Deprogramming: Japan's Hidden Crime
The nation of Japan is not often thought of as a country with serious problems of religious freedom. But on September 15 of this year, the U.S. State Department's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad heard compelling testimony on the persecution of religion in Japan. The central person to testify on this issue was Mitsuko Ishikawa, wife of American Chris Antal. Mitsuko was twice kidnapped and confined against her will because of her religious faith, and she testified that she is representative of hundreds of Japanese citizens who must contend with similar persecution with no help from police.
Religious kidnapping, which has all but vanished from the American scene, is still thriving in Japan. Mitsuko’s church alone estimates that between 200 and 300 of its members are abducted each year. Many never return. Japanese authorities have dismissed these violent assaults as "family affairs."
One of the most alarming aspects of the Japanese situation is the reported participation of the United Christian Churches of Japan in religious kidnapping. "Deprogramming" is highly profitable. Since the late eighties, approximately $10 million a year have reportedly poured into the United Christian Churches of Japan's coffers from the organization's alleged sponsorship of this illegal activity. Not only that, but the ministers who succeed in "deprogramming" their victims often receive the added benefit of a new and very dedicated member of their own congregation.
Chris and Mitsuko Antal met and married in the United States in 1997. Both are members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Mitsuko's parents were vehemently opposed to her religious choice. Three years ago, they attempted to have their daughter "deprogrammed." They hired a Christian minister to kidnap their daughter and destroy her religious faith. Mitsuko was held hostage for 40 days before escaping and returning to her church mission.
In 1997, Mitsuko’s mission brought her to Washington DC. While in the US, she met Chris Antal. The two were married in the church’s public ceremony at RFK stadium in November of that year. Mitsuko then returned to Japan to complete her missionary work and prepare to join Chris in the United States.
Concerned about her parents’ failing health, she ventured to visit them despite worries that their negativity toward her religion had not abated. The visit went well enough, or so it seemed. Two weeks later, Mitsuko received a surprise return visit from her parents at her Tokyo apartment. Her roommate, Chieko, witnessed their arrival and later went out. When she returned, neither Mitsuko nor her parents were there. Mitsuko left no note, and none of her personal belongings were missing. For the next two months, neither Chieko nor Chris, nor any of Mitsuko’s other associates were to her from her.
Chris’ parents had a different attitude from Mitsuko’s. They accepted their son’s decision to join a new faith and welcomed his marriage to their new daughter-in-law. When news reached Chris about Mitsuko’s second abduction, he received his parents support to travel to Japan and try to find her.
"I made an exhaustive effort to locate my wife," Chris related. "Unfortunately my efforts were to no avail. The police were of no help whatsoever."
This time Mitsuko was held for 72 days before escaping. Stoically, she resisted round-the-clock attempts to wear down her determination to keep her faith. Under constant watch, she quietly waited for the chance she prayed would finally come. Then, on Sunday morning, July 26, she found herself alone in a room with an unlocked window.
After two months, her kidnappers’ surveillance had become somewhat lax. The deprogrammer-minister was at church. Her father was sleeping, and her mother was busy in another room. The apartment door, of course, was secured. So Mitsuko decided to risk an escape through the window. Heart pounding, she quietly opened it and climbed out. She then grabbed on to a storm drain and attempted to lower herself down to the pavement, but her strength failed her and she fell the remaining distance to the ground. Suddenly she was aware that her parents had discovered her absence. She struggled to overcome the pain of serious bruises and a broken hip to limp through the neighborhood’s narrow streets and escape her pursuers. She was finally able to flag down a passing car that took her to safety.
Mitsuko and Chris were soon reunited. Because Japanese police and prosecutors refused to take any action on the case, the Antals filed a lawsuit against the minister, Rev. Yoshio Shimizu, who they claim was instrumental in the "deprogramming" attempt. Chris and Mitsuko are currently in the US where they hope to muster public opinion to influence Japan to protect its citizens’ right to religious freedom.
The couple plans to return to Japan in November for a court appearance. They do so, however, with trepidation. Deprogrammers have become increasingly brazen in their attempts to abduct their victims. In one case in the Tottori prefecture, about twenty hired thugs reportedly used a stun gun and chains to break into a religious gathering, attack church personal and kidnap a believer, Hiroko Tomizawa, for the purpose of breaking her faith. She has not been heard from since.
Deprogramming: What Is It?
In a typical case, parents and/or relatives of an adult convert to a new religion will hire a professional deprogrammer to supervise the kidnapping and confinement of the victim. The cost of hiring a professional deprogrammer can vary from 2 to 7 million yen of more. With the average cost of a hired deprogramming at 4 million yen, and up to 350 deprogrammings occurring every year, the deprogramming industry is big business.
Once captured, a victim is brought to a place of confinement. Many apartments throughout Japan are prepared specifically for this purpose. Windows, caged with iron bars, and doors, specially modified to lock only from the outside, make escape next to impossible. Walls are soundproofed, or neighboring apartments kept vacant so victim’s cries for help cannot be heard. Believers are imprisoned indefinitely. Confinements have last for months and up to three years. In all cases, believers suffer from indescribable dread, not knowing the nature of their crime nor the length of the punishment. They are trapped, isolated from the world, at the mercy of the hired deprogrammer.
After months of confinement and constant badgering from a variety of ideological perspectives, many victims give up the struggle. But a mere promise not to return to the group is usually not enough for the deprogrammers. They know that many victims fake deprogramming only to return to the fold once they are free. Thus, public denunciations of the victim’s former faith are often required and scripted by the professionals.
In all known cases, Japanese police have ignored the problem or even assisted the deprogrammers in confining their victims. Several civil cases by victims against their captors are now pending in Japanese courts.