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Children of Unification Church members seek freedom from past emotional scars, prejudice

A woman in her 30s born to parents who got married through a Unification Church mass wedding is seen in this July 22, 2022, photo provided by herself.

TOKYO -- Two women whose parents have joined the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification -- widely known as the Unification Church -- opened up about the damage inflicted on their lives and the horrors of prejudice in recent online interviews with the Mainichi Shimbun.

    The interviewees shared their feelings after it emerged that Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, the suspected gunman behind the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, had left posts on social media about his mixed emotions toward his mother, a follower of the Unification Church whose massive donations to the religious group he believes ruined his family.

    One of the interviewees, a woman in her 30s, is a so-called "blessed second generation," born to parents who married at a mass wedding of Unification Church followers. She grew up surrounded by items showing her family's devotion to the religious group, such as marble pots and seals, a crystal five-ring pagoda and a portrait of founder Sun Myung Moon -- all apparently bought from the church.

    "I'm too scared to ask my family how much money they've donated. But I assume it's several tens of millions of yen (at least $150,000)," she said with a sigh.

    "I'd give my parents a zero for parenting. But I have warm feelings for my mother, and I also have this conflicted feeling that I wouldn't be here if it hadn't been for the Unification Church," she confided. "I've been going through my life as if to answer the question, 'What am I here for?'"

    This image captured from the website of the Unification Church, formally the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, shows one of its mass weddings.

    When she was in elementary school, her parents would often be away from home for missionary and other church activities, leaving their daughter to eat dinner alone most of the time. As the family couldn't afford to buy refined rice, they ate crushed rice that was sometimes laced with pebbles and insects. The only "main dish" was the miso paste in the fridge, which she would dab onto the low-grade rice.

    The woman was already uncomfortable with the Unification Church at that young age. While she was fond of her teacher and classmates, her parents would disparage them for not being church followers. Her parents wouldn't buy her toys, nor did they allow her to watch popular anime shows such as "Sailor Moon" and "Crayon Shin-chan." When she protested, her parents scolded her and slapped her across the face, saying, "You're corrupted," "You'd be taken by Satan," and "You'd go to hell."

    "My distrust built up like drops of water in a glass, and eventually started to overflow," she recounted. She no longer had faith in the Unification Church.

    Nevertheless, she had no choice but to pretend to remain a believer to be accepted by her parents. Every day, she would recite mantras, and wake up at 4:30 a.m. on Sundays to go to church after offering a prayer at home.

    It was at around age 20 that she came to a major turning point. For some reason, her parents lost their posts in the Unification Church, and the family became so poor they had to live on her university scholarships and part-time job wages.

    As her mother grew increasingly distressed about their predicament, the woman advised her to keep a distance from the Unification Church. They moved out together, away from her father.

    Then her mother began to change, allowing herself small luxuries like dining at restaurants, drinking, and going to X JAPAN concerts. She died a few years ago after an illness, but the woman recalled, "The last five years I spent with my mom were my happiest family moments. When my mom told me, 'I'm sorry for stifling you up until now. You've gone through hard times, haven't you?' I felt I'd been set free emotionally."

    The Mainichi asked the woman about suspected gunman Yamagami, who has been quoted as telling police that his mother's obsession with the Unification Church ruined his family financially, and who apparently tweeted, "The only target of my hate is the Unification Church."

    A woman in her 30s born to parents who got married at a Unification Church mass wedding is seen during an online interview with the Mainichi Shimbun on July 22, 2022, in this partially modified screen shot.

    She answered, "The circumstances I faced as a 'blessed second generation,' and the suspect whose mother joined the religion when he was already some years old are different. I can't understand the idea of hurting and killing someone else, either. But I had my life messed up and my family ruined. The only feeling I have towards the Unification Church is that I have a grudge. As I say this, I'm surprised I'm telling you the same thing that Yamagami told investigators."

    She continued, "Religions sometimes take advantage of people's desire to rely on something when they feel vulnerable or have lost loved ones. I want people to know that anyone could be put in a position like Yamagami's."

    She said her mom told her before she passed away: "Your dad might barge into your place, ask for money or even kill you. You should hide (after I die)." The woman currently limits access to her resident registry to prevent her father from learning her address.

    Citing his poverty, though, she said, "I'm worried about who will take care of my dad, who is a first-generation follower, when he gets old. Religious groups shouldn't demand donations to the point of driving followers into dire straits. I want to see broad discussions on how far society should accept religions or if they should be restricted in some way."

    Another woman in her 20s who is also a "blessed second generation" said she was shocked at Abe's assassination by the son of a Unification Church follower.

    "I can totally relate to what has happened (to the suspect). I might've been Yamagami," she told the Mainichi.

    She'd also gone to church every Sunday since she was young. When she was in junior high, she attended retreats to learn about Unification Church doctrine. "It was like joining a local event for kids. It was fun to join in chorus and drum performances," she recalled.

    During her adolescence, her parents banned her from having relationships and scolded her for wearing revealing clothing. She even stopped going out with her friends because her parents told her the family "had no money."

    She struggled to keep faith in the religious group, but her parents told her, "If you leave the church, all our family members will go to hell." So she would suppress her feelings to avoid wasting all her parents' efforts.

    Yet now, she has decided to quit. She says she cannot lie to herself any longer. Life's little things, like wearing a miniskirt or confessing to someone she likes, make her happy, though she worried that she "might get dumped" when she opened up to her partner about her connection to the church.

    "I love my parents, and I hate them at the same time. But from now on, I'd like to live my life by my own choices. If they get in my way, I might sever ties with them," she said.

    "Followers' children with no faith in the religion have no place to be, at church or at home. There's a need to create places where they can go to and feel at ease," she said. "After the shooting, there are many people who are worried about what others around them would think if they revealed that they are children of Unification Church followers. I want society to accept children of church members, who have no faith in the religion like me, as 'ordinary people' without prejudice."

    She continued, "When I confided in an acquaintance that I was a second-generation church member, they told me, 'You've tried so hard. It must have been tough.' I couldn't have been happier hearing those words.

    "I hope people raised by Unification Church followers will be allowed the freedom of not being believers themselves. And I hope the number of struggling second-generation members will decline."

    (Japanese original by Takayuki Kanamori, Digital News Center)

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