Geopolitical Mission Strategy: The Case of the Unification Church in Japan and Korea

Sakurai Yoshihide. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies. Volume 37, Issue 2. 2010.

Ever since Aum Shinrikyo members carried out the sarin gas attack in 1995, the “cult controversy” has been considered a major social problem in Japan. The word “cult,” used by Margaret Singer when she referred to Aum as a “doomsday cult” in the Kyodo News Service report of 24 March 1995, fed public anxiety. Aum believers, especially those convicted of the crime of mass murder, were considered by the public to be under the “mind control” of the group’s founder, Asahara Shoko. Various professionals have diagnosed pathological religious conversion in cults, which has given authorization for individuals with cult problems to be treated with medical care as well as legal remedies (Nishida 1995).

As for Aum, the acts of violence were dealt with by judiciary authorities as self-centered organized crimes, even though its members were following the orders of the founder under the intense pressure of religious dogma. Moreover, psychiatrists and clinical psychotherapists who participated in cult criticism began withdrawing from their attempts to rescue members when they learned that approximately fifteen hundred members still remained affiliated with Aum (later renamed “Aleph”) and still believed in the founder’s teachings and practices (Koanchosacho 2008). Contrary to the development process of anti-cult movements formulated by Shupe and Bromley (1994), for the Japanese anti-cult movements the Aum incidents were not sufficient to allow for its “professionalization,” that is, the movement must still rely on “nonprofessional” volunteers such as pastors and lawyers. Also, most Japanese did not regard cult members as “patients” to be diagnosed and treated psychiatrically, and easily forgot and overlooked the malfunctions of New Age and cult movements.

Recently, the “cult problem” has been fading from view as a topic in the news. The anti-cult movements, however, have been continuing their regular activities such as reporting on cult issues, counseling, and working to fix problems. Among those problem cases, the Unification Church (Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity; hereafter “UC”) in Japan must be noted because this religion has persistently provoked cult controversy, and critics of this religion have succeeded in suggesting a new perspective on the “religious freedom” of the proselytized, that is, the right to not believe in a religion is just as much as part of the “freedom of religion” as the right of a religious group to conduct mission activities.

In Japan, the liability of the UC with regard to former members and private citizens has been the center of many court cases. Its proselytizing has been found to be illegal, and its fund-raising activities (including the sales of spiritual goods) ruled fraudulent. Yet they continue these illegal missionary activities and fund-raising.

Since attention to the cult issue was monopolized by the Aum affair in the 1990s, the UC’s missionary and fund-raising work, which has actually been conducted for more than fifty years, did not receive proper attention from the media, police authorities, and academics. The matter of “conversion” has been discussed from the perspective of the sociology of religion, and this organization has been a continuous subject of investigation in connection with this issue.

Compared with Aum, which is still active but small, the influence of the UC should not be understated in terms of their membership (more than fifty thousand) and financial strength. There is also cause to believe that the UC is antagonistic to Japanese society.

Confrontation Between Particular Religions and the Social Order

Bromley formulated his theoretical model that initial conflict between a religion and a society could be intensified to a “dramatic denouement” by the intervention of cult-watch groups and government agencies. He also pointed out that there were very few new religious movements that continue to be antagonistic to secular society to the point of self-destruction by mass suicide and indiscriminate mass killing (Bromley 2002). From this fact, sociologists of religion have drawn the conclusion that most new religious movements, pejoratively called “cults” by anti-cult movements, are “harmless” (Melton and Bromley 2002), and that the role of intermediate groups must be stressed to avoid improper criticism of cults and unnecessary intervention from state agencies against controversial religions, which are crucial factors in the formation of conflicts (Wright 2002; Barker 2002).

Admitting that the polarization structure as a whole causes conflicts and “violence,” these propositions require revision from two points: 1) why and how do both a religion and a society remain in conflict without reaching a compromise?; and 2) by what criteria can we define “harmfulness” and “violence” with regard to religion?

First, while most religions tend to accommodate to the social order, some religions still challenge the common sense of a society, even to the limit of illegal actions. Concerned people opposed to controversial groups, as well as defenders of human rights and religious tolerance, have made recourse to court rulings. Although particular religions may have to deal with Supreme Court rulings in individual countries, this does not necessarily lead to comprehensive changes in their missionary strategies; they can continue their activities in other countries, and it is important to be aware of this kind of strategy.

The UC of Japan is one example, and it has maintained its fund-raising strategy created on the religious and historical background of Japanese-Korean relations. According to its religious dogma, Japan must be subservient to Korea, the “divine country,” and Japanese must compensate for its thirty-six-year colonization of Korea. This religio-political dogma has strongly influenced Japanese members.

Since European countries, the USA, and Korea were not allotted special roles in missionary work or fund-raising, members of the UC in these countries could adjust to the prevailing social order of their respective countries. Occasionally, organizations affiliated with this church could conspire with some conservative politicians, and the fourth estate, using vast financial resources drained from Japan. As a result criticism of the UC grew to such an extent that religious tolerance toward UC members was insisted on not only by UC-affiliated advocacy institutions such as the Coalition for Religious Freedom, but also by some sociologists of religion, as will be discussed later.

Second, with regard to the plaintiffs’ appeal against particular religions, “violence” is not limited to just homicide and injury, but includes fraudulent missionary and fund-raising activities. Sociologists of religion must acknowledge that the cult controversy is not always based on intolerance toward a particular religion or on a divergence of views of the people concerned, but occasionally on substantial suffering brought about by the violation of human rights and property rights.

Direct evidence for my discussion is the case of the UC in Japan. Its apocalyptic dogma of the “Kingdom of heaven on earth,” and the charismatic leadership of the “True Father,” are not directly related to illegal and violent activities against the general populace. Its mission strategy, however, seems largely to be devoted to the recruitment of members in order to raise funds by any means. Japanese Church members have devoted themselves to meet the financial demands of Sun Myung Moon and his Korean followers, and have constructed what can be called a UC conglomerate.

Research Dispute Over Studies on the Unification Church

As for studies of religious cult groups that may be problematic in society, there have been debates between Barker, Beckford, Robertson, and others over the study of the UC in the UK. First, we shall examine the characteristics of Eileen Barker’s study (1984). Barker attempted to clarify whether the conversion of UC followers was a voluntary act or a result of brainwashing or mind control. The research was meticulously conducted as a sociological study.

The resulting findings were that there was a significantly high percentage of followers who remained at the church with the motivation, “I was seeking something important to me before joining the church; I didn’t know what it was.” Barker verified that in the second half of the 1960s, young people, somewhat disappointed within the existing British society, were seeking alternatives of some sort. Some encountered the UC and its missionary work, but only a very small number of followers who were satisfied with the life in the church continued their activities (a mere 2 percent or 3 percent of the participants in the first-stage seminar). She then rejected the possibility of the use of mind control on the followers (Barker 1984).

Barker’s findings would make sense with regard to British members at that time. She observed the initial stage of the UC’s expansion in a peripheral region, in the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s, where fund-raising and recruiting were not conducted as fiercely as in Japan of the 1960s to the first decade of the twentyfirst century. But she discussed the UC issue not only in academic settings but also in expert testimony, which dismissed criticism against the UC as no more than a form of intolerance toward new religious movements.

Moreover, questions have been raised about Barker’s research methodology. She contended that regardless of the circumstances of research, if the researcher gathered data following appropriate sociological procedures and followed this with analysis, it was possible to extract facts. However, Beckford pointed out that Barker had received hospitalities such as travel expenses for attending the “International Coalition for Religious Freedom” after the “New Ecumenical Research Association” of the UC (Beckford 1983).

Roland Robertson, after pointing out the conflict between intervening-type researchers Bryan R. Wilson, Eileen Barker, Roy Willis, and the outside critic James A. Beckford, claimed that researchers should at least recognize that 1) the UC takes advantage of academics, 2) the UC regards conference participants also as participants in the unification movement, and 3) the funds of the UC were raised through special methods (Robertson 1985).

This type of conflict-of-interest problem-negotiation between the researcher and the researched in a study of new religions-could easily occur in Japan as well. The issue is, what kind of favors did the researchers receive, and were they within socially acceptable bounds? Presenting the context of research activity to the reader as well as to future researchers may be indispensable for critiquing or re-examining previous studies.

Here, allow me to clarify my policy on the research survey I conducted. The data used for this research owes much to the movements who are against the UC. More specifically, the sources were interviews with lawyers at the “National Network of Lawyers against Spiritual Sales,” along with religious personnel, counselors, and former members who continue to support defectors from the UC, as well as books and publications by the UC, plus a small number of interviews with church members. Compared with other studies on the church represented by Eileen Barker, mine is more of a look at the church from the outside; thus, in terms of research context, my standpoint cannot help being critical of the UC. Whether to consider this a limitation of the research study or a practical form of social research is up to the judgment of the reader.

Mission Strategies of the UC and Social Antagonism

Chronological Analysis of the UC’s Strategy

Bromley and Shupe (1980) showed how new religions motivated their followers to collect donations in the streets and estimated the amount of fund-raising by the number of members and the quantity of their labor. In addition, Bromley (1985) studied the fund-raising strategies of the UC through the analysis of UC affiliated companies. Although he acknowledged the large flow of money from Japan, he did not focus attention on how the UC raised those funds. At that time the UC in Japan changed their missionary strategy. Why and how was this changed? We will begin with a chronological analysis of the UC’s strategy from the 1960s.

In 1954 Sun Myung Moon founded the UC in Seoul, South Korea. An early disciple, Choi Bang Chun (Choi Sang Ik), entered Japan illegally in 1958, and initiated Japanese missionary activities from 1959 to 1965. During those days he successfully laid the foundation and acquired the leadership of the UC of Japan. In 1964 the UC of Japan, headed by Chairman Osami Kuboki, was officially recognized as a religious corporation.

In 1966 the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles (carp) was established and their missionary activities were expanded on university campuses. As carp encouraged student members to drop out of school and dedicate themselves to missionary work, their parents criticized carp and formed an anti-carp group in 1967. This was reorganized into the “Victim’s Family Meeting” by carp in 1975.

In the 1970s the UC of Japan extended their activities to politics, academia, and the economy. The International Federation for Victory over Communism was established in 1968 to cooperate with conservative Japanese politicians. They utilized the manpower of UC members for political and election campaigns, and in exchange helped defend the UC despite social criticism. The Professors World Peace Academy, established in 1973, also encouraged the mass media and academics to authorize the aims and activities of the UC. At that time the headquarters of the UC, and the Sun Myung Moon family as well, migrated to the United States and initiated their activities there. The cost of these activities was supported by the UC of Japan, which began business activities such as the wellknown selling of flowers and miscellaneous goods.

In the 1980s, the UC of Japan conducted their fund-raising eagerly, leading to accusations of the fraudulent sales of spiritual goods. These financing activities developed into importing Korean goods such as Korean ginseng tea, marble urns, and two-storied pagodas. Initially they were sold through normal business venues, but were gradually coupled with fraudulent sales techniques such as telling fortunes based on names and appeasing the spirits of ancestors. A corporation called the “National World Happiness Liaison Council,” voluntarily created by UC members according to the spokesman for the UC of Japan, took power among several sections because of large contributions to send money to the United States and Korea.

In the 1990s, some members of the UC in Japan, eagerly conducting their missionary work, were accused of “deceptive recruitment” of their novices. Their notorious fund-raising strategy disturbed normal missionary activities on school campuses and streets, and so they developed controversial masked recruitment methods that were in turn criticized as “mind control.” Added to that, the UC sponsored several mass weddings that were sensationally and critically responded to by the mass media. Even worse, cult phobia and the anti-cult movement in Japan further accelerated the UC downturn of fund-raising and missionary activities.

Although the UC in Japan certainly faced difficulties, its religious families would survive by producing a second generation and establishing a community of the UC. The financial shortfalls of the UC in the 1990s were covered by mass marriages held by Sun Myung Moon, in which Japanese participants paid $14,000 or more as donations. Eligible single female members were persuaded to participate in mass marriages and went to Korea and other countries to begin families. The second generation of the UC would be central figures in the UC.

When I interviewed recent defectors, it was clear that many had exhausted their lives by depending on Sun Myung Moon’s unstable providence and his need for money. They wanted to terminate their mission but could not do so out of fear of what might happen to them. They were warned by the UC that they and their families would suffer misfortune in this life as well as in the afterlife.

The Court Battle over Illegal Missions and Fund-raising

According to the “providential history” of the UC, Japan has a role as the “Eve” country, and Korea as “Adam.” This means that Japan should dedicate their valuables to Korea, because Eve committed spiritual “adultery” with a fallen archangel and then seduced Adam, which caused original sin in the “divine principle.” Therefore, the Japanese Church has covered most of the expenses of world missionary work and Sun Myung Moon’s businesses since the 1970s. Fraudulent sales of spiritual goods, reported by the Lawyers Liaison Meeting for the damages charged to the UC, have generated more than $10 billion (29,039 cases and ¥102,447,200,425) over twenty years (National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales 2009).

As figure 1 indicates, severe criticism from attorneys and the mass media has made UC members change their methods of fund-raising through spiritual goods sales since the beginning of the 1990s. Because the UC received the rulings in several courts to compensate the purchasers for damages, they simply asked for more donations and borrowed money from their members and their families. Exploitation was shifted from the general public to their own members.

High tension and severe criticism forced the UC to abandon their former ordinary mission methods and seek alternative forms of soliciting and recruitment. The notoriety of the UC’s fund-raising made the recruitment of new members difficult, so since the early 1980s the UC has developed culture centers that conceal their name and purpose. The new method produced many novices, but most of them soon dropped out and some were rescued by exit counselors who accused the UC of practicing “mind control” and proceeded to file lawsuits. The plaintiffs, who were former members, were able to win verdicts in the first decade of the twenty-first century because awareness of cult problems changed the respectful distance Japanese had kept from religious matters. table 1 shows lawsuits against the “illegal” recruitment by the UC.

Attorneys criticized the fraudulent sales of spiritual goods and filed for damages for civilian victims. For a short time at the end of the 1980s, they won in almost all cases. Then they encouraged former members to file lawsuits for compensation, claiming that members were illegally recruited using “mind control” techniques. The arguments of those plaintiffs were dismissed by courts for about ten years in the 1990s. In the early part of the first decade of the twenty-first century, however, they at last obtained new judicial precedents against “illegal recruitment.” Moreover, on 18 February 2008, the Public Safety Bureau of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department searched “disguised” volunteer groups affiliated with the UC on suspicion of fraudulently-obtained contributions. In the same year the prefectural police of Fukuoka and Nagano also searched ucaffiliated companies that were suspected of the extortionate sales of signets and crystals by using the threat of a curse.

Marriage Brokering through Mass Weddings

Since the 1990s the UC has arranged for Japanese female members to marry Korean men through dozens of international mass marriage ceremonies. According to the UC magazine for blessed couples in Korea, until this day approximately seven thousand Japanese female members have come to Korea. They believed that they went there to give birth to an “Immaculate Child” blessed by Sun Myung Moon and lead their lives as if in Heaven.

If Korean and Japanese UC members became involved in religious marriages and lives in accordance with their beliefs, such marriages should be respected as religious. In fact, until the 1980s, mass marriages were conducted among UC true believers. But recently, the UC has recruited potential male members and their families who could not find Korean brides. Korean women sought a man with a good job, an education, and housing in a city. Disadvantaged Korean men, who have sought international marriages with Korean Chinese, Filipina, and others from economically underdeveloped countries since the 1990s, gained another option-provided by the UC-to marry Japanese women.

At the same time, Japanese female members were indoctrinated to believe that a Korean man was the most blessed partner in the world, even if he did not have faith. Furthermore, in the UC dogma, the Japanese women were persuaded to be obedient to Korean men in the “Adam” country, because Eve fell first and Japan is the “fallen Eve” country. The UC evokes their consciousness of redemption for Sin and disbelief of Christ, and has superimposed it onto the memory and compensation for Japanese colonial rule in Korea a century ago.

tables 2 and 3 show the location of Japanese women who are in local regions of South Korea and of marriageable age. The capital city of Seoul and the second largest city of Pusan have more men than women, while particular provincial areas have unnaturally high ratios of Japanese women who are presumed to be UC members (see the gray shaded areas in tables 2 and 3).

Most Korean bridegrooms have no beliefs and no stable job. While Japanese women continued to believe in the UC dogma, they could be happy. However, once they lost their religious faith, they had to acknowledge that they are just foreign brides and, worse still, their disadvantaged marriage would not provide them with stable lives. Not a few Japanese women divorced and returned to Japan with their children in a state of deep dismay.

Case Studies on Unification Church Followers


The primary resource of this study consists mostly of interviews with defectors from the UC and court documents. However, we must also acknowledge that there is a limitation to the admissibility of those documents as evidence in court. From the standpoint of treating defectors fairly and impartially, there is a possible difference in evaluating the church between the family-intervention defection type (in contrast to voluntary defection) and the statements made by those who decided to be a plaintiff (in contrast to those who did not) (Bromley 1998).

Yet, when it comes to the facts involving the conversion and defection of ex-members, and the monetary figure for damages such as donations and the purchase of goods, there have been relatively few conflicts between the plaintiff and the defendant (UC). One contentious issue is whether or not the plaintiff understood his conversion as occurring through coercive mind control tactics or by free will. In this study, I attempted to comprehend the religious life of those followers typologically, setting aside evaluations by defectors concerning their own religious experience. For this limited purpose, the data on defectors is sufficient for analysis.

In Japan, where there are several thousand current members as well as an almost equal number of ex-members, it is impossible to conduct random sampling of current followers or sampling of only defectors based on the UC membership list (as Barker did). Therefore, this research has focused on highly accurate available data, and then a so-called theoretical sampling was conducted in order to extract hypothesis-forming findings.

Various Characteristics of Conversion and Defection

Social Attributes of Former Followers

According to my survey and the accounts of members as well as defectors, two thirds of UC followers are women. This is because proselytizing methods, in the form of fortune-telling by name and family tree, are effective on young women and middle-aged or older stay-at-home housewives. In terms of family structure, education, and employment, most followers are from middle-class backgrounds and their education is slightly higher than that of others of the same generation. In other words, they were leading quite ordinary lives.

Typical Patterns of Conversion

There were two methods of missionary activity that the UC began to implement in the 1980s. One was the method of recruiting single youths. Specifically, for recruiting purposes, church members would interview young people on the street or by going door to door under the pretext of conducting a “young people’s awareness poll,” or invite their friends or acquaintances to a facility called a “Video Center.” After completing a twelve-volume culture course, a series of training sessions awaits the potential members: a two-day Seminar, Life Training, a four-day Seminar, New Life Training, and Practical Training. After the four-day Seminar, they are strongly urged to become dedicated members (a status equivalent to full-time UC staff, but with a monthly salary of approximately us$150). Dedicated members are assigned to a front line “missionary work squad” or to the sale of delicacies. Afterwards, they accrue experience by being transferred from section to section, and then wait to participate in a mass wedding ceremony.

The other method was recruiting middle-aged or older, mostly married, women. Youth members or mature-aged women who had joined the church earlier conducted recruiting activities in the form of fortune-telling by palm reading or name in order to sell goods such as personal seals, Korean marble jars or vases, and multistory model pagodas. Those sales, however, were branded as fraudulent sales of “spiritual goods,” and dramatically slowed down after being ruled illegal in court decisions. In the 1990s, the church delved into and exploited the family problems of middle-aged or older women allegedly through various forms of fortune-telling, typically by name or family tree. They then aggressively solicited donations in exchange for clearing up bad karma.

Patterns of Conversion and Defection

In the case of the UC, there are no members who joined it without going through the pattern of being recruited on the street or door-to-door recruiting, or being invited by a friend. Of the newly recruited, 57.6 percent managed to reach “dedication” through a series of seminars and training sessions by the UC. Not only that, but it took them only an average duration of five months to be converted, and nineteen months on average to reach dedication status. There was a shortterm intensive system to train followers. New followers would receive a blessing (mass wedding ceremony) after serving in missionary and economic activities and then return to their hometown and leave full-time church life (youth members only). It took four years and three months on average to reach defection from dedication; it took supporting members two years and four months to do the same. The duration of religious life ranged widely from a short to a long period. Thus, typically and predictably, religious life for UC members begins with the intervention of the church and ends with the intervention of the family (exit-counseling).

I will now discuss the issue of the voluntary nature of, and intervention by others in, the faith of UC members. The following can be said about the faith of the UC members in Japan.

1) According to the seven stages of the Lofland and Stark (1965) conversion model, 1. to receive missionary work of the UC, and 2. to strengthen social relationships with UC members and to be estranged from their family can be regarded as the conditions for their religious faith to begin and continue. The UC orders their members not to tell of their conversion to their family and, once they are devoted, to cut ties with their family.

2) As has been discussed by Lofland and Skonovd (1981), viewing the corresponding relationship between the proselytizing methods and the types of conversion for each individual religious group, the UC has succeeded in converting ordinary citizens by extremely heavy proselytizing and its indoctrination process (seminars and residential trainings). In Japan, with the exception of Shugendo mountain trainees and Buddhist monks in ascetic training, the only other religious group that conducts such a long indoctrination with ordinary citizens in closed spaces is the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

3) The defection rate of UC members who have completed the entire indoctrination process does not reach even 50 percent; it is thus extremely difficult for remaining members to voluntarily escape the church. One very common reason for this is that they have severed contact with all of their family, schools, former colleagues, friends, and acquaintances for several years. Consequently, they could no longer find any value or means to earn a living outside the world of the UC. In Japanese society, where education and employment phases at certain ages is considered a model life course, it is very difficult for those who have experienced things in their adolescence, about which they cannot put in a resume, to make a new start.

4) In terms of the time course of the religious life of UC members, in a way their experiences were that of typical adolescents. Western researchers in the field of studies on the UC and other new religious groups, including Barker, cited the self-discovery of youths, the confirmation of their identity, and the desire for social reform as the motives for their conversion. But this argument gets it backwards. In the case of the UC, before they became religious seekers, they were targeted and chosen by the UC through proselytizing strategies.


My first question is why and how particular religions cannot reach the dramatic denouement that is adaptation to the secular world. We may, therefore, reasonably conclude that the mission strategy of particular religions first caused the seeds of polarization between the religion and society, and then the antagonistic social structure changed the subsequent strategy of the religion, which amplified the controversy. The fund-raising strategy of the UC in Japan first raised controversy among Japanese; thereby this religion concealed its name and used the threat of the curse of Japanese ancestor worship for gaining new members. Defrauded civilians and former members filed lawsuits and won, while at the same time Japanese society experienced problems with Aum, which popularized and demonized the concept of “cult” and “mind control” among ordinary Japanese.

This study is limited to a case study of the UC in Japan, yet its research implications shift it from the simple question of whether new religions/cults per se are in conflict with society, into an examination of the conditions by which resulting problems are generated. Moreover, this research suggests that the description of the UC movement should be interpretive and evaluative rather than analytical. The transfer of money obtained through fund-raising in Japan and of brides to Korean UC members may be helpful to Korean society, but at the same time it is harmful to Japanese, because this mission strategy has generated serious financial damage to the general public, as well as causing the disintegration of families in Japan.

As for the issue of “religion and violence,” this should be discussed within its geopolitical context. The historical consciousness between Korea and Japan, as well as resentment and guilt, lies behind the dogma and mission strategy of the UC, in which the religious order of each nation is fixed. This underscores the question of whether the mission strategy of new religions is based simply on global marketing and management, or on certain historical configurations.