9 warning signs from Japan expert that college kids are being wooed by cults

The Mainichi, Japan/August 13, 2022

Tokyo -- As cults continue to deploy multiple schemes to recruit young people on Japan's university campuses, heightening parents' fears, a specialist has explained to the Mainichi Shimbun common signs that could indicate their children are being sucked in.

"It's difficult to convey the dangers of cults to today's students, who have no memory of AUM Shinrikyo's (1995) sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system or other incidents that illustrate specific threats," said Toshiyuki Tachikake, an Osaka University professor specializing in cult countermeasures since 2009. He also serves as the head of the secretariat of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery (JSCPR).

Most college kids today were born after the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that brought the AUM Shinrikyo cult's destructive activities into focus. Meanwhile, the manipulative methods of the Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, caused so much trouble in the 1980s that it became a social issue. But present-day university students remained largely unaware about the religious group until the suspect in the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told police that he deeply resented the church for "destroying" his family.

Tachikake said, "Cases of cults recruiting young people at universities and on the streets have been confirmed this year, too. Though it's said that cults have their eyes on first-year students at welcome parties, people become targets regardless of time, place, or age."

There have been instances of cult-following alumni or students searching social media hashtags to target young people who have announced what university they will enter in the spring. They aim to recruit the new students to their cult after establishing a relationship of trust by guiding them through school procedures, such as signing up for courses.

As remote classes have grown common amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is believed that cults have been targeting students who tend to get isolated. In some cases, students are lured into cults by alumni they met through job hunting apps. In another case, a student who applied for a speech contest via social media was approached by a party claiming they could receive money for participating.

To combat these issues, since 2006, Osaka University has made it mandatory for first-year students to take an orientation course that includes 45 minutes dedicated to warning students about cults. Students get explanations on the characteristics of clubs and groups that they should be wary of, such as having bases off campus and going through frequent name changes.

However, it can apparently be difficult to ascertain whether groups are cults, particularly when they present themselves as contributing to society through volunteering and other activities. Once students join such groups, they start to talk about matters unrelated to their original objectives, such as "ways to make your life and mindset positive." Tachikake calls on students to be suspicious if these topics are brought up.

So how should parents and families respond if their children accidentally fall on with cults at university? A pamphlet created by the JSCPR raised nine behavioral signs of cult involvement: an excessive increase in appreciative pronouncements; unusual levels of excitement; numerous invitations to unidentifiable events; cutting ties with friends; an increase in full-day outings; rising mysterious expenses; disposing of once cherished belongings following a dramatic change in taste; a sudden decrease in time spent with family; and suddenly saying they want to quit living at home. The group warns that parents should be on their guard if even one of the above applies to their children.

Tachikake emphasized, "Summer vacation is a good opportunity to pick up on danger signs that your child might be on the verge of joining a cult." However, he said it is also important not to accuse them even if you notice abnormal behavior.

"These cults take measures to deal with parents' disapproval. This aggravates relationships between parents and children, and drives the latter even deeper into cult activities. The most effective method is to talk about it with consultation desks at schools and expert institutions."

(Japanese original by Chie Yamashita, Digital News Center)

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