Cults in Japan

Cultic Studies Journal, 2001, Volume 18, pages 43-68

Cults in Japan: Legal Issues

Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Attorney at Law


The cult situation is reviewed in Japan. Issues of freedom of religion are considered in light of specific types of cases, including medical injury, donations and solicitation practices, and donations and the sale of merchandise. The legal relevance of mind control theory and the Aum Shinrkyo problem are explored. Lastly, legal issues involving defamation, counseling former group members, and problems within the family are examined.

In Japan, a limited number of groups comprised of lawyers and members of established religious organizations work on counter measures to cults. Their activities, in terms of experience and expertise, are at an equal level with those of their counterparts in North America and Europe. These groups try to integrate the families of cult believers. In contrast, however, the action taken by the Japanese government, parliament, and religious organizations on the whole—even in response to such serious issues raised in connection with the Aum Shinrikyo Cult and the practices of spiritual sales—has been slow and inadequate, far behind responses seen in the West. Moreover, the general public and the mass media in Japan have shown only superficial concern exhibited by a type of mass sensationalism in response to the activities of an unusual cult.

Therefore, in discussing the situation of cults in Japan, there are four points regarding the special characteristics of religion in Japan, which must be understood.

First, the Japanese government, local public organizations, the police, and criminal justice organizations have acted overcautiously in dealing with human rights violations and consumer problems arising from religion. Until the end of World War II, the Shinto religion (a unique, Shamanistic Japanese religion that saw the Japanese Emperor as the nation's living, absolute god) took priority over all other religions in Japan. Members of other religions such as Christianity and Buddhism who did not recognize the Shinto religion were suppressed for a variety of reasons. Therefore, the present Japanese government, which bears this past of allowing or instigating religious oppression, today adopts a non-intervention policy with respect to the public’s religious activities. This basic stance is clearly exhibited by prosecution offices and consumer centers throughout the country. Likewise, government administrations and the police have avoided dealing with religious group problems. As a result, human rights violations suffered by individual victims of new religious organizations are becoming more serious and widespread.

Second, in the aftermath of World War II, most people in Japan were faced with dire poverty. These circumstances led to the creation of a number of new religions, many of which were based on Buddhist ideals. It is estimated that over 10 percent of the Japanese population followed these new religions. The religions progressed with many new earnest and active members. Buddhism and Shintoism, with their over one thousand-year histories, became a part of everyday life in Japan. Accordingly, groups of these religions rarely propagated their teachings. Their organizational existence is not advertised or well known by the public. Their ability to unite with other groups is also quite weak. If Japanese are asked what religion they believe in, over 80 percent respond that they believe in no specific religion. Traditional Christianity from the West has a following of only one million people in Japan. In most schools, religion is not taught as a part of the curriculum.

Therefore, Japanese citizens share no consensus on religions or cults/sects. In North America and Europe, cults or sects may be generally understood as groups that participate in activities that deviate from the fundamentals of traditional Christianity. However, in Japan, discussion itself about cult problems or problems generated by religious organizations that affect consumers or the human rights of individuals is often misinterpreted. Many people are under the mistaken impression that such discussions are attacking not only cults but also established Buddhism or new religious groups whose believers’ number in the millions. At present, many of the religious groups that are generating social problems were formed in the 1970’s following a period of high economic growth in Japan. To make only these newly formed groups a subject of the law is, of course, irrational. This is one of the difficulties in dealing with cult problems in Japan.

Third, some new religious groups that were established after the end of World War II currently have deep political connections in Japan. Thus, as previously mentioned, whenever debate concerning religious cults is at issue in the Parliament, people are reminded of the influence new religions have on large political parties. Accordingly, a discussion on how to weigh the merits of cult-type religious organizations viewed as the parties causing injury or damage against the merits of consumers or civilians whose human rights have been violated, is difficult to have. Such a discussion will invariably become a discussion concerning primarily the advantages, disadvantages, and intentions of the religious organizations that back political parties in Japan. Hence, it is very difficult to hold a sincere and open discussion in the Japanese Parliament concerning the protection of cult victims’ human rights.

Fourth, Japanese people, on the whole, maintain a unique religious consciousness with regard to worshipping their ancestors. A great number of people believe that if ancestors are not respected, then the people living on earth will be filled with sorrow and that when a person bearing the ill fate of his ancestors dies, future generations will be plagued with sorrow and misfortune. Throughout Japan, there are many temples and shrines constructed anywhere from several hundred to one thousand years ago with the purpose of appeasing the spirits of people, such as aristocrats and army generals, who suffered unfortunate deaths so that disaster will not befall the earth. In this way, the religious consciousness of many Japanese people is very susceptible to the unlawful and unjust persuasion of cults that urge people to "pay respect to your ancestors by offering a large amount of money to avoid ill fate and the curse of your ancestors." A characteristic of Japanese cult organizations is that they collect enormous amounts of such non-taxable money from Japanese citizens.

Freedom of Religion

In the discussion of freedom of religion, four matters must be considered.

First, there is the freedom to believe or not to believe in a specific religion. This is a matter of the heart and mind, which cannot be restricted. Even if a specific religion teaches that only its believers should be saved and that all other non-believers should die, that religion cannot be restricted unless it commits an action in line with that teaching, which is illegal.

Second, there is the freedom to carry out religious rites. Here as well, because only the believers perform such rites, they are free to do so. However, religious rites that unjustly upset the social order may be classified as crimes under the criminal code or unlawful acts under the civil code of the society. Most likely, those religions that in the performance of their rites use marijuana or make loud noise causing social disturbance would be restricted.

Third, there is the freedom to propagate religion and recruit new members. This freedom often clashes with the human rights of those being recruited. Until recently, the freedom to recruit new members for religion was regarded on an equal basis with the freedom to practice religious rites. However, current social discourse is questioning whether or not to allow the use of mind control techniques in recruiting methods. Clearly, the freedom to recruit for religion will become a major issue to be dealt with.

Fourth, there is freedom to act as a religious organization. The right of religious organizations not to be discriminated against by the State for their organizational characteristics has been widely debated in regard to this freedom. Under the Religious Corporation Law, irrespective of its religious teachings, if a religious organization meets certain requirements such as maintaining a set number of believers and having an endowment, then it becomes certified as a religious corporation and as such gains the privilege of income tax exemption. In post-War Japan, a crucial issue was whether to recognize that specially designated shrines in Japan could receive special protection from the government. Today, such protection is not recognized. The current concern questions whether large religious organizations should be able to receive enormous amounts of non-taxable cash income from top Japanese corporations, such as Toyota, and then expand their organizations and activities. Another issue under debate is whether cult-like religious organizations should enjoy the privilege of being exempt from paying taxes.

Two Model Cases

Two concrete case examples that demonstrate the disposition of Japanese court judgments are introduced below.

Type 1: Medical Injury

As a result of performing incantations as (medical) treatment for a mentally ill patient, the patient died. The court ruled that the religious persons involved were guilty of causing injury that resulted in death. (Japanese Supreme Court judgment of 15 May 1963)

A leader of a religious organization, in trying to heal a mentally ill family member of a fellow believer, performed a ceremony using incense to rid the body of evil spirits by holding down the person, and the mentally ill person died of a heart attack. The leader of the religious organization alleged that he was free to perform religious activities and that the act in question was appropriate business conduct. The court issued a guilty verdict, stating that the said act deviated from those acts considered to be within the scope of freedom of religion.

It is widely believed that such religious ceremonies can heal illness. However, given today's medical standards, any method for cure, including a religious one that leads to a fatality, is not permissible. Still, problems quite similar to this keep reappearing even today.

A recent case of wide social concern involved a hospital that released a patient nearing death to be supposedly saved by a religious group's leader, who claimed to have a special healing power. Even after the patient had been dead for four months, the leader insisted that the body would come back to life soon. Under this premise, the body was released and mummified. (November 1999, Life Space case, currently under police investigation. Eight members were arrested in February 2000, and the leader was charged with murder. The prosecutor proposed fifteen years imprisonment with hard labor. The judgment will be passed in February 2002. There have been a number of similar cases in which the crime of corpse abandonment was cited.

Likewise, the problem of religious groups (such as Jehovah Witnesses) that reject blood transfusions has perplexed many medical doctors and families in Japan. There was one case in which the courts ruled that the father of a legally adult-aged child, who refused to have a blood transfusion and thus die, could not ignore the will of his child and force the physicians to give her a blood transfusion that would save her life. In a similar case, a doctor who ignored the wish of his adult-aged patient not to have a blood transfusion and administered the transfusion was ordered by the court to pay compensation for causing mental distress to the said patient (Japanese Supreme Court Judgment of 29 Feb, 2000). However, there are still no precedents regarding juveniles, especially children. In considering these types of cases, the range of permissible religious and medical acts becomes very ambiguous. It becomes difficult to determine whether criminal or civil law should be applied with respect to such acts.

Type Two: Donations and Solicitation Practices

The plaintiff demanded the return of 2 million yen, donated as an offering, believing that the religious group's counterfeit holy image was genuine. In this case, the court dismissed the plaintiff's plea, reasoning that litigation proceedings can not be adapted to religious disputes concerning whether a holy image is genuine, and that this particular case did not fall under the purview of "legal controversy" that lies in the court's domain. (Japanese Supreme Court judgment of 7 April 1981).

However, there are a number of cases where the courts recognize that the act of soliciting donations or monetary offerings constitutes the crime of fraud and intimidation as stipulated in the Criminal Code of Japan.

In this connection, several judgments determined that the Unification Church is liable to pay compensation for injuries incurred as a result of its solicitation practices. The courts ruled that this act of soliciting millions of yen in the form of donations by taking prospective donors to its solicitation facilities, known as video centers, and persuading them that they are sinful for possessing their personal estate, amounts to unlawful activity. Given these precedents, how would the courts rule in the case of a person who became a believer and then, based on the same teaching, gave donations of 100,000 yen per month 50 times. In such cases, court judgments tend to be rather harsh towards the victim.

For a person who believes in the spiritual world and the (ill) fate of his or her ancestors, descending to Hell is more terrifying than dying. Nevertheless, the particular mentality of such believers is often difficult for police officers or court judges to understand. Further, it would be quite problematic if courts decide whether a religious teaching or leader is correct. Legal proceedings should not be recognized where when a court concludes, for example: "The teaching is a lie. The religious leader thought to be the Messiah was not the real Messiah. Therefore, refund the money."

However, even while judging that curses and ill-fate are illusory, how might the court rule in the case where a person donates a large sum of money (the amount of which was previously determined by the solicitors) as a result of being made to feel insecure by those means described in the religious organization's manual? In Japan, a growing number of religious organizations subscribe to such tactics to gain donations.

Also relative to this matter, it is argued that donations in and of themselves cannot be erased or refunded because donations as such are made on the basis of a pact between a believer and God. Further, it is argued that the courts have no right to interfere with such matters. This argument or way of thinking, however, was deplorably misused by the Unification Church to defend its spiritual sales and is being rethought. To date, the courts have ruled that the act of forcing a person to give a large donation by persuading him to do so over a long period of time and deliberately making him feel insecure is an illegal and unlawful act that deviates from social rationale, and that organizations conducting such activities are liable to pay compensation to those persons incurring damages. In this connection, the Supreme Court has passed three judgments to date, which confirm that the Unification Church members' acts of donation solicitation are unlawful. Further court judgments have held that the act of an organization pressuring a person to pay a large sum of "prayer money" by claiming it possesses supernatural powers amounts to the crime of fraud.

Donations and the Sale of Merchandise by Religious Organizations

The following three issues are matters of concern now and in the future regarding court litigation over donations and merchandise sales.

First, it is probably unnecessary for religious organizations to abide by the obligation to give impartial explanations in general commercial transactions when they solicit donations or sell merchandise. For example, if a salesman falsely claims that the drink he is selling will cure atopic dermatitis and makes a profit of one million yen from that product, then such an act would most likely amount to fraud. In contrast, however, leaders of a religious organization have often been permitted within the parameters of acceptable religious activities to sell their (self-proclaimed) special power(s) to their believers. Further, no matter how large the donation, it remains non-taxable. The misuse of different standards for determining unlawful conduct applying to religious activities and to commercial transactions is increasing. With the recent health boom in Japan, for example, it is difficult to distinguish pharmaceutical products from health foods. Likewise, it is difficult to differentiate among the growing number of activities and facilities for medical healing, counseling, the study of Ki (mind and spirit), religious mediation guidance, yoga and so forth.

The freedom to practice one's religion should be respected. It is probably reasonable that commercial industries continue to sell dream products to make their consumers amazingly skinny and beautiful. However, attention needs to be paid to consumers who become victims of exorbitant pricing schemes and high-handed persuasion. When a religious organization or an umbrella company for a religious organization is formed, performs its activities with the primary and initial purpose of gaining money, employs high-handed, intimidating or fraudulent methods, or charges excessive prices to procure such money, then the acts of that organization or company should be recognized as unlawful generally in the same way as commercial transactions. A leading court case in Japan dealt with this theme: On 26 March 1992, the Tokyo High Court ruled that selling over one million yen worth of a health device was unlawful. The device in question was an extraordinary rod that was said to absorb the energy flow from the universe. The company that produced the rod claimed that by waving the rod, sorrow, misfortune, and illness would dissipate.

Likewise, the Tokyo District Court ruling of 27 May 1997 held that a Kiko (mind and spirit from China) doctor's claim that she could cure malignant diseases, for which she charged her patients millions of yen, amounted to fraud and was unlawful. A television network that produced and broadcast a documentary on whether the same Kiko doctor actually possessed supernatural powers, recognized its liability in this case and paid about 60 percent of the damages incurred by some 30 individuals in an out-of-court settlement.

Although limited, there are cases where organizations (such as a group that cultivated and purchased natural food products, an aesthetic group, and a yoga center) developed into closed syndicates claiming to have charismatic leaders. In these cases, the activities of the organizations generated problems for their members both in terms of money and in terms of human rights.

Second, discretion must be exercised in disclosing the money-collecting activities of religious organizations as crimes of fraud.

To date, there have been a number of cases in which religious organizations were judged guilty of fraud and extortion for pressuring their members to pay by disguising their religious activities.

On 20 November 1956, the Supreme Court found a member of a religious organization guilty of extortion and fraud. In this case, a married woman who had a black and blue mark on her face went to the organization for counseling. She was told that the mark would disappear through prayer but that if she were to leave the organization of her own accord then god would make her face black. Intimidating the woman and forcing her to pay prayer money to heal the bruise amounted to extortion. Further, the act of making the woman pay the said prayer money for a service that was known to be ineffective and falsely claiming that the service was indeed effective amounted to fraud. On 22 November 1966, the Supreme Court also ruled that it is an act of fraud to collect monetary offerings by falsely claiming that the money was for religious activities.

In another case, a district court of Aomori Prefecture judged two members of the Unification Church to be guilty of extortion. In this particular case, a housewife was taken to a hotel room where she was persuaded and intimidated for nine hours. During this time, she was told, for example, that the child she aborted and her deceased, first husband were suffering in the spiritual world and that if she did not liberate them from the suffering, then her present child and husband would meet misfortune. In this way, the woman was intimidated into donating a sum of 12 million yen to Unification Church members.

However, the first judgment to recognize systematic fraud by a religious organization and to rule the top leaders guilty of such acts was made quite recently by the Nagoya District Court on 19 July 1999. This religious organization solicited people by advertising in a newspaper handbill, "All pain and suffering will be wiped away through spiritual vision." This organization’s temple was actually one room in a large apartment. The organization’s employees, in following the organization's manual, intimidated the people who came to the "temple" by telling them that they were cursed by their ancestors and that their children were possessed by evil spirits, etc. The employees charged these people millions of yen in prayer money. In various districts throughout Japan, 580 victims of this scheme filed civil cases against this organization. To date about 1,600,000,000 yen have been recovered. Eleven persons, including the leaders of this organization, were convicted of fraud.

In December 1999, the Ministry of Culture filed proceedings at the Wakayama District Court requesting the court to order the dissolution of the said religious organization as a religious corporation recognized under Japanese law. Moreover, in November 1999, the Tokyo Police Agency, on suspicion of fraud, initiated a nationwide compulsory investigation of Ho no Hana (a new religious organization).

This religious organization used such tactics as reading the bottom of a person's feet, telling him that he would face great misfortune. He was then solicited to attend a 4-night/5 day training course at a cost of 1,250,000 yen, upon completion of which he was guaranteed the avoidance of misfortune. Further, the organization solicited time and time again several millions of yen in donations for hanging scrolls, the religious leader's hand prints, and bone fragments of Buddha. While the organization claims that these acts are based on its leader's principal teaching that eternal goodness comes only from heaven, there is enough evidence to prove that these claims are untruths. More than one thousand victims of this organization had filed civil suits throughout the country, seeking a total of 5 billion yen in damages, and many of them have won the cases and received several hundred million yen as compensation. In 2000, the leader and other followers of this organization were arrested and indicted for fraud. The Tokyo district court declared its bankruptcy and the group was dissolved as a religious corporation in March 2001.

In the cases described above, it is clear that the said organizations and individuals acting for such organizations should be prosecuted for their crimes of fraud and extortion. Still, had criminal proceedings been initiated earlier, new injuries could have been prevented. Because prosecution was delayed, thousands of individuals were victimized by these organizations.

These two Buddhist-type religious organizations, which quickly grew in membership, employed similar tactics. First, the main branch of the organization compiled manuals outlining instructions on how to lie to and intimidate people. Second, the organizations set a target amount of donations to be collected and then formed a chart showing the amount of money collected. In light of objective evidence and in light of the statements made by main organization members and seasoned believers, there is no room for doubt that such concepts as "the spiritual world," "the ill fate of one's ancestors," "heaven's voice" (the concept that only good fortune descends from heaven), and "reading the lines of one's foot as an indication of one's fate" were used as tactics in collecting money for the organizations.

Apart from those cases in which evidence of fraud is apparent, in prosecution efforts to indict believers of a religious organization, serious consideration must be given to the freedom of religious belief. As an extreme example, it is difficult to scientifically prove the virgin birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, as it is to prove Jesus Christ's resurrection. In the same way, it is difficult to prove that Gotama Sidhartha and Nichi Ren were persons who delivered themselves from the world. In most Buddhist sects in Japan, families often pay fees to have the deceased person's sins cleared, for example, or to have a Buddhist monk give a new name to the deceased person in the world of the dead. The latter often requires a donation of about two million yen. These are common and acceptable practices in Japan. Another similar practice is offering alms to unborn children, i.e., making donations to a temple to heal an aborted child. Strong opinions are expressed that such practices are nothing more than tactics used to collect money. However, it is questionable as to how society would react if the police and court judges were to support or invoke such opinions as well. Clearly, from the viewpoint of religious freedom, disclosing and prosecuting cases of fraud need to be conducted with utmost caution.

Third, there have been cases regarding accumulated donations in which people, particularly women and elderly people, have individually paid millions of yen in one payment to a religious organization. Among these organizations are the Unification Church and the Ohgon Jinja (translated directly, Yellow Gold Shrine, a group that centers itself on an individual with alleged supernatural powers). Donation-soliciting activities involving women and elderly in both of these organizations were recognized as unlawful (e.g., U.C. Supreme Court 18 Sept. 1997, 11 March 1999, 21 Jan, 2000).

However, in the case of a male in his thirties with an undergraduate degree who donated 230 million yen to Kofuku no Kagaku (a religious organization founded about 10 years ago by Ohkawa Ryuho, who still leads the organization) within one year after he joined the same organization, the courts did not find that the religious organization acted unlawfully. (Tokyo High Court judgment of 20 January 2000). The courts have similarly ruled in cases where the believer participated in the religious organization over several years and over that time made several donations ranging from ten thousand to one million yen. In these cases the religious organizations included the Unification Church and the Shinji Syumei Kai (a group of Shukyo Mahikari), an organization that claims it can restore suffering and illness by special powers such as holding up one's hands.

In cases involving donation solicitation, objective facts that should be considered may include details of where the solicitation occurred, how many hours a person was solicited, names of the people who solicited the money, and what forms of persuasion were used. The degree to which objective facts and evidence supported in detail can be submitted in case litigation is of crucial importance. Still, judges invariably are inclined to put more weight on such matters as the educational background, age, and history or religious belief of the victim. In the future, court judges should better appreciate the psychological impact and pressure imposed upon victims by the skilled use of words and persuasion when a religious organization’s main branch believers solicit victims for donations.

Mind Control Theory

If you go into a cult-type religious organization and you meet and talk to believers who are engaged in illegal activities, with the exception of selected persons in the organization's main headquarters, you will find that they are sincere, serious, and kind people. A number of members graduated from high-level universities. There are many who have advanced science degrees. Many women, including nurses, childcare professionals and schoolteachers, are members. There are also many women who formerly held high-paying positions in banks and security firms. These women donated large sums of their savings to religious organizations, left their homes to live with the organization and dedicated their lives to the group.

It is difficult to imagine or understand why these people, for example, would produce Sarin gas with the intention of killing people. Likewise, it is difficult to understand how people were persuaded to purchase vases and ginseng extract at outlandish prices. Similarly, members of another organization thoroughly believed that it was correct to collect money for the organization by prostituting themselves and soliciting prospective customers. It is shocking to see how intelligent individuals can perpetrate unlawful activities once they enter such religious organizations. Journalists and other mass media individuals who have no direct knowledge of what it is really like to be a member of such a cult cannot understand why others have actually become members.

Often in society we hear such explanations as "She had too much free time on her hands and that's why she got so involved in such an organization," "People who join such groups are a special type who are interested in religion and the spiritual world, and “The families of those persons who were involved in that group are the problem."

However, people whose relatives or friends join cult organizations do not think this way. In fact, many of the people who join cults are those who had no previous interest in religion or the spiritual world, those who worked busily everyday, and those who studied hard in universities. A number of people who join cults are ambitious and have a strong sense of justice. There are cult members who, until they joined, were successful in adequately meeting the expectations of their parents and had been exemplary children. These people seemingly changed completely and began to advocate the cult's teachings and contentions. They left their homes, abandoned their professions, and went to live in the cult communes. These facts are known from actual experiences of people who joined cults.

Mind Control is a convenient terminology for describing the process by which people change when they join cults. Mind Control is the manipulation of a person's heart and mind. In line with the cult leader's purposes and intentions, specific tactics are used to manipulate the hearts and minds of individuals who formerly had absolutely no relationship with such organizations and, in doing so, turn them into cult "robots" (this term is used here metaphorically as a short-hand way of denoting the extraordinarily high degree to which members comply with leaders' demands). This explanation of mind control gains general social understanding.

However, the problem is determining how and by what methods of mind control normally competent individuals become cult robots. This is difficult to explain either by the religious organization or by individuals who were already members of a cult. Mind control affects people and is carried out in various ways. There is no uniform explanation of mind control, and each cult member's experience of mind control is different.

Mind control cases are often typified in weekly magazines, newspapers, or in short television programs. The media have shown that cult tactics for soliciting believers all derive from cult manuals. Indeed, there are cults that have created elaborate manuals and systems with the intention of turning average people into robots. The Unification Church's manual, for example, is based on that organization's 30 years of experience. It is a skillful and polished scheme. To the surprise of many, the Unification Church employs tactics based on a sophisticated understanding of social psychology. However, general society and especially the courts will not easily admit that mind control tactics amount to antisocial and unlawful acts.

In different districts throughout Japan, former believers of the Unification Church have filed suits entitled "Cases to retrieve our youth" in which they argue that they suffered damages as a result of the Church's mind control tactics.

On 26 March 1998, the Nagoya District Court ruled that the Unification Church was not legally responsible for using mind control tactics. Six former Unification Church members who argued the said tactics were unlawful filed this case. The court ruled that, because the plaintiffs individually and personally made religious decisions at each level of training and thus intensified their relationships with the Church, it could not state the said tactics were unlawful acts that violated the free will of the plaintiffs. On 3 June 1998, and 24 March 1999, the Okayama District Court made similar rulings in which it negated the legal responsibility of the Unification Church.

Then, on 23 March 1999, the Sendai District Court ruled that the Unification Church’s tactics of using its members to solicit donations and sell ginseng extract were unlawful and ordered the Church to pay 8,100,000 yen to the plaintiffs in compensation for damages. Three female, married, former believers of the Unification Church filed this case, claiming that the donation collections and merchandise sales thereof were unlawful. This ruling made no new advancements other than to recognize, for the first time, that the sale of ginseng extract was unlawful and that Unification Church employees bore responsibility for these sales. Moreover, the same ruling did not find any unlawful activity with respect to the sale of apparel items, jewels and the collection of small sum donations. In its judgment, the Sendai District Court stated that it could not conclude that "Mind Control is an already established concept and that the plaintiffs were placed in a situation where they lost their normal ability to make decisions or where they were completely unable to exercise their freedom of will." This court ruling did not establish that mind control itself is unlawful. Rather, the ruling identified in detail the circumstances under which the plaintiffs had no other choice but to donate large sums of money for the purchase of ginseng extract, and ruled that such circumstances are lawful.

Another problem even more serious than offering money to the Unification Church is the act of "self-devotion" whereby people offer their lives completely to the Church. Money can always be returned but several years of a person's life dedicated to working hard for the Unification Church can never be reclaimed. Why then has it been so difficult for the courts to recognize that the act of manipulating or inducing another person to devote himself to such an organization is unlawful?

In Japan, the law concerning door-to-door sales, home visit sales or selling merchandise on the street, provides that the selling person is under obligation to explicitly inform his prospective customer about his purpose, name of company and merchandise for sale. Why then have the acts of solicitation to join religious organizations, which have a much greater influence on people than sales merchandise, basically been discounted?

The Unification Church, in the name of individual officials at its main headquarters, made an out of court settlement in March 1998 to pay more than 39 million yen to 39 former members who filed a suit for damages (a lawsuit known as the "Return Our Youth" case) at the Tokyo District Court. In this case, the Unification Church defendants recognized that its solicitation tactics are problematic. Throughout Japan, "Return Our Youth" lawsuits were filed and are pending in courts in Sapporo, Hamamatsu, Nagoya, Kobe, and Okayama.

Also, in August 1999, three former Unification Church members filed a lawsuit in Tokyo, claiming that the methods of recruitment employed by the Church were unlawful. These three plaintiffs alleged that the recruiting methods involved using threat and fraud to compel young people to devote their lives to the Church. Accordingly, such recruiting methods deviate from the permissible domain of recruiting activities heretofore recognized by religious organizations in general, and are, thus, unlawful.

The Aum Shinrikyo Problem

Why was Aum Shinrikyo Able to Perpetrate such Grievous Incidents in Japan?

The reasons need to be addressed relative to the slaying of Attorney Sakamoto, his wife, and his infant, the Matsumoto Sarin Incident, and the Sarin gassing of the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway System in March 1995 before the compulsory investigation was initiated.

First, the parties most responsible for such grievous incidents are police, specifically the police of Kanagawa and Shizuoka prefectures. When Attorney Sakamoto was suddenly taken from his home, a Prusha (the badge known to be worn only by Aum Shinrikyo believers) was found in a room of the attorney's home. Some of the Aum Shinrikyo believers living at a Satiyan (a building constructed by Aum Shinrikyo where its members live in communion and work together) in Kamikuishiki village approached residents in the area trying to seek help. Signs of abnormality were present and clear: Aum Shinrikyo members suffered physical damage that could be caused only by Sarin and other poisonous gases, and vegetation in the vicinity withered. Given these signs, it is important to question why the Prefectural Police did not cooperate and make arrests.

Second, the tax authorities also bear extensive responsibility. This has been an ongoing problem since 1995. Why didn’t the National Tax Administration Agency conduct a more strict investigation into the income and expenditures of Aum Shinrikyo and the corporations it orchestrates? It is doubtful that the Agency sought cooperation from the Police and other relevant State bodies. It is unlikely that the Agency exchanged information regarding the results of investigations conducted with the Police. In The United States and in France, for example, members of the Unification Church were arrested for tax evasion. This had a large impact. Reverend Moon spent more than one year in prison for a conviction of tax evasion. In the Republic of Korea as well last year, the national tax bureau conducted a probe into the corporations connected with the Unification Church. In another example, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service did not recognize the Scientology religion as a tax-exempt religious organization. As a result, Scientology's lawsuit to fight such a ruling lasted more than 10 years in U.S. courts. Some argue that tax systems vary from country to country, and therefore the Japanese tax system may proceed in its own way. However, the tax authorities in Japan do not act in a way that appears equal, just, uniform, or reasonable. The weakness of Japanese tax authorities in dealing with religious organizations is surprising. Even today because the problem of monetary collections by religious organizations has become a major social issue, the Japanese National Tax Administration Agency has gradually begun to initiate investigations, negotiate with religious organizations, and force them to pay back several hundreds of millions of yen in taxes. Nevertheless, while corporations or individuals undergo criminal prosecution mutatis mutandis for malicious and large-scale tax evasion, similar prosecutions of religious organizations are lacking. The responsibility of tax authorities is not only to collect taxes. Their role is also to ensure that corporations and individuals are treated equally with regard to tax collection and to ensure administrative effectiveness by exchanging information with relevant administrative government bodies, including the police.

Third, local governments of areas where Aum Shinrikyo maintained facilities and the relevant government administrations bear considerable responsibility. The Labor Safety and Hygiene Law and the Labor Standards Law, for example, should have been applied with respect to illegal constructions built inside the Aum Shinrikyo facilities and to the sect's organizational work to manufacture pharmaceutical products including Sarin gas. However, authorities of the local Labor Standards Bureaus have failed to take any action to date. Also, children living within the Aum Shinrikyo facilities who were of mandatory school age were not allowed by the cult to attend public schools and were continuously taught the sect’s teachings every day for years. The environment in which they lived may be described as poor and unfitting for children. The local Teachers' Council and Child Welfare Office, the Ministry of Education, and the Ministry of Health and Welfare did not act to address these situations until after the Tokyo Subway Sarin Incident. Within its facilities, Aum Shinrikyo has constructed buildings, one after another, that violate the Construction Standards Law. It built a structure that clearly violated the Fire Prevention and Safety Law. The competent government administration authorities were aware of these violations yet failed to take any action against them.

Fourth, religious scholars bear much responsibility. One characteristic of cults is that the public statements of their leaders and the affirmations appearing in their publications differ markedly from what they are actually doing. No matter how beautifully they present themselves to the outside world, in dealing with cults weight must be placed on exactly what the cults direct their believers to do inside the cult. Nevertheless, based only on their short conversations with Aum Shinrikyo leader Asahara Shoko (at the request of the media) and their reading of the sect's publications for external use, scholars of religion positively evaluated the aptitude of Asahara and the teachings and activities of Aum Shinrikyo. As a result, many young people who listened to and believed these scholars’ high evaluations approached Aum Shinrikyo to become members. These scholars should have made greater attempts to actually visit the Aum Shinrikyo facilities and interview in detail the people living in communes at such sites. While the study of religion should include research into the activities and practices actually performed by religious organizations, with regard to Aum Shinrikyo in Japan such a scholarly study was obviously lacking.

Fifth, the mass media was also largely responsible. In Japan, the weekly publication "Sunday Mainichi" was the first news magazine to broach the Aum Shinrikyo issue. Aum Shinrikyo opposed the news coverage by suing "Sunday Mainichi" and distributing slanderous paper handouts against it. Nevertheless, "Sunday Mainichi" endured these attacks, gained the cooperation of Attorney Sakamoto and, in doing so, rang the alarm to wake Japanese society to the Aum Shinrikyo problem. TBS (a large Japanese television broadcasting network) then produced a documentary on the cult. Before airing the documentary, some people at the TBS headquarters, unfortunately, showed the complete taped reportage to the Aum Shinrikyo headquarters. On one hand, a very talented TBS journalist worked on this story. He collected a great deal of information regarding the cult by fearlessly going to the cult facilities and the surrounding vicinities. However, there were also a number of journalists who reported on Aum Shinrikyo activities merely out of popular interest. To the public, they aired reports that evaluated the cult, but without the expertise of religious scholars. In doing so, these journalists actually magnified the power and influence of Aum Shinrikyo.

Finally, religious members and established religious organizations (particularly those esoteric Buddhist organizations and Buddhism itself, with which Aum Shinrikyo should have interacted) failed, by and large, to act or speak against the cult. At the end of March 1995, there was a concentrated outpouring of reporting about Aum Shinrikyo in the Japanese mass media—television, newspapers, magazines, etc. However, this reporting lacked the very objective and rational explanations of religious members as to why Aum Shinrikyo chose to act as it did and why/how the Aum Shinrikyo teachings are misguided. Instead, many religious organizations emphasized internally and externally that their organizations were completely different from Aum Shinrikyo. Yet few religious organizations thought to use the Aum Shinrikyo case as a lesson and to seek ways to help or save, in the real sense of the word, vulnerable people living and suffering in present day society.

The Nichiren (Buddhist) religion, the Soto (Buddhist) religion and some Christian organizations produced pamphlets and other reading materials about cult problems and in doing so raised social concern. They also initiated counseling services in an effort to help cult believers and their family members suffering from cult problems. However, since many religious organizations were busy with their own organizational management, few had the time to address the problem of cults in their main organizational agendas.

Court Judgments Following the Tokyo Metropolitan Subway Sarin Gas Incident

Based on the conclusions of investigations on Aum Shinrikyo conducted by police and prosecutors after March 1995, the competent authorities of the Tokyo Metropolitan government made an appeal requesting the dissolution of the Aum Shinrikyo as a religious corporation. That request was approved by the Tokyo District Court on 30 October 1995, the Tokyo High Court on 19 December 1995, and the Supreme Court on 30 January 1996. Accordingly, it was determined that the Aum Shinrikyo should be dissolved as a religious corporation. However, during the one-year period it took for the dissolution, Aum Shinrikyo transferred the name of ownership on almost all of its property holdings and sold its property or otherwise hid its assets. Less than 30 percent of the compensation money awarded to the victims and families of the deceased in the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system has been paid to date. However, it is expected that the victims will receive additional monetary compensation following the enactment of a new law in December 1999. According to this law, property held by organizations or individuals affiliated with Aum Shinrikyo may be presumed to be the property of Aum Shinrikyo.

About 200 Aum Shinrikyo believers were arrested and indicted on criminal charges for committing various unlawful acts. Of those 200, two members were sentenced to death for the Sarin incident and the slaying of Attorney Sakamoto, his wife, and child. (The two persons are currently appealing the case.) In the future, several other persons are expected to receive capital punishment as well. The issues at dispute in the criminal cases are the degree to which each defendant participated in the said incidents and whether or not they were a part of a conspiracy inclusive of Aum Shinrikyo leader Asahara Shoko. The courts were extremely hard on the defendants who formerly worked for the Aum Shinrikyo headquarters, since Aum Shinrikyo evolved into an "enemy of the people."

Another disputed issue in the criminal cases concerns the mind control theory. It is difficult to explain rationally why young individuals, who graduated from top universities in Japan and then became medical doctors or scientists, approved and participated in the slaying of people in a short period of time. To date, there have been only very poor explanations such as "religions have that sort of characteristic," "a person's involvement in religion has nothing to do with his educational background," and "young people today lack imagination."

Therefore, to date, no judgments have been passed to find that the defendants—by using mind control in accordance with the intents and purposes of the religious organization and its leaders—manipulated the thoughts and emotions of its members and thus made the believers capable of easily committing crimes. Rather, courts have rigorously questioned the individual responsibility of suspects for getting deeply involved in such a dangerous organization.

The Application of the Subversive Activities Prevention Law and Aum Shinrikyo

After Aum Shinrikyo was ordered to dissolve its religious corporation and after it declared bankruptcy, Aum Shinrikyo continued its organizational activities without legal representation. The police (public safety) authorities affirm that the Aum Shinrikyo membership has increased since 1998 and estimate that the group has more than 1,000 members. The personal computer manufacture and sales industry managed by Aum Shinrikyo believers makes large sales profits of 6 billion yen per annum by selling its products at attractively low prices. Apparently, this money is used to fund important activities.

The Japanese Public Security Investigation Agency's Ministry of Justice maintained that it kept the conduct of Aum Shinrikyo members under strict surveillance and restricted their actions in compliance with the Subversive Activities Prevention Law. Strong objections were raised in response to this statement by the government. Objectors asserted that such governmental surveillance discriminates on the bases of thought and religious belief and that it infringes freedom of thought and freedom of religion guaranteed under the Japanese Constitution. As a result, the Public Safety Commission did not approve the use of the Subversive Activities Prevention Law, stating that there was no clear and present danger that the Aum Shinrikyo would again commit a crime against society-at-large, such as indiscriminately killing people.

However, as stated above, the police (public security) authorities assert that the danger still exists that Aum Shinrikyo members may act against the public. Aum Shinrikyo members own or rent several facilities for communal living throughout Japan. In these areas, local residents installed their own surveillance towers (a small building) in front of the Aum Shinrikyo communes to monitor the cult's activities. Reasoning that the cult could destroy their peaceful and safe living environments, people opposing Aum Shinrikyo have also formed groups and conducted demonstrations with a view to ridding the communes from the local areas. These people are requesting that their local governments cooperate with the movements. The local governments have taken extra legal measures and rejected the group application for change of residency of Aum Shinrikyo believers. There is a much-heated debate of whether or not this is a violation of fundamental human rights.

Given the anxieties and demands of such residents, in December 1999 a new law was passed to continue surveillance of any organization whose members killed indiscriminately and to closely monitor the activities of individual members of groups organized by the members of the former group. This law has been strongly criticized for violating freedom of religion, as was also true of the Subversive Activities Prevention Law. However, in the wave of Aum Shinrikyo bashing, this new law, with many problems, was passed in a very short time (about 20 days). This law has been applied to Aum Shinrikyo since the beginning of 2000.

Legal Issues Involving Cults


A number of lawsuits claiming defamation were filed against the mass media, scholars, lawyers and others for their comments about new religious organizations. Movements to suppress critical speech are evident, especially in a number of organizations.

Life Space. At the end of October 1999, Life Space persistently maintained that a mummified corpse would definitely come back to life. This attracted much media attention. From the end of 1998 onward, Life Space filed lawsuits against any media organization, lawyers or other parties that were critical of its organization. In one case when Life Space was referred to as a cult in a television program produced by Fuji Television, the organization sued Fuji Television, the program's commentator, and the director of a relevant Internet home page for defamation. This lawsuit was not admitted to the court on 24 March 2000.

Life Space, Inc., an umbrella organization of the larger religious organization mentioned above, was ordered to pay a sum of 14 million yen in compensation for damages resulting from an accident that led to death during a training session at its self-enlightenment seminar. The court ruled that the organization was responsible by default based on its obligation to provide safe treatment. (Kyoto District Court judgment of 27 November 1998).

Kofuku no Kagaku. Kofuku no Kagaku has filed many lawsuits against many media organizations, in particular Kodansha (a large publishing house in Japan) that has criticized the leader of Kofuku no Kagaku Ohkawa Ryuho and the organization itself. In protest of Kodansha, Kofuku no Kagaku staged a demonstration led by popular actresses and writers who are believers of the religion and barraged the publishing company with faxes. These actions disrupted the business of Kodansha and developed into a social problem. Because some of Kofuku no Kagaku's actions against Kodansha were excessive, in a lawsuit filed by Kodansha against the religious organization the court ordered Kofuku no Kagaku to compensate the publishing company for damages. (Tokyo District Court judgment of 20 December 1986.)

Also, as a legal counter measure, Kofuku no Kagaku sued former members who publicly criticized against the group and concerned citizens who opposed the organization’s construction of new facilities. These lawsuits by far outnumber those filed by any other organization.

Former believers of Kofuku no Kagaku who were compelled to donate about 230,000,000 yen over a very short period of time sued the organization for damages. In response, Kofuku no Kagaku and its main headquarters sued those plaintiffs and their lawyers for defamation, seeking 800,000,000 yen in damages.

Soka Gakkai. Soka Gakkai has been at organizational opposition with the present mainstream Buddhist religion in Japan called Nichiren Seishu. As a result of this discord, Soka Gakkai has filed more than 100 suits against Nichiren Seishu. The organizations have mutually sued each other for defamation many times. Alleging defamation, Soka Gakkai has also recurrently sued the media for criticizing the organization in their reporting.

Religious Organizations in General. As noted in the above examples, when religious organizations are criticized by news coverage or other social activity or are sued, in many cases they retaliate aggressively. Given this situation, the work of media organizations, journalists, freedom of speech activists, lawyers, and others need to proceed seriously and with due consideration.

Perhaps a religious organization’s response to criticism from lay society is an indication of its real personality. Two such indicators might be whether they accept the criticism and try to change their conduct or activities and/or whether they are big-hearted and flexible enough to establish opportunities for change or to at least provide detailed, respectful responses to the criticisms. These indicators may be useful in evaluating religious organizations in the future.

Counseling Believers After They Leave a Religious Organization

Beginning in the 1970’s in Japan, a number of counselors (mainly a small group of Protestant ministers who quit cults) began to help former members of the Unification Church. In the late 1980’s in response to social criticism against spiritual sales, such counseling activities spread to areas throughout Japan, largely due to the organization of a Counter Measure Conference established essentially by Christian ministers. Due to their background and experience in providing counseling, such groups, although working with limited personnel, were quite effective in helping former Aum Shinrikyo and other cult members recover.

In response to this, the Unification Church, alleging that the families of believers and Christian ministers formed a conspiracy to kidnap its believers, confine them, and force them to quit the Church, filed a criminal complaint and published a book criticizing the said "conspiracy." The police, however, declined the Church's complaint saying that the issue in question is a family matter.

The Unification Church persuaded their followers to file a civil action against a minister who counseled the believers and their parents since January 1999. In these cases, the Unification Church’s followers are demanding that the parents and the minister cease pressuring the said believer to quit the Church, and that compensation for damages is paid. Scientology cooperated with the Unification Church (the Moonies) in one of these lawsuits.

Additionally, a female member of the Jehovah Witness organization sued a Christian minister for damages in January 1999.

The following issues are being disputed with respect to these cases: First, did an act occur that is recognized as genuine kidnapping and confinement? Second, what admissible actions can parents or guardians of a child take when they learn that their child has joined and is actively participating in an organization that conducts antisocial activities? Third, how should the participatory role of a minister be concretely defined?

In the future, counseling former and possibly present members of religious organizations will be a matter of serious concern in Japan.

Problems Within the Family

There have been numerous cases in which a spouse has filed for divorce because the other spouse became deeply involved in a religion and in doing so neglected his or her family life. In reviewing court judgments on this subject, it is apparent that in many of these cases one of the spouses had joined the Jehovah Witness organization or Soka Gakkai. Divorce was recognized in cases where it was determined that a spouse's religious involvement obstructed his or her obligation to cooperate as a spouse. However, divorce was not recognized in cases where one spouse refused to accept the religion of the other spouse and where the courts could not find that the basic life of the spouse had been disturbed due only to a difference of religious beliefs between the two spouses.

In such cases when divorce is granted, subsequent child custody cases have arisen. In some cases, a parent who becomes an Aum Shinrikyo, Life Space, or Yamagishi-Kai follower takes his or her child to live at that organization's commune. In response to this, the parent who is not a member of the religious organization or the grandmother/grandfather of the child in question takes habeas corpus actions requesting a change in child custody rights with a view to returning the child to normal society from the said commune. Such requests are usually recognized in cases where it is clear that the communal life style within a religious organization's facility is detrimental to a child's welfare and in cases where a child over the age of ten years expresses his or her wish to leave the said facility.

Another problem concerns the wish of children and parents of religious organization believers to protect the estate belonging to that believer. Often, believers donate their property and assets, one after another, to a religious organization in line with its propaganda. This has a great financial impact on the believer's family. Therefore, family members seeking to protect the estate have sought legal advice.

In such cases the procedure on Declaration of Quasi-Incompetence may be employed. By this procedure, when an adult is judged to be incapable of appropriately managing his/her estate, the court appoints a conservator/guardian to oversee the management of that estate. Most cases in which this declaration has been made are in relation to the Unification Church. Over the past ten years this procedure has been quite effective.

Many young men and women who have participated in the Unification Church's joint mass-wedding ceremony have submitted their registration of marriage earlier to the local city or town offices, thus making their marriage legal under civil law, even though they still do not actually intend or desire to live together as husband and wife. The Unification Church usually tries to prevent believers intending to marry from discussing the marriage with their families and leaving the Church. The Unification Church, as a matter of convenience, usually urges its believers to legally register their marriages so as to facilitate the immigration process and subsequent acquisition of residency status necessary when one spouse is a non-national of the country of his or her marital partner. The Unification Church plans to have its members live in foreign countries and work for the Church there. One former believer registered her marriage as was required but quit the Unification Church prior to actually living with her spouse. This former believer continues to be troubled by the fact that she legally married a man with whom she never had sexual intercourse and who had not yet decided when to start living with her.

To address this problem, over fifty actions were taken with a view to having such marriage registrations declared invalid on the grounds that neither spouse actually intended or desired to live with the other in married life. In Japan, the Supreme Court has declared such a marriage between a Japanese man and woman invalid (Judgment of 25 April 1986). Similar judgments were passed in about fifty cases in various areas throughout the country.

Today, the Unification Church tries to maneuver international marriages by pairing up, for example, a Japanese woman and a Korean man. Some couples that it attempts to pair are of the same nationality. They are all urged to participate in the mass-wedding ceremony and to register their marriages. Meanwhile, the courts have ruled that such a marriage between a Japanese woman and a Korean or American man is not valid under the law. In the future, much trouble is expected as a result of these international Unification Church marriages in terms of declaring the marriage invalid and in terms of divorce.

Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Esq. is an attorney with Tokyo Kyodo Law office in Tokyo, Japan.

This paper is based on a talk given to AFF’s 2000 Annual Conference in Seattle, Washington.