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Unification Church ex-member in Japan opens up about dark past after mom became follower

Hiroshi Watanabe, a representative of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, holds a "holy book" of the predecessor of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification during a press conference in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on July 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Shota Harumashi)

TOKYO -- A woman in her 40s whose mother was a follower of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, commonly known as the Unification Church, and was driven to become a follower herself opened up about her experiences, saying that she was forced to lead an unfair life.

    The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which provides relief measures to victims, held a press conference in Tokyo on July 12, after Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, a suspect arrested over the July 8 assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and sent to prosecutors on suspicion of murder, told investigators that his motive behind the shooting was that his mother was a follower of the Unification Church and his family disintegrated due to bankruptcy caused by her donations to the religious group. The woman, an office worker in her 40s, attended the press conference and spoke of her experiences while concealing herself behind a screen at the venue, out of fear that she might be the target of online bashing.

    "I was at an age where I couldn't live without help from my parents, and it was difficult to reject them," she said. While the Unification Church has explained that "donations are made by followers at their own will," the woman criticized the religious group as being "full of lies."

    The woman was a high schooler when her mother began to devote herself to the religious group. Her mother eventually forced her three daughters, including the woman, to follow the Unification Church's "teachings." The woman also began to attend a church establishment, thinking that accepting her mother's beliefs would make her a better daughter.

    A former follower of the Unification Church, who continues to suffer from her past, spoke of her experiences from behind a screen during a press conference held in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on July 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Shota Harumashi)

    In 1995, the woman, then aged 21, participated in a mass wedding held by the group. Under the system where the group matched followers who were strangers, the woman married a Korean man who was two years younger than her. After they began living together in Japan, he soon began to assault her, and the abuse continued even after they had a child. Though she wanted to file for divorce, she was told by her mother and other followers that she was at fault because she did "not show enough faith in the religion," and that "a divorce would make Satan happy."

    Afterwards, she was assaulted by the man in front of her mother, and was allowed to divorce him, but remarried after being invited by the group to undergo another "blessing ceremony." The woman said, "The group teaches the doctrine that you cannot go to heaven unless you're a married couple. My mother was saddened that her daughter could not go to heaven. I also had feelings of guilt."

    Her second husband was also a Korean man selected by the group, and the woman moved to South Korea. She said the group demanded that she donate 1.4 million yen, or about $10,000. "My partner made false reports about his academic background, occupation, and age. He used my credit cards and other things, and I was forced into personal bankruptcy by my husband," she said.

    The woman, who returned to Japan in 2013, said, "When I was in high school, I was placed in a family environment where I needed to obey my parents. I didn't have the power to go against them." Though the woman is no longer a follower, she says that as a former devotee who was a child of a follower, she cannot reach out to anyone to talk about her experience.

    The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales has received inquiries from former followers nationwide who say that they are still pressured by the group to make donations. The number of consultations reached 47 in 2021, with financial damage totaling 331.53 million yen (about $2.38 million).

    The lawyers' network has continued to ask Diet members to refrain from taking actions that may be viewed as declaring support to the Unification Church and affiliated groups. In September 2021, it also sent a statement of protest to former Prime Minister Abe, who had sent a video message to a gathering held by an organization affiliated with the Unification Church. The statement read, "We'd like you to carefully consider the matter for your own prestige." However, the letter which was sent to the office of the Diet members' building was reportedly rejected and returned.

    As reasons for the Unification Church to develop ties with politicians, lawyer Hiroshi Yamaguchi cited factors, such as making it difficult for investigations to reach the group, gaining trust from followers when spreading the teachings, and to realize the group's beliefs such as opposition against same-sex marriage. Yamaguchi showed concern that politicians' support for the religious group "may lead to the creation of new victims."

    The woman in her 40s also looked back on her experience and said, "Seeing photos of the group's founder meeting former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi (Abe's grandfather) and former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev made me believe that he really is an amazing figure."

    (Japanese original by Shota Harumashi, Tokyo City News Department)

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