Faith or manipulation? Debate grows over regulating Unification Church tactics

The Japan Times/October 27, 2022

By Tomoko Otake

Is it faith or manipulation?

As lawmakers and government officials work to provide relief to victims of the Unification Church, the question of whether to examine the mental conditions of people who continue to donate money to the controversial group has come into focus.

The church’s aggressive donation-seeking practices, which often leave families of church followers in financial ruin, came into the spotlight following the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July. Tetsuya Yamagami, who was arrested on suspicion of fatally shooting Abe, has reportedly told police that he held a grudge against the politician over his ties to the church. Yamagami’s mother became a church follower in the late 1990s and gave away ¥100 million to the group, leaving the family bankrupt, according to news reports.

Lawyers and others who have fought against the church’s pursuit of donations say that followers are victims of its manipulative tactics. They say the followers have been psychologically manipulated to believe that they would be condemned to hell if they refuse to donate or that they would be freed from negative "ancestral karma" if they buy goods such as hanko seals, jars and artwork.

But other experts argue that the concept of manipulation is hard to nail down, expressing concerns that broad interpretation may end up restricting people’s freedom of religion.

The ruling and opposition parties agreed last week to create a joint panel to discuss legislative measures aimed at helping victims of these practices, called “spiritual sales,” and imposing restrictions on donations. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has also said he will seek the approval of related bills during the current extraordinary session of parliament, which ends Dec. 10.

The Consumer Affairs Agency is preparing to submit a bill based on a report released by an agency panel last week. The panel called for expanding the rights of people to cancel transactions made in a state that the panel describes as being under "mind control" by setting a longer period for them to make the request and get their money back, using the phrase "maindo kontorōru" in Japanese, a loanword from English.

The Consumer Contract Law allows people to cancel a contract solicited in a deceitful and threatening manner within a year after becoming aware of the damage, or five years after the transaction.

“Given that it takes a considerable amount of time for people to get off mind control, the expansion of the cancellation period should be considered,” the report said.

The report also proposed banning groups from soliciting donations from people who are “incapable of making rational judgments" due to such manipulation.

Introducing penalties

A group of opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, submitted a bill to parliament last week proposing to go even further: allowing the government to issue warnings against groups with exploitative practices and make repeat offenders criminally punishable with a jail sentence or a fine.

“It is not enough to make it possible to cancel large-sum donations,” Kiyoshige Maekawa, a Nippon Ishin no Kai member campaigning for the bill, told reporters last week. “We need to give penalties to those who (pursue) donations from people under their mind control.”

The bill seeks to outlaw “acts to induce damage to designated assets,” which are defined in part as “the act of triggering a state where free decision-making is rendered extremely difficult.”

Chinami Nishimura, deputy leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, said the lawmakers didn’t include the phrase "mind control" because it’s not a legal term. The bill is nevertheless intended to address the problem, she said.

“Katakana words are seldom used in Japanese laws,” Nishimura said by phone this week. “That’s why we decided to define solicitation of donations under so-called mind control as ‘acts to induce damage to designated assets.’”

The bill would also allow a family court to appoint a “special guardian,” much like the existing adult guardian system for people with dementia or intellectual disabilities, to deal with groups that try to carry out “acts to induce damage.”

Persuasion tactics

Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has been at the forefront of legal battles against the Unification Church, explains in his 2017 book titled “Mind Control” that religious cults use a mix of persuasion tactics to find the best approach for each person they want to manipulate.

Citing the work of American psychologist Robert Cialdini, Kito explains that there are “six principles of influence” to change someone’s behavior, including reciprocity, commitment and consistency, and scarcity.

Reciprocity, for example, refers to the compulsion people feel to return favors they have received, while commitment and consistency refers to the tendency for them to stick to decisions or promises they have made once — which can be used to keep people under the influence of manipulation, Kito argues.

“When they (cults) try to sell something through ‘spiritual sales,’ they (also) turn to the principle of scarcity,” writes Kito. “They say something like, ‘A famous teacher happens to be here now, and they will be available only for 10 minutes. You never know when you can see them next. Why don’t you consult them about (your next of kin’s) illness?’”

Kito, who served on the Consumer Affairs Agency panel, also writes that cults are skilled at taking advantage of people's anxiety and fear, as well as depriving them of the ability to think independently.

Religion or mind manipulation?

On the other hand, some experts, including religion scholars, are wary of imposing restrictions based on the state of mind of individuals.

Yoshihide Sakurai, a professor at Hokkaido University, said that mind manipulation is extremely difficult to define.

“For many of us who study religion, ‘mind control’ is a term that we find so hard to use,” he said. “Who judges whether someone is under ‘mind control’ and on what grounds?

“Religion changes people’s beliefs significantly, for better or worse. Is that a result of mind control?”

Sakurai said that victims of the Unification Church can be helped without the use of the term.

“I think it’s fine to just say that it is socially unjustifiable to take advantage of somebody’s anxiety to force them to donate exorbitant sums with no regard for their financial conditions,” he said.

Hirokazu Matsuno, the government’s top spokesman, has also said that the opposition’s bill presents some issues, such as the ambiguity regarding what constitutes an act that hampers free decision-making, and the possibility of some people’s rights being violated.

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