more about the Tenets and taking part. There have yet to be any “friends of” groups in Japan, let alone an official chapter or events, but I think that may change in the near future.
Rather than taking a “closed country” perspective, it seems Japanese Satanists are keen to interact with Western Satanists and learn from one other. Of course the language barrier presents a challenge, but it’s one that can be traversed. Also, anyone can bond over artistic media such as films, art, and music—and I see an increasing number of Satanic works from both Japanese and Western creators.
The Satanic Temple’s co-founder Lucien Greaves has a band called Satanic Planet that comes to mind. I’m certain that their avant-garde-industrial songs and hellish stage shows would bewitch a Japanese audience, and I’d love to see them perform in Tokyo and Osaka soon for our Satanic comrades.
Dr. John Skutlin: That would be incredible, and I hope that day can come soon. In the meantime, you and I can keep reporting on all things Satanic in Japan, and I would love to get some of our friends in Japan on Satanic Show + Tell to tell us more about their personal journeys into Satanism. And of course, The Little Book of Satanism is coming out this October, so people around the world can read up more on the history and culture of Satanism. Maybe a Japanese translation can be released someday!
La Carmina: Here’s hoping for that. Thanks so much for taking the time to reminisce with me. Until next time: ヘイル・サタン (Hail Satan)!