Aid and Assistance for Consumer Damages from Religious Activities

Cultic Studies Review, 2(1), 2003, 38-49

Aid and Assistance for Consumer Damages from Religious Activities

Japan Federation of BAR Associations

26 March 1999

This report addresses issues raised by the Japanese Parliament's Law on Religious Corporations, which came into force in September 1996. The Parliament did not adequately address and debate the problems posed by religious organizations, considering the overwhelming role religion plays in Japanese society today and the wide area in which religious organizations are permitted to conduct their activities. Also lacking is a much-needed examination into what kind of counter policy would effectively curb the consumer damages and human rights violations mentioned above. Counter-policies already proposed include the public safety protection approach and the victim prevention approach. Both of these, however, would lead to the unjust suppression of religious freedom. Such approaches must be avoided. Still, at the same time, the current social system—in which great importance is placed on legal policy and practice and on the mass media insofar as religious matters are concerned—is deficient. Much more debate and discussion are needed, especially amongst scholars in relevant fields and members of religious organizations.

1. Purposes and Objectives of the Opinion Paper

Recent, tragic cases perpetrated by Aum Shinhriyo in Japan have witnessed the loss of precious lives In the Matsumoto Sarin Incident, seven lives were lost In the Toyko Metropolitan Subway Sarin Incident, 12 persons died. Attorney Sakamoto along with his wife and only child were killed. An estimated six persons within the organization are said to be dead. And significantly, over 10,000 persons have suffered serious to light injuries as a consequence of these incidents. Moreover, an increasing number of young people, in order to work for Aum Shinrikyo, are cutting ties with their families and eventually become unable to judge the value of life.

Some hundreds of thousands of people have suffered damages as a result of Spiritual Sales i.e., money collecting activities done in the name of a religion or religious organization. So to have the members of such money collecting organizations suffered. Their invaluable lives are destroyed.

Such damages suffered by consumers are human rights violations. They are not sudden occurrences but rather illustrate the deep-rooted, chronic socio-economic condition prevalent in society today. Accordingly, well-founded fear exists that such damages will be repeated in the future. Currently, people suffering such damages in Japan continue to seek counsel. From these cases, it appears that the damages suffered are becoming more diversified and more serious.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations (hereinafter, JFBA) took up the issue of spiritual sales and produced in 1987 and 1988 Opinion Papers on the subject wherein the situation, problems of, and a counter-proposal to spiritual sales were addressed. Further, In November 1995, the JFBA published a report entitled “The Situation and Problems Concerning the Various Money Acquiring Activities Conducted Under the Name of Religious Activities.” In the Report, the situation and counter-proposals presented were based on the knowledge and experience of lawyers skilled in settling consumer-related issues. Since 1996, the JFBA has been active, inter alia, in holding symposiums on this issue and setting up consultation with directors or managers of religious organizations or groups in Japan. In doing so, the JFBA is examining whether or not it is desirable to regulate the balance between the freedom of religious organizations to conduct missionary and money collecting activities and the human or civil rights of individuals who are evangelized. Participating also in this on-going examination are scholars in the fields of constitutional law, civil law, criminal law, law of religious organizations, religious studies, and government of the relevant administrations.

The debate on this issue remains heated, with little hope for agreement. Nonetheless, the Japanese Parliament enacted a revision to the Law on Religious Corporations, which came into force in September 1996. However, the Parliament has still not adequately addressed and debated the problems posed by religious organizations, considering the overwhelming role religion plays in society today and the wide area in which religious organizations are permitted to conduct their activities. Also lacking is a much-needed examination into what kind of counter policy would effectively curb the consumer damages and human rights violations mentioned above. Counter-policies already proposed include the public safety protection approach and the victim prevention approach. Both of these, however, would lead to the unjust suppression of religious freedom. Such approaches must be avoided. Still, at the same time, the current social system—in which great importance is placed on legal policy and practice and on the mass media insofar as religious matters are concerned—is deficient. Much more debate and discussion are needed, especially amongst scholars in relevant fields and members of religious organizations.

Based on this situation, this Opinion Paper seeks to propose a counter-policy from the standpoint of lawyers.

2. Counter-Proposals to the Situation of Victimization

2.1 Serious and Widespread Victimization

The National Network of Lawyers against the Spiritual Sales compiled the number of cases of victimization resulting from Spiritual Sales. Over the 11-year period from 1987 to 1997, the Network reported 18,841 cases that involved a sum total of 70,000,000,000 yen in estimated damages. The network also found that the type of victimization changed. Formerly, people suffered damages from being forced to purchase such items as urns and pagoda statues. Later, people suffered damages as a result of money collecting activities and money lending schemes.

Thus, although Supreme Court judgments have already been passed regarding the money solicitation issue, similar but new types of damages are being suffered.

The Lawyer’s Association for the Victims of Spiritual Sales as well as the Lawyers Association for the Victims have been consulted by 560 persons and 1,050 persons claiming about 1,800,000,000 yen and 4,455,000,000 yen, respectively. Court judgments have yet to be passed in the majority of these cases, to date.

Regardless, those damages reported to the government-run consultative services and to lawyers represent only a fraction of all damages actually suffered. The fact that damages are suffered widely by a growing population is evidenced by the content of information and testimonies provided by those victims who seek legal assistance.

Recently, there has been an increase in the number of small groups or individuals seeking legal consultation concerning these problems. Many persons worried about family members devoted to organizational activities are seeking legal advice as well. In one case, a family expressed its concern over a nurse relative who was participating in a seminar of a religious organization, packed up her things, quit her job, and went to work for that organization. In another case, the family of a university student told how they became worried when their child changed suddenly after becoming involved in a religious organization, and when the parents opposed the child’s involvement, the parents were made out to be devils and lines of communication broke down. Another consultation revealed the story of a wife and mother who abandoned her family to pursue organizational activities and who later took her children and left her home. Likewise unfortunate was the case of an elderly woman living alone who signed over her complete estate to a religious body. These damages are all very serious. Yet, if the victims suffering these damages are left alone and not given help or assistance, they may very well become the victimizers of others by the orders of the religious organization. The problem remains, however, that no real appropriate consultation place or organization exists that can respond effectively to the various problems and issues in such damage cases. While some lawyers’ associations and well-organized groups for victims are able to respond to problems stemming from such organizations, they are largely unable to answer questions or give advice concerning organizations in which the member and their roles are not clear. Accordingly, it is feared that the lives of many people and their familial ties will be destroyed because neither they nor their families can seek good and appropriate advice from anyone anywhere.

2.2 The Situation in Japan

Following the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway System in March 1995 and all subsequent incidents and events surrounding Aum Shinrikyo, what counter-measures did the Japanese government take to deal with such acts perpetrated by religious or quasi-religious organizations? One response was that the Japanese Parliament passed a partial revision to the Religious Corporation Law. As a result, however, the extremely under-staffed Religion Affairs Department of the Cultural Affairs Agency is overloaded with paperwork regarding the dissolution procedures for de facto inactive religious organizations.

Still government administrations and certain academic groups are continuing to research the problems posed by some religious organizations in Japan. For example, in March 1996, the Culture and Life Bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan government compiled a report entitled, “A Survey on the Situation of Legislation Concerning Spiritual Sales.”

However, the Parliament and relevant government administration appear to be dealing with such problems on a piece-meal basis rather than in a serious and continuous manner as the situation warrants. Governmental investigation agencies as well as local governments also do not yet appreciate how serious the issues at hand are and, consequently, do not deal with them carefully enough. Even scholars of religion, religious studies, and socio-religious studies are not readily taking up issues concerned with private religious organizations that create social problems, such as their procurement of money, practices of self-denial involved in the management of their organization, and other unlawful acts.

Also, the mass media’s coverage of these issues lacks consistency. Television stations and weekly magazines in particular are quick to pick up and criticize eccentric organizations, patterns pf group behavior, and cases of victimization, but they fail to unemotionally analyze the degree to which such organizations actually deviate from established and accepted social norms.

2-3 The Purpose of the Standards for Determination

Since 1987, the JFBA has been critically studying, investigating and stressing the importance of dealing with these very serious issues concerning religious organizations. In this way, the JFBA has made a great contribution in providing assistance for individuals suffering damages as a result of inappropriate religious activities. However, an adequate list of concrete ways in which each sector of society may concretely deal with and prevent new forms of victimization was lacking. Accordingly, the JFBA prepared a document entitled “Standards for Determining Human Rights Violations as a Result of Religious Activities.” This document is well known by the Bar in Japan. It has been presented to and reviewed by various groups in society.

Fortunately, a number of court judgments, passed one after another, will serve as good standards for dealing with the problems related to religious organizations. These precedents function as important guidelines Hopefully, these new standards, by being progressively examined and used effectively in various social sectors, will heighten the social trust toward religion in general, which has been viewed skeptically over recent years.

3. Standards for determining human rights violations resulting from religious activities: Guidelines for assisting and aiding victims of consumer damages resulting from socially destructive, religious activities.

3.1 Acts of solicitation such as donation collecting

3.1(1) Does the act of solicitation, such as the soliciting of a donation, violate the solicited person’s freedom of will?

Does the act incite in that person acute insecurity over his or her health/illness, the fate of his or her ancestors, and/or an evil curse, and causes that person to become mentally confused?

Does the act involve solicitation over a long period of time, against the will of that person;

Does the act involve strong solicitation a) by a large number of people, or b) in a place which is closed off from the outside world?

Does the act urge that person to make a quick and speedy decision, without giving that person an appropriate amount of time to consider his or her answer?

3.1(2) Does the religious organization, when requested to do so, pay back in good faith the amount of a donation or the like made, as a result of solicitation or persuasion, by a person?

3.1(3) When a person makes to a religious organization a donation amount which will influence the rest of his or her life, lives at that organization’s facilities, and then later leaves the organization, does that organization respond as sincerely as possible to requests by that person to return the sum of his or her donation?

3.1(4) Does the religious organization report its financial situation and its use of donations to persons who donate more than a settled amount?

3.1(5) When money paid for offerings, donations, prayers and so on is more than the settled amount, does the religious organization issue papers or documents which serve as evidence for the transaction?

3.2 The Solicitation of Believers

3.2(1) At the time of solicitation, does the religious organization make clear its official name; it’s fundamental teaching(s), and the basic obligations or duties of the believers (e.g., donations or activities required to be done)?

3.2(2) Does the religious organization, in order to solicit believers, a) intensively incite feelings of insecurity in individuals by violating their freedom of will, b) persuade individuals to become believers over a long and concentrated period of time, and/or c) compel individuals to strengthen and carry out religious activities?

3.3 Treatment of Believers and Employees

3.3(1) Believers and employees who, after leaving their homes or becoming devotees, stay at the religious organization’s facilities.

Is the believer or employee guaranteed visits with family, friends and colleagues living outside the facilities? Is she/he guaranteed the freedom of telephone and postal communications?

Does the religious organization deny the free will (which should be afforded the greatest respect) of a believer or employee who wishes to leave that organization’s facilities?

When a believer’s or employee’s health is impaired, does the religious organization, regardless of the reason, contact without delay that person’s family living outside the facility?

3.3(2) Does the religious organization and any affiliate or subsidiary organizations or corporations respect and obey, with regard to their employee, the various stipulations and provisions of such laws as the Labor Standards Law and the Society Security Law?

3.4 Treatment of Juveniles and Children

3.4(1) Does the religious organization refrain from indoctrinating juveniles to live in commune at its facilities for a long period of time, when the parents or legal guardians of that juvenile oppose that organization?

3.4(2) Are there any cases in which the parents or legal guardians of a juvenile deny the will of that juvenile and force him or her to live in commune at the facility of a religious organization?

3.4(3) When children are living in commune within the facility of a religious organization, do the parents and that religious organization permit the child to be educated at an elementary/junior high school, in accordance with the School Education Law? Do the parents and the religious organization prevent that child from advancing to high school education?

3.4(4) At the facility of a religious organization is consideration given to maintaining the average standards for food and hygiene in Japan and to maintaining the highest standards for the mental and physical health of the children and juveniles housed within the facility?

4. Explanation of the Standards for determining human rights violations resulting from religious activities.

4.1 The Purpose of the Standards

4.1(1) General Comments

These Standards for determination were created so that lawyers may be able to appropriately deal with unjust human or civil rights violations perpetrated against believing and non-believing individuals, especially juveniles, by religious organizations or persons, and with cases involving consumer damages born through excessive money collecting activities in the name of religion. By using these Standards, such rights violations and consumer damages may be prevented and suppressed. The JFBA encourages lawyers to refer to these Standards for Determination when victims of such violations or their family or friends seek legal counsel. The JFBA also hope that consumer centers and other organizations offering counseling services regarding the problems here mentioned also refer to these Standards when determining what is at issue in various cases. These Standards may also serve as a yardstick for parents to evaluate organizations to which their child seeks to or has become a member.

These standards for determination were not created to be respected and obeyed by religious organizations, nor to be systematized by legal or administrative mechanisms. The Standards are not provisions to be legislated but rather seek to avoid becoming law. Accordingly, these Standards have been proposed so that religious persons or people involved in religious activities, criminal justice professionals (lawyers, prosecutors, and judges), and lay persons may effectively deal with trouble or human rights violations caused by various religious or spiritual organizations.

However, these Standards do not cover all imaginable activities related to religion or religious organizations. Many issues such as the relationship between religious activities and such concerns as medical treatment and the freedom to marry, as well as the way to handle trouble which develops in local communities, need to be addressed in the near future. Further, the language used in the Standards contains many suggestive subjects. Clearly, religious activities are extremely varied. They certainly cannot be analyzed uniformly. Most often, cases brought to lawyers for counsel and the situations in which victims are placed require a flexible approach. Accordingly, these Standards for Determination need to be further developed and strengthened through the accumulation of wide ranging precedents.

Within the Standards for determination, cases in which the Standards are breached and cases where it would be possible to establish that an unlawful act transpired are provided. Some examples of this are provisions 3.1(1), 3.2(2), 3.3(1), and 3.4(3)(4). Accordingly, if religious organizations and organizations or groups conducting activities related to the spiritual world act in breach of these provisions, they will likely also cause legal or social problems. Lay individuals who come in contact with organizations conducting activities in breach of these Standards run a high risk of suffering great damages and making a critical mistake in their lives.

When giving counsel to private individuals who have suffered financial damages or violations of their human rights as a result of acts breaching these Standards, lawyers and attorneys should use these Standards to facilitate assisting and settling the case, instead of hesitating to use them because they are religion-related proposals. Hopefully, in the future, court judgments and other settlements decided according to these Standards will accumulate and a solid social consensus regarding these issues will take shape in Japan.

4.1(2) Problems common to enlightenment organizations which are secluded from the outside world

In addition to the activities of religious organizations known to date, the activities of different and new types of religious organizations as well as the various, spiritual world centered activities common at self-enlightenment centers are now prevalent among housewives and youths in Japan. Some activities of these new religious organizations lead to serious consumer damages and human right violations and may result in the destruction of families.

Of course most religious organizations do not conduct activities listed in the Standards for Determination. Their activities are completely legitimate and pose no problem. At present, there are about 180,000 religious corporations in Japan. In addition to these, there are religious groups and spiritual world-related organizations that are not recognized as corporate persons. These groups and organizations try to bring peace, happiness, and reasons for living to the hearts of serious and busy people in today’s society. Unfortunately a small fraction of these organizations and groups are involved in activities opposed to social norms and customs. As such, they have caused many people to lose confidence and trust in religion on the whole. In this context, these Standards may be used as a means to respond to de facto cases in which organizations, in the name of a religion, violate human rights and cause damages through excessive money collecting.

To discuss what “religion” is is beyond the scope of this paper. However, in some instances, the activities of groups or individuals that claim them to “not be a religion,” such as those which sell or offer self-enlightenment seminars and fortune telling, psychological magic, and/or supernatural or extrasensory power, may converge with the activities described in the Standards of Determination. Indeed, the number of individuals is increasing who seek legal counsel regarding organizations offering services related to the Spiritual world and enlightenment organizations shut off from the outside world. It should be remembered that Aum Shinrikyo, at its very start, was a yoga club.

Special heed must be given to organizations which are centered around one or several charismatic individuals, prohibit inside their facilities information and opinions from the outside world, offer communal living arrangements to their members, and/or stress supernatural, extrasensory, or non-scientific powers, because some members of or a group within that organization may perpetrate unlawful and socially deviant acts.

These kinds of organizations are called “Sects” in Europe and “Cults” in North America. When thinking about these groups, it is important not to criticize them simply on the basis that their values are different or their behavior is unusual. Rather, the concrete activities of these groups and the explicit type and degree of social deviation need to be examined. These Standards would be helpful in dealing with these issues.

4.1(3) The Establishment of Consultation Centers

At present, the organizations one can consult concerning religious organizations, fortune telling, and self-enlightenment centers are very limited. The government administration does not deal with these problems adequately because it claims that these problems differ from traditional consumer-related problems.

Further, lawyers and lawyer groups which deal with specific cases cannot go so far as to provide non-legal counsel and do not have extensive knowledge on all the religious and non-religious groups in Japan. Often individuals in serious distress and their families have no place to go for consultation, and as a result, their distress magnifies.

Therefore, the JFBA recommends organizations or groups concerned with these problems to establish consultation centers. It is hoped that consumer organizations, which have, to date, declined to deal with these problems due to their religious nature, make use of these Standards and actively deal with the problems. In November 1998, the Religious Information Research Center was established within the International Institute of Religion Foundation. The JFBA expects that this new Research Centre will develop into an organization that can instantly respond to cases brought by lay individuals.

As was discussed, almost all-religious organizations establish social trust through making contributions to society. It is important that these organizations maintain this trust and not let it be ruined by socially destructive religious organizations. The JFBA encourages religious organizations to discuss and actively use these Standards in order to prevent damages and to reach peaceful settlements.


We wish to thank Mr. Hiroshi Yamaguchi of the Tokyo Kyodo Law Office for sending us an English translation of this report. Minor editorial changes have been made.

Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2003, Page