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    Deprogramming in Japan PDF Print E-mail
    Dan Fefferman and Ray Mas

    January, 2010

    While the term "deprogramming" first came into use in the United States in the 1970s, the phenomenon of parents and relatives using force to influence a convert to renounce a new faith dates back to ancient times. The history of western religion contains many examples of people being forced to renounce a new-found faith. Parents of early Christian martyrs such as Saint Thecla and Saint Pepetua were among the first to attempt to break the faith of their adult children because of the social unacceptability of their faith. In medieval times, the parents of Saint Francis of Assisi went to the civil authorities to force him to recant his decision to give away his possessions and devote himself to "Lady Poverty."  Saint Thomas Aquinas was held captive in a family castle for nearly two years as his relatives tried to dissuade him from his commitment to the still new Dominican order. The Spanish Inquisition resorted to torture and death threats in order to influence converts of other faiths to return to the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation witnessed numerous families bitterly divided as members opted for opposing versions of Christianity.

    Islamic scripture and law forbids compulsion in matters of religion. Nonetheless, in practice, forced conversions have been known throughout Islamic history and families whose sons or daughters adopt another religion or sect sometimes took extreme measures in reaction. In Buddhism forced conversions are likewise forbidden. However, there have been instances in history where they have occurred. In the Edo period of Japan, when the first Christian missionaries had arrived, Tokugawa Shogunate forced many newly converted Japanese Christians to renounce their new faith.

    Only in the modern era did the principle of religious freedom gradually gain wide acceptance. In Europe, the end of the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics gave rise at first to mere toleration of competing major faiths, but smaller and newer sects often continued to face persecution. Even in the United States, where believers fled in hope of finding greater freedom, minorities such as Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and even Baptists won the right to practice their faith only gradually.

    In the U.S., Supreme Court decisions eventually upheld the constitutional right of adults to choose a new religion even over their parents' objections, and the right to choose one's own religion also gained greater acceptance in the other Western democracies. After the end of World War II, this right was guaranteed in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that:

    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief… (Article 18).

    With religious freedom firmly established in most democratic countries, parents wishing to force their adult children back into traditional faiths and lifestyles sometimes resorted to illegal means. The success of new religious movements in the late 1960s and early 70s witnessed the emergence of the phenomenon of “deprogramming,” complete with a theory of "mind control" or "brainwashing" that sought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to bypass religious freedom issues. The theory held that adherents of new religions did not join these groups by their own free will but had been manipulated by “coercive persuasion.” Families were thus justified to hire professional deprogrammers to kidnap believers, confine them against their will, and “rescue” them from the “cults” that they had joined.

    In the US and Europe, deprogramming was brought to an end as courts ruled against the “brainwashing theory” as applied to religious coverts, and mainline churches firmly rejected and opposed the practice of “deprogramming” as unethical. The National Council of Churches declared that “kidnapping for ransom is heinous indeed, but kidnapping to compel religious deconversion is equally criminal.”[1] Moreover, the courts recognized the issue as clear-cut: an adult has a right to choose his or her own religion, and not even family members can legally hold an adult against their will in order to change their religious beliefs. As a result, the police began to arrest the deprogrammers, and both civil and criminal cases resulted in serious penalties against the perpetrators of these crimes.

    In Japan however, for over 40 years, members of the Unification Church (UC) and other groups have suffered gross physical and psychological abuse at the hands of deprogrammers. As the most successful of the imported new religious movements in Japan, the UC has been the prime target of these faith-breakers. Literally thousands have been kidnapped, forcibly confined for weeks, months, and sometimes years, with the intent to break their faith. Preying on the vulnerability of worried relatives, deprogrammers enlist their active participation in these kidnappings, while charging them exorbitant fees, sometimes running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and thereby victimizing the families themselves.

    The trauma of kidnapping and forced confinement has devastating effects on all family members. It results in an often complete breakdown of trust between parents and kidnap victims. It has broken apart families. Wives have been separated from husbands, and even from their own children. One victim was raped on numerous occasions by her “deprogrammer.” Others have sustained serious injuries such as broken bones and even brain damage during escape attempts. Beatings, continual verbal abuse, and violent constraint are commonplace. Some cases have even resulted in suicide as victims despair of ever regaining their freedom. Unlike in the United States, Christian ministers have often been the principal perpetrators of these crimes, counseling families not to release kidnapped victims until they renounce their faith and agree to adopt the ministers’ particular brand of Christianity.

    Of the estimated 4,300 kidnapping victims in Japan, approximately two-thirds eventually succumb to the deprogrammers’ faith-breaking techniques. Yet, even among these now ex-members, an independent study found that many continue to suffer long-term psychological problems that exhibit the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). [2]

    Attempts to bring the perpetrators of these human rights crimes to justice have been largely ineffective, due to the refusal of Japanese police to pursue those responsible and of higher legal authorities to prosecute them. In fact there is significant evidence of the implicit, and in some instances explicit, support of the deprogrammers by authorities. Cases are routinely dismissed as mere “family matters.” In some instances, victims who have escaped are returned to their captors by the very police from whom they had sought help. Not one deprogramming case has even been prosecuted in a Japanese criminal court, despite numerous complaints and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and laws against false imprisonment.

    This willful neglect is no better illustrated than by the decision of the Tokyo prosecutor’s office on December 9, 2009 to drop charges against those responsible for the kidnapping and torture of Mr. Toru Goto. Already in his 30’s when he was kidnapped, Mr. Goto was held captive for over 12 years and starved virtually to the point of death. [3]

    It is clear that Japanese legal authorities and have betrayed the victims of these gross miscarriages of justice and violations of human dignity. Japan’s constitution states that “Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all.” Moreover, under Article 220 of the Japanese Penal Code, false imprisonment is a crime and, “Anyone who would arrest or confine other individuals unlawfully shall be subject to imprisonment for a period of more than three months and no more than seven years.”

    In light of the refusal of Japan’s legal authorities to address these abuses, it is critical that this be brought to the attention of the international community, thereby compelling the government of Japan to abide by the very international human rights laws it claims to uphold. Just as in the earlier cases in Europe and the America, Japan’s deprogrammers will only stop their illegal activities when the penalties they face no longer make it profitable for them to continue. This will occur when the courts and legal authorities aggressively prosecute them and make it clear that kidnapping, deprogramming and forced conversion, have no place in a democratic Japan. It is also critical that responsible civic and religious leaders in Japan publicly condemn the practice and work to educate the Japanese public.


    [1] "Resolution on deprogramming: Religious Liberty for Young People Too."

    Adopted by the Governing Board of the National Council of Churches of Christ

    [2] Our Displeasing Neighbors: Tragedies of Women “Saved” from the Unification Church by Kazuhiro Yonemoto (407 pages), Tokyo,  Joho Center Publishing, 2008.

    [3] Toru Goto’s Testimony At the founding assembly of Association to Eliminate Religious Kidnapping & Forced Conversion, February 15, 2009