Brainwashed by the Unification Church: A former student follower tells his story

The Japan Times/September 12, 2022

The suspect arrested in the shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was reportedly motivated by a grudge against the Unification Church. The religious group’s aggressive solicitation of members and its so-called spiritual sales, in which people are talked into buying items for exorbitant prices, have been a social problem in Japan since the 1980s.

The group, which changed its name to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in 2015, claims that it has fully complied with relevant laws since 2009. But according to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, the total amount of damages since 2009 has reached as much as ¥17.5 billion.

What has been going on inside the group? A former student follower has revealed its brainwashing techniques and activities, and how he was able to leave the church.

In May 1999, a man claiming to be Koji Ishikawa’s senior student at Aoyama Gakuin University approached him. At the time, Ishikawa was a first-year student at the university’s Atsugi campus, near Hon-Atsugi Station in the city of Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture.

“Why don’t you join our international exchange club?” the man said to Ishikawa, who is now 42 and pastor at Jesus Christ Church in Japan — Naha Heian Church in Okinawa Prefecture.

After spending a whole year studying so hard to enter a university, Ishikawa, who was from Saitama Prefecture and was living alone, found his new life at the university somewhat lukewarm, as people around him seemed to be wasting their time by doing nothing but playing.

Looking for something to which he could devote himself, he says he thought the exchange organization sounded interesting. He followed the man to a room in an apartment building, without knowing it was in fact the activity base of a student organization of the Unification Church.

The room was called the “video center,” and was the recruiting venue for the church’s student organization. Video footage played in the room included scenes of the church’s founder, Sun Myung Moon, embracing former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev and making speeches in front of representatives of various countries.

“Wow! I didn’t know there was such a person,” Ishikawa recalled, remembering his excitement. At that time, he was genuinely impressed by the greatness of the materials he saw, which seemed to put the church founder on an equal footing with world leaders.

There were a few other students in the room, but none of them were freshmen like him. The man who brought Ishikawa to the room kept smiling, and asked him what he thought of the video and about his college life.

The man listened to Ishikawa warmheartedly, and repeatedly responded to what he said in their casual conversation with phrases like, “That’s cool,” and, “That’s great,” bolstering Ishikawa’s self-esteem. A meal was also served. “What nice people,” Ishikawa remembers thinking, recalling that by then he felt completely relaxed.

After a while, the older student disappeared to a back room. When he returned, he invited Ishikawa to a two-day seminar camp. Ishikawa later learned that while in the back room, the older student had been consulting with a leader about when to offer the invitation to the seminar. With his guard down, Ishikawa was a perfect target.

For the two-day camp, which was on a weekend, Ishikawa was driven to a Unification Church facility in the city of Tsuchiura, in Ibaraki Prefecture. There were up to 30 first-year university students from the Kanto region gathering for the camp. “I hope I can make friends here,” Ishikawa thought, anxious and lonely from living alone. He was seeking companionship.

Brainwashing camps

The participation fee for the camp was ¥10,000, and there were two 90-minute “classes” in the morning, in which a colloquially translated Bible was read aloud.

Lunches were more luxurious than those at the school cafeteria. A group of student followers prepared them, and new students sat facing senior members while eating. Newcomers were not allowed to talk freely with each other, and their behavior was monitored by the leader. If making a phone call to someone outside the camp, they were told to “ask for instructions.”

The habit of reporting to the group leader, known as “Abel,” and waiting for instructions rather than making decisions on one’s own, was instilled from this time. Those who eventually became followers began to criticize each other for being “addicted to the personal spiritual world” when they acted on their own.

In the afternoon session, the participants played sports. When they became moderately tired and relaxed, a brief lecture on the “unification principle” began. Despite feeling uncomfortable about the lecture, Ishikawa followed through the prepared programs one after another. “I don’t understand the teachings, but everyone seems like a good person,” he told himself at the time.

In the evening, there was a performance contest, and he was paired with a senior believer. They won the contest and were praised for their talent.

Ishikawa later learned that in the process of acquiring believers, the church put the emphasis on “praising newcomers to create an intimate atmosphere and bring down their guard.” The church also made sure to cut them off from “the outside world” of family and friends, and senior followers were always next to them to keep an eye on them.

“The two-day camp was only the gateway to brainwashing. The church sifted out the students who weren’t serious. I was a good fit for them, as I was faithful,” he said. He did not tell his parents about the camp, as he wanted to act like a fully grown adult living on his own.

After the two-day camp, there was a six-day camp, which was later followed by a 40-day camp during summer vacation.

At the end of the two-day camp, Ishikawa was shocked to learn from a senior follower that it was actually a gathering of the Unification Church. Knowing that it was a notorious group, he tried to back out, but it was too late. In addition to the persuasion, which lasted until morning, he was unable to break the “close relationship” that had, by then, been established.

By the time the 40-day camp began, more than half of the original 30 newcomers had disappeared. From this point on, newcomers were able to talk to each other, which meant that the state of brainwashing by the group had already progressed toward completion. The doctrine was also gradually becoming more extreme, under which the church referred to communism as “evil” and voices outside the group as “the opinions of Satan.”

“The whole process of gaining followers was manualized,” Ishikawa said. “They didn’t allow anyone to contact the outside world until they were fully immersed in the doctrine. I don’t think that has changed.”

After the 40-day camp, Ishikawa moved out of his apartment and began living with student believers at the Atsugi apartment he had first visited. Having no friends at school, the apartment was the only place where he felt he belonged. By that time, six months had passed since the day he was recruited.

Fundraising by lying

While living together with five or six other student believers in the apartment, Ishikawa handed the ¥100,000 monthly allowance he received from his parents to the leader in the group as living expenses.

He did not carry a wallet, and charged the leader each time he bought necessities. Three meals a day were prepared by the fellow students, including boxed lunches. Alcohol was prohibited. Juice and snacks were served to new recruits, and members needed permission from the leader to drink or eat them.

The four-bedroom apartment had a video room that was used for recruiting, and a prayer room with pictures of the Unification Church founder and his wife, Hak Ja Han. There was no TV or radio, and during meals they would report to each other on their progress in recruiting for seminar camps.

Ishikawa, who was an ardent follower, would wake up at 7 a.m. and go to the university. After classes were over, he would go out on the streets to conduct recruiting activities until around 8 or 9 p.m. He targeted first-year students living alone. If they lived with their parents, there was a high possibility that the recruiting would fail. As was the case with himself, serious-looking students who had just entered the university had high chances of joining.

Student groups also worked on fundraising for the group in order to “create paradise on Earth,” as stated in the doctrine. The main method was door-to-door sales of items such as packs of three dish towels, sold for ¥2,000 each. The daily sales quota for a group of six was ¥300,000. They lied that items were packed by volunteers with disabilities.

The group visited farming and fishing villages in the Kanto region because they found people living in the villages were good-hearted and sympathetic, and were willing to buy the items.

“Some in the group were so distressed in their conscience that they couldn’t move, and I also felt guilty. But when I said it, Abel shouted at me, ‘Do it as if you were dead,’” Ishikawa said, adding that he didn’t know what was right anymore.

On some days, they would set out at 6 a.m., chanting “We’ll sell with our lives on the line,” and make rounds nonstop for 14 hours. At night, they would go downtown to look for buyers. Exhausted, Ishikawa spent his time in classes at the university sleeping.

The Unification Church’s management and door-to-door sales tactics seemed aggressive.

In the summer of 2002, three years after Ishikawa became a member of the Unification Church, a Christian church in Tokyo contacted his parents to discuss his situation. The Tokyo church, which had been supporting Unification Church followers in leaving the group, had received information from the parents of another student believer. The pastor and Ishikawa’s family began an operation to help Ishikawa leave the group.

Getting out

By that time, Ishikawa was so absorbed in the activities of the Unification Church that he had to repeat a year in school.

The pastor at the Tokyo church told his parents that good preparation was needed to help their son leave the group.

After receiving a call from his family, Ishikawa was driven to meet the pastor. But he fled from the back seat of the car on their way. According to the Unification Church’s teachings, the outside world of nonbelievers was “Satan” and “wrong people who don’t know the principle.” He was made to believe that if he was caught, he would be “locked up and subjected to terrible things.”

The first attempt to help him leave the group failed. His father declared over the phone that he would break family ties if the son did not stop the group activities, and his mother was crying with worry.

One year later, in the spring of 2003, Ishikawa was taken to a room in an apartment building with his father closely accompanying him so that he could not escape this time. Ishikawa spent about a month there with the pastor.

As he read articles about wrongdoing by the Unification Church, as well as the Bible, he came to understand in his own mind that the group’s methods were contrary to the original teachings, but moving his heart took longer.

Even though he understood the group was wrong, it had become irreplaceable for him. He even took a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant to distract himself, but his mind kept wandering. There have been cases in which students who had once left the group rejoined later.

The turning point for Ishikawa came when, at the urging of those around him, he began attending services at a Christian church. The words of the Bible read by the pastor touched his heart. Some people he met at the church were former followers of the group and they empathized with his sufferings.

He was baptized on the Christmas Day in 2003, and graduated from university in September 2004.

During his four years of activities in the group, initially presented to him as “international exchange club,” Ishikawa had joined the Unification Church and deceived many people in door-to-door sales.

“They were all covered in lies,” he recalled. “But I don’t think the believers feel like they are lying. They are just following instructions,” he said, adding that he feels the essence of the Unification Church is to deprive individuals of their judgment on right or wrong.

At a news conference held on Aug. 10, Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the Japan branch of the organization, emphasized that the group has been working to ensure compliance with relevant laws since 2009.

The Okinawa Times asked the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification about its methods of recruiting followers and door-to-door sales by email and telephone after Aug.14, but did not receive a response by Aug. 16.

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