Aum defectors face long road back from mind control


Japan Times/March 20, 2000
By Kanako Takahara

Akira Sawaki was just another high school student when he joined Aum Shinrikyo in the winter of 1991, believing the world was full of corruption and wanting to be the one to change it.

Aum had things he was looking for in a world of uncertainty; a clear view of the future and a sense that he could save the world, said Sawaki, a name he uses on the Internet.

The cult busied him with a tight schedule, fed him little and prohibited him from reading newspapers and watching television because they often told ill of Aum, he said.

"We were told to abandon the individual and put priority on the group," Sawaki said.

During Aum's heyday in 1994, when the cult lynched and attacked their "enemies" with nerve gas, he said he was absorbed in the cult and went to its facilities almost every day.

Considering the hold Aum had upon Sawaki, it was remarkable that he was able to leave the cult.

For about a year after he left Aum in April 1997, Sawaki kept to himself. He suffered from the realization that what he had believed to be right was, in fact, drenched in wrongs, including murder, kidnapping, unlawful confinement and fraud.

"I was at a loss about what to do and suffered from an identity breakdown," he said.

He was able to talk about his experiences after joining a support group consisting of former cult members.

Many people who have left the cult, such as Sawaki, say they still suffer aftereffects of the mind control that was imposed on them.

Mind control has been a buzz phrase in Japan in recent years, but most people are unaware of its mechanism, said Shingo Takahashi, head of the Japan De-cult Council.

People's ignorance, especially those who might contact former cult members, can be counterproductive, said Takahashi, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Toho University. "It's like falling in love with someone. Once you lose that love, you are in despair."

One time, according to a JDCC report, investigators tried to force an Aum member to step on a picture of cult founder Shoko Asahara during an interrogation but only ended up strengthening the cultist's faith.

Another time, officials at a child guidance clinic allowed a cult member -- a parent -- to meet with the person's child, leaving the two together in a room. The child later returned to Aum to live with the cultist.

The council submitted the report to the government in February, asking it to make a booklet explaining disruptive cults and the basic mechanism of mind control, and to distribute it to government officials, investigative authorities and parents of cultists.

Mind control is a way of manipulating a person's thinking without the target being aware this is happening, according to the book "Combatting Cult Mind Control" by Steven Hassan, a former member of the Unification Church.

The decision to believe in the cult comes after the target of mind control is deprived of the ability to make a rational judgment, Hassan wrote.

But in the case of Aum, it is more difficult to escape from its mind control because the cult used drugs such as LSD to enable followers to experience "spiritual phenomena," said Taro Takimoto, a Yokohama lawyer who has helped former members return to society.

He added that Aum strikes terror into the hearts of its members by providing a vivid image of hell that makes it difficult for them to leave the cult.

Hiroyuki Nagaoka, chairman of a group of relatives of Aum members, said he believes that if the parents of cultists are determined to make whatever sacrifice it takes to bring back their child, they will always succeed. Nagaoka, whose son was an Aum member, went to the cult's seminars and meetings in a bid to create a line of communication with his son.

"I even called Asahara 'Asahara-san' so that my son would at least listen to what I was saying," Nagaoka recalled. "His eyes sparkled when I said it."

Nagaoka also went to Tibet with his son to ask a close aide to the Dalai Lama -- the exiled Tibetan spiritual and political leader -- if he really acknowledged that Asahara had achieved the final stage of emancipation or reached a stage of nirvana, as the cult leader had claimed. But the Dalai Lama had said no such thing.

That was a turning point for Nagaoka's son.

But there are some parents who break off relations with their children, making it all the more difficult for followers who no longer have faith in the cult to leave, because they have nowhere else to go, Nagaoka said.

Aum members must hand over their assets when they become resident followers, which also makes it difficult for them to strike out on their own, he said.

Although Aum members may leave, experts say it takes about the same amount of time as they spent in the cult to recover from the aftereffects of mind control.

Even after they return to society, former cultists face another ordeal -- discrimination.

"Some are forced to quit their jobs after public security officials inform employers that they were members of Aum Shinrikyo," said lawyer Takimoto, who is also a JDCC member.

He said that more than 10 former Aum members have separately discussed with him their experiences of discrimination.

In another case, a former follower could not take a test to obtain a certain qualification after the organizer found out about the ex-cultist's previous life, Takimoto said.

Takimoto has called on the government to take steps so that firms will not discriminate against those who were once members of Aum.

At the same time, Takahashi pointed out that the government does not do enough to help former members return to society.

He suggested that the government establish a foundation that provides information on mind control and disruptive cults. Counselors should be made available so former followers can seek support, he said.

"With the new anti-Aum laws invoked against the cult, more members are expected to leave," Takahashi said. "It is about time the government took some steps and not leave the support in the hands of private support groups."

Laws went into effect in December to monitor the activities of Aum. They also allow trustees to seize the cult's assets to be used to compensate those victimized by crimes blamed on Aum.

Some observers say several hundred followers have left Aum since the law took effect.

But Takahashi said the most important thing is to steer people away from disruptive cults.

The council made fliers and videos on mind control and cults and distributed them to schools across the country, hoping young people will be aware of the methods cults may use in a bid to draw them in.


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