Society needs welcome mat for ex-cultists

Asahi Shimbun/December 4, 2000

The growing number of former cult members means there is a need for more counselors to assist an often lost and confused segment of society. Unless the psychological and emotional scars borne by former cultists and their families are healed, they will be incapable of making a comeback as active members of society.

A care network similar to those seen in the United States and Europe is at last spreading across Japan as well. Pascal Zivi, a French priest who arrived in this country more than 20 years ago, has been counseling ex-cultists and their relatives via his Web site since August.

Six years ago the Frenchman opened what he termed a self-control research center, in Sapporo. After countless hours spent speaking with young Japanese, he has come to realize that U.S. and European ways will not work here.

So many Japanese lack a sense of self or identity to begin with, he says. Asked their attitude to a cult or what kind of lifestyle they aspire to, they have no opinion to offer: they do not respond to questions intended to make them think about who they are. "Having never been educated to feel a strong sense of the self, they are easy prey for a religious cult, and that also explains why they cannot find meaning in life after leaving one of these groups," he says.

For now, all Zivi can do is assist his clients on their quest to find themselves. The government is also working to make psychological care available to citizens who have left religious sects or cults.

In fiscal 1999 the National Institute of Health and the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry-both operating under the aegis of the Health and Welfare Ministry-supervised the compilation of a report on how best to promote psychological healing for such people.

The report proposed the establishment of a research body with a twofold charter to prevent cults from forming, wherever possible, and limiting the damage done by those already in existence. Then in January a think tank was formed, as a result of a related initiative (by the National Police Agency and the Health and Welfare and the Justice ministries), to discuss ways of helping former Aum Shinrikyo members become contributing members of society.

The think tank's report was issued in late September. Takehiko Yoshikawa, director of the National Institute of Health and the think tank's chairman, says, "The problem is what kind of broad measures we should take to assist all ex-cultists, not just Aum Shinrikyo members. "If we take legal action against cults, people will inevitably leave them. But we need to provide a welcome mat for people who've recently escaped the clutches of a cult, if only to protect their human rights. What we want is some kind of cult research center."

Critics of such an approach warn that government intervention could pose its own dangers.

Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a lawyer versed in anti-cult practices, says, "We should welcome the fact that ministries and agencies are taking an interest in such research. "But if the government adopts some of these measures, it may end up infringing upon freedom of religion and thought, not to mention invading people's privacy. It would be better for governments to subsidize outfits in the private sector that offer counseling services."

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