In the Grip of the Unification Church: The Story of a Former Second-Generation FollowerSociety Family
The practices of the Unification Church, long shrouded in mystery, have come under growing scrutiny since the shooting of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō by a onetime member of the organization. Many of the rites mandated by the church, officially known as The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, are considered by some experts as amounting to mind control. We spoke with a former female follower, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, about her experience.
Life of Devotion
The woman describes how as a child, she would wake up at 5:00 every morning to worship at an altar where a photograph of the founder of the UC, Sun Myung Moon, was displayed. She would recite the church’s “family pledge,” sing the movement’s song, pray, and then read from one of the UC’s texts. Every Sunday she would attend services. She recalls that her parents dismissed any criticism of the movement as “the work of Satan” and that they would often talk about the church’s support of the Liberal Democratic Party.
She says that as a second-generation follower, the UC had a huge impact on her life. “Looking back, I can only think of them as con artists, but growing up, I viewed the founders of the movement as the true patriarch and matriarch of humanity,” she says. “Because of this, my life was fundamentally different from other children around me.” She says fitting in with her peers was hard and that she was bullied. “It was a constant internal struggle to reconcile how society viewed the UC with what I was being told by my parents. It was a suffocating experience.”
She describes the pain of being an active member of the group while simultaneously trying to hide this fact in public. “I don’t have a single happy memory from school.” She says she still has difficulty admitting her past to people and interacting with others.
The woman’s parents had an arranged marriage and wed in a mass weddings Moon presided over. This made the woman one of what the UC calls the “blessed second generation,” who according to UC teachings are born free of original sin and so occupy a special presence within the movement. The woman’s father joined the UC through his activity in the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles, an organization Moon founded that is used to recruit new members, and was a fervent believer in the movement. Her mother graduated from junior college and went to work at a prominent corporation, but was later lured into the movement.
In spite of her sacred status within the UC, the woman says she felt uneasy as a child. “I attended a kindergarten for children of UC families, but went to public school after that,” she explains. When a teacher would ask students what their parents did for a living, she would answer vaguely. “I didn’t want to talk about religion or even say the words ‘Unification Church.’ Until I graduated from high school, I never once mentioned to anyone that I was a follower.”
Although plagued by uneasiness, she abided by the UC’s practices. Each year her parents took her to a church camp in South Korea, considered the “holy land” of the movement, where she would come face to face with the patriarch and matriarch of the church, Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han.
However, things changed for her when she entered junior high school. “I started rebelling,” she recalls. “I told my parents to stop constraining me and I refused to go to services.” She says her parents were careful not to put too much pressure on her, but that they secretly hoped she would return to the faith. “They would often tell me how Japanese did horrible things to Koreans and must make amends, or that I shouldn’t date boys.”
The UC is known for prohibiting followers from drinking liquor, smoking, and dating. Perhaps because her parents did not want her to have contact with boys, they put her in an all-girls high school.
Sinking Into Hopelessness
The woman tells how her parents placed the UC before everything else, even family. “From the time I was a small child, my mother would be away from home for six months at a time doing missionary work overseas,” she says, adding that while in elementary school she was made to go on some of these trips abroad. Her father, a local leader in the UC, was involved in church activities from morning until night. “We were never able to build a normal parent-child relationship.”
Her mother’s family was well off and provided financial support. Nonetheless, her parents led a frugal life as they contributed all their money to the UC. The woman recalls wearing only hand-me-downs as a child. “They never bought me new clothes,” she says. “When I received money at the New Year, I had to give one-tenth to the church and save the rest.” She was shocked to discover later that her parents kept the money for household expenses rather than donating it. “They probably couldn’t make ends meet otherwise.”
As an adolescent, she began to worry that her parents planned for her to “receive a blessing,” language used in the UC to mean a marriage between church members, and give birth to children who would be third-generation followers. When her suspicions proved true, she says she finally realized that her life was being controlled by others, filling her with hopelessness.
The woman says she stopped going to UC services when she entered junior high. However, in her last year in high school she failed the entrance exam of the university she hoped to attend, and out of shock she agreed to go on a 40-day UC retreat in South Korea.
“Everyone else at the camp was a fervent believer,” she recalls. “Personally, I was disappointed at how bad Moon and the others were at public speaking.” Although she had no desire to enter into a marriage arranged by the church, the constant pressure finally got to her. “I started to believe that it was something I wanted to do.”
She participated in another retreat in Japan, but could not shake her doubts. She could not accept being denied the right to make her own decisions, saying that “I wanted to live my own life.”
At 19, she decided to leave home. She confided in an aunt her desire to escape, and after working out the details with relatives, she made her move.
“I waited for a time when my parents were busy doing work for the church,” she describes. “Then I grabbed my suitcase and left.” She traveled to another prefecture where an aunt and uncle lived, but her parents quickly learned her whereabouts. “They told my aunt and uncle—who were only trying to protect me—that they should commit suicide. They said they would take me back home to re-educate me because I had become a devil.” Sensing real danger, she lived on the run for a time, but her parents never relented. “They followed me and even had the police bring me home on one occasion.”
Her aunt finally contacted a lawyer familiar with cases involving UC victims, and after a court battle the woman succeeded in legally cutting ties with her parents, who after that gave up trying to force her to come home.
“I was lucky because I had the support of others,” says the woman. “And for that I am forever grateful. It would have been very difficult for someone in a similar situation to break away from the church as I did. They probably wouldn’t even think to discuss the matter with someone on the outside. That’s how strong of a hold parents and the UC have on second-generation followers.”
The woman’s parents called the lawyer who helped her get free “devil,” but her mother also sent 10 letters to her through the attorney. In none of the messages, though, did her mother say that she did not have to rejoin the church, or that she just wanted her daughter to come home.
Abe Shinzō Killing
The woman also shared her thoughts on the shooting of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and the man arrested for the killing, Yamagami Tetsuya, who stated that his motive for the act stemmed from the financial duress his family suffered as a result of his mother giving all their money to the UC.
“When I heard that the church was cited as a motive in the killing of Abe, my first reaction was sorrow,” she says. However, she also sympathizes with Yamagami, understanding his sense of being forced into action, and cannot bring herself to condemn him.
When the media began reporting on the UC following the killing, she was genuinely shocked at the awful things the church had done. “Personally, I didn’t want to go back to my family situation, but I never thought the church itself was all bad,” she admits. Watching news reports of the UC’s abusive practices, including bilking followers of money through forced donations, she began connecting the dots in her own life. “I remember my father would sometimes call other followers who had come into a bit of money, like from an inheritance, and ask how much the person intended to donate to the church. He would also harshly reprimand others for failing to get a prospective convert to join the church.”
Living in Fear
Having escaped the UC, the woman resigned herself to cutting all communication with friends she had made up to high school and to never seeing her parents again. She has since made new friends and met and married a man who understands what she had been through. She now has children of her own and maintains a job. While she is in control of her own life, she stresses that the teachings of the UC and her fear of the church stay with her.
“At first, I felt guilty at even having a drink,” she recalls. “And it was several years after leaving home before I was able to throw away my photo of Moon. I was never very strong in my belief, but the church’s teachings have stayed with me.”
Now, 10 years since cutting ties with the UC and her parents, the woman is finally confronting her complex feelings in an attempt to break the church’s hold on her. “Growing up, I was told constantly that I would go to hell if I chose the wrong romantic partner,” she explains. “It may be difficult for others to understand, but when I left home I was convinced that I was damned. I still haven’t been able to shake that feeling.”
She is still haunted by the fear that she may be forced back to her family home and is anxious that her own child may be in danger of being abducted. She continues to take measures to hide her whereabouts from her parents, including setting legal limits on who can access her residence information on record at the local police station. Although this requires that she file new paperwork each year, she says that each time the date to refile comes around, she is filled with renewed resolve.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” she declares. “I can’t understand why I have to keep running. It saddens me to think about it, but I fear I’ll never be able to mend the warped view of love I received from my parents.”
Today, the woman is severely critical of the UC. “What kind of a church champions the value of family harmony while at the same time leaving me no choice but to cut ties with my own parents? How many other children have they hurt the same way? There is no doubt in my mind that the UC is a criminal organization that disregards the rights of children. Followers need to wise up to this truth.”
(Originally published in Japanese. Reporting and text by Ogawa Masanori of Power News. Banner photo © Pixta.)