The Ungodly Gains Of The World's Greediest Church

Sydney Morning Herald/May 7, 1993

"I don't feel embarrassment ... deep remorse is a better word," confesses Kiyoharu Takahashi, blinking furiously behind his black-rimmed eyeglasses.

For 400 years, a small plot of land on the urban fringe of Tokyo had been in the family, once retainers of the local daimyo (lord of the manor).

Five years ago, Mr Takahashi, then a university student, aged 26, persuaded his family to take out mortgages over the property. Although there is less than a hectare of land, it contains the family home, a turf farm, a rented house and two blocks of flats.

Even so, it still amazes Kiyoharu how much the banks were prepared to lend on it. By the time the credit dried up, he had received $67.5 million, repayments had fallen behind and the banks were threatening to foreclose. Four centuries of family history were about to go down the drain.

What caused this calamity ?

Every cent of the money - plus another $500,000 or so in savings that the Takahashis had put aside over the years - was handed over to an organisation Japanese are starting to call the greediest church in the world, the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, known to the less devout as the Moonie church.

Its founder and Pope is the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a 73-year-old, thrice-married father of 13 who now lives in the United States, where he has done time in prison for tax evasion.

Although he is better known for his mass marriage spectaculars - last year he hired the Olympic stadium in Seoul to celebrate the wedding of 30,000 followers, most of whom had never met each other before - Moon has spent the last 40 years building up a formidable religious multinational.

And Japan is the place where Moon Industries Inc, a conglomerate that trades under more than 100 corporate identities, has made its most spectacular, and some would say ungodly, gains.

Young Mr Takahashi is only one of 8,350 people who have come forward, claiming they have been ripped off by the Moonies, since a national legal network was set up to help them get their money back six years ago. The total amount they claim to have been cheated out of is a staggering $568 million. Cases are listed in more than a dozen courts.

Many of them, like Mr Takahashi, say they have been blackmailed into borrowing beyond their means, then handing the money over. In his case, barely credibly, he was told that his father's Parkinson's Disease was due to an ancient curse which could only be lifted from the family by prayer ... and enormous amounts of money.

Another reformed Moonie - "Tomiko" is a 34- year-old English teacher from Tokyo - was told her lack of luck in love was because of the "dirty" money which she had saved. She took her life savings, $5,000, to a flat where the Moonies sprinkled salt in the four corners of the room, said prayers, and made it all disappear.

"Unfortunately, Japanese seem more susceptible to this sort of thing than people in other countries," says Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a member of the lawyers'network, who is handling cases for 25 former Moonies, including Takahashi, Tomiko, and a woman in Australia who was swindled out of $12,000.

People are being enticed into a range of activities which have no overt connection with the Moonies.

There are about 100 Moonie-owned "video centres" around Tokyo where people are invited in and then recruited.

Another favourite ploy is to organise conferences by front organisations, such as the World Peace Professors' Academy, the Society of Field Flowers, the Japan-Korea Tunnel Task Force and even the Women's Foundation for World Peace, which last year held a meeting at Sydney's Ritz Carlton Hotel.

No-one knows how many followers the Reverend Moon has attracted since he went international in the mid-1960s. He claims five million followers in 160 countries (including Australia) but a more realistic assessment by former members of the cult is around one-tenth that number.

Even so, Japan - where there are thought to be around 20,000 hard-core Moonies - is beyond doubt one of the most profitable parts of his empire. Or was, until the recent deluge of bad publicity.

Tokyo's tabloids have been agog for a month over the disappearance of Hiroko Yamazaki, a 33-year-old former Olympic gymnast, who has provided the church with acres of publicity since her marriage at the mass-wedding in Korea last year to a groom selected for her by the Rev Moon. She reappeared, renouncing the church and claiming it had all been a terrible mistake.

After being indoctrinated the converts are put out on the streets of Tokyo to bring in other recruits, and to make money selling products door-to-door.

Mr Takahashi displays some of the products he was obliged to sell. There is a 300-gram jar of extract from Korean ginseng (a parsnip-like root which tastes a bit like tobacco and is reputed to be medicinal) - this sold for$1,000, when the over-the-counter price in Korea is about $150. The Reverend Moon's Il Hwa factory near Seoul is South Korea's largest ginseng processor.

A set of three name-seals, worth about $125, is sold for up to $15,000. All Moonies dream of selling the jewelled pagoda - a model studded with what look like bits of glass that goes for $67,500.

After her conversion, Tomiko became a real cash cow. Even though she had no property to put up as collateral, she borrowed more than $50,000 from eight different banks and handed it over. She sold her family a garage full of Moonie products - her mother paid $20,000 for a kimono, her father $8,000 for a sauna, among other things. "I became a saleswoman ... they said it was the way to achieve heaven on earth."

Gullible? Perhaps. But 8,349 more like her? Sadao Asami, professor of theology at Tohoku University, believes that there is something about the Japanese that makes them more susceptible to Moon's brand of religion.

Professor Asami has earned a nickname, "the Devil's priest", from the Moonies because of the help he has given hundreds of families, "rescuing"their children from the Moonies. He has worked with 500 to 600 former followers. He says that Japanese remain dependent on their parents much longer than people in the West, and that they are thus more immature. As well, the Japanese culture entertains a variety of religious and superstitious beliefs.

They also, says Mr Yamaguchi, have a lot of money.

Until recently, the Tokyo Moonies have been trying to quietly settle most of the claims out of court. However, in January, Michio Fujii, the head of the church in Japan, wrote to Mr Yamaguchi apologising for the "mismanagement of subordinates of the Unification Church" - but saying that repayment of money would be "temporarily stopped".

This means that Mr Takahashi is in trouble. The church had repaid most of the money and had taken over repayments on the loans. But $3 million is outstanding. The Moonies' headquarters is in the fashionable suburb of Shibuya, a three-storey building that occupies most of a city block.

Unfortunately, neither Mr Fujii, nor anyone else, was willing to put the church's point of view on these serious allegations. They later sent an anonymous fax, denying everything and claiming bare-facedly: "We do not participate in profit-making activities."

The Unification Church's own publications boast of a global business empire valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The core is the Sae-il engineering company, which began making air-rifles, and now manufactures machine-tools in Korea, Germany and Africa. Then there is the Il Hwa company which produces more than 40 different pharmaceutical products, ginseng and soft-drinks; in Alabama, there is International Oceanic Enterprises which catches and packs seafood; in Alaska, the Master Marine company makes fibreglass fishing trawlers; the Moonies own the Paragon House publishing firm, the Washington Times newspaper and a four-storey complex in Barrytown, New York, where they run a theological seminary.

Although his worries are not over, Mr Takahashi - along with several thousand other former converts - is thankful to be out of it. And not to have to go through with the "marriage" he had in 1988 .. along with 6,499 other couples. In a hall at a Seoul soft-drink factory, he saw his bride for the first time. "I had built up expectations of how beautiful she was going to be," he says "When I saw her I got vertigo." Two of his fellow Moonies committed suicide. One, a middle-aged woman who was being pressured into handing over some land, jumped off a building. Another, a man who was married at a mass wedding, jumped in front of a car.

"At the time I believed in it," says Mr Takahashi, "Now I know it was only blackmail and lies aimed at getting their money."

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