Anti-cult crusaders are also fanatical themselves

Asahi Shimbun, June 13, 2000
By Tatsuhisa Yue

Sects that use religion to lure new followers regard universities as their most fertile field for recruits, say social psychologists. Their members are notorious for persistent, and sometimes subtle, attempts to brainwash freshmen, both on and off campus.

In the belief that prevention is the most effective tactic available, the student affairs departments at several universities have begun distributing leaflets warning students against proselytizing cults.

At Ferris University in Yokohama in late April, about 150 first-year teacher trainees were shown an anti-cult video titled "Genso no Kanata Ni" (beyond the illusion) made by the Japan Deprogramming Council.

After the screening, which formed part of a lecture by Namiji Watanabe, professor of social psychology, each student was asked to submit a paper on the topic. The screening was Watanabe's idea, reflecting concerns for his students' welfare.

Earlier, during a lecture the professor gave at Tokyo International University, Watanabe asked students there whether they had ever been approached by cult members.

Most said they had come into contact with people who tried to defraud them, and in many instances these were cult members.

This revelation prompted Watanabe to show the video to his students before the long May vacation got under way. He was staggered to learn that four in five of his Ferris students had been approached by the cult highlighted in the video.

The professor was encouraged to read one student's comment-"Now I've seen the video, I understand how the cult works"- but he still felt anxious about whether his warning was sufficient.

The students had already been advised about cults and their activities at the beginning of the school year.

On arriving at university, they received a leaflet prepared by the student affairs department and titled "Be on Guard Against 'Dangerous Beliefs'." "I felt the need to call students' attention to the problem over and over again," Watanabe said.

Two years ago, when sociologists studying the phenomenon of cults sent a questionnaire to the heads of student affairs department at universities around the nation, 43 percent of the respondents-131 out of 306-reported disturbing episodes of indoctrination, the experience of trying to escape the clutches of cult devotees, and the sale of their belongings by the group.

Why are universities so vulnerable to the activities of religious zealots? According to Kiyoshi Ando, professor of social psychology at the University of Toyo, who compiled the questionnaire, cults lust power and can lure certain groups in society-young people, the affluent elderly, and celebrities.

Ando added: "It's also pertinent that students-who have recently left the security of their family and old friends behind and are in search of a new identity-tend to be very impressionable. And then opportunities for indoctrination abound on campus, with events such as club functions or faculty celebrations."

Responses to the questionnaire tended to show that the more exposure a school had to religious sects, the more emphasis it gave to cautionary advice and the distribution of anti-cult literature. About 1,000 freshmen attending orientation camps run by Fukushima University in April and last month were handed leaflets exploring the propaganda and practices of religious sects in considerable detail.

The university was persuaded to adopt this early-intervention approach by Sadao Asami, former professor of the science of the Bible at Tohoku Gakuin University. A representative of the student affairs department who did not provide a name for publication said the administration had already distributed a flyer warning students against swindlers, but now it was responding to the appearance of "other problem groups."

Keisen Jogakuin, a college in the Tokyo dormitory town of Tama, gave its students a separate flier, compiled by the National Network of Lawyers Opposed to Spiritual Mercenaries.

During the May break-when some new students are known to suffer depression after the initial excitement of beginning a new academic year has worn off-the school organizes lectures by the clergy and others involved in trying to persuade people to leave a cult.

The Health Services Center at Hiroshima University puts up relevant posters and hands out leaflets, both during lessons and when the students undergo their annual medical examination.

When Waseda University posts the names of those students who have passed its entrance examination, the varsity also gives the successful candidates a sheet advising them not to divulge their names or telephone numbers to strangers.

Scholars at other universities are also dedicated to taking on the cults. At Keio University, Hirobumi Sakaki, professor of social psychology, and a lawyer friend have produced a leaflet that exposes indoctrination ploys in common use. He hands a copy of the leaflet to each student in his classes.

In April, Kimiaki Nishida-a lecturer of social psychology at Shizuoka University-drafted a document for freshmen there. Titled "Beware of Uninvited Approaches," it lists behavioral traits typical of those engaged in "dubious arm-twisting."

Masayuki Tanamura, a Waseda University professor of the civil law with a special interest in religion and the law, noted: "A campus is prone to become a paradise for cults because it defends the freedom of expression, thought, all sorts of belief and faith, and therefore it must tolerate the activities various groups."

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