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ICSA resources about psychological manipulation, cultic groups, sects, and new religious movements.




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ICSA does NOT maintain a list of "bad" groups or "cults."  We nonjudgmentally list groups on which we have information.

Groups listed, described, or referred to on ICSA's Web sites may be mainstream or nonmainstream, controversial or noncontroversial, religious or nonreligious, cult or not cult, harmful or benign.

We encourage inquirers to consider a variety of opinions, negative and positive, so that inquirers can make independent and informed judgments pertinent to their particular concerns.

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Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors

The Cult Problem in Japan:  An American Perspective

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.


Asahi-Shimbun recently brought me to Japan to promote the Japanese translation of a book I co-authored with Joan Ross, Cults:  What Parents Should Know.  The publisher's interest in our book derives from the deadly release of sarin gas in a Tokyo subway in March, allegedly perpetrated by members of the Aum Shinrikyo group, some of whom are graduates of prestigious Japanese universities.  This terrifying event has propelled Japanese interest in cults to record levels.  Yet the Japanese are mystified.  How, they ask, can this horrifying event occur in such a peaceful and socially ordered society as Japan?  Time and again I was asked this question, the implication being that cults are a problem for other countries.  My conversations with Japanese journalists and anti-cult activists, however, have led me to conclude that the central question Aum Shinrikyo thrusts before us is not why this event happened in Japan, but why the Japanese are not more aware of and concerned about cult activity in Japan.  This essay addresses this question and offers some suggestions for people who are concerned about cultic and related groups in Japan.  Since my suggestions derive from my experience in the United States, I will begin with a summary of the cult problem in the U.S.

Public concern about cults in the U.S. began to increase in the late 1960s and 1970s, a period of great social experimentation by American youth.  Many youth affiliated with radical political movements.  Others experimented with hallucinogens.  LSD, Mescaline, and other drugs caused many young people to have "mystical" experiences that seemed incongruous with the comparatively staid Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish religious traditions in which the youth had been raised.  Hundreds of thousands of these young people looked to the burgeoning humanistic psychology movement and eastern religions to understand their experiences.  While these young people were "turning east" (the title of a popular book from the period), others were experimenting with communal living and Christianity's charismatic, or pentecostal, tradition, which emphasizes emotion, singing, and spiritual experiences (e.g., to be "slain in the spirit"), much like the bhakti tradition in Hinduism.  Journalists began to write about the "Jesus People," and two popular broadway musicals and films were produced, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.

Many of the new groups that these youth embraced were benign.  But some generated controversy, not so much because they had moved out of the mainstream (which had become rather tolerant by this time), but because they had changed their members in troubling ways.  Parents in particular would say things such as:  "It's as though he's not my kid anymore.  He seems distant, like a shell of a person.  He doesn't laugh the way he used to.  He never sees his friends anymore.  His grades have fallen badly.  And he is talking about dropping out of school to work with some charitable group."

During the 1970s, prior to Jonestown, worried parents who consulted clergy or mental health professionals usually encountered skepticism or a total lack of understanding.  Some parents and a few professionals, however, recognized that the troubling changes were related to the group their child had joined and began to investigate the groups and share notes with others.  What they saw seemed to be a form of "brainwashing," or what more properly should be called thought reform.  In desperation, some parents, usually with the aid of former members of the group, locked their children in the house, or a hotel room, or a rural cabin, and forced them to confront information critical of the group.  These parents used the term "deprogramming" to describe this process because their children, who had formerly seemed "programmed," returned to their old selves.  (Since that time, deprogramming has largely been supplanted by a process called "exit counseling," which, though also trying to reawaken the cult members' capacity for independent thought, does not entail coercion or restraint.  In exit counseling the cult member is free to leave at any time.  Exit counseling, because it requires extensive family preparation, appears to be more successful than deprogramming, which resulted in the cult member returning to the group about one-third of the time.)

While parents and ex-members developed methods of getting people out of cults, journalists began to investigate the groups and interview parents and former members.  Newspaper and magazine stories told about young women prostituting themselves in order to win converts, formerly independent-minded valedictorians sending home letters that seemed to be written by a third-grader, or students dropping out of school to sell flowers eighteen hours a day for a group that concealed its true identity from new recruits.  These stories enabled more parents to find out about others in a similar plight.  These people began to organize, first in ad hoc groups, and finally in nonprofit organizations.

This organizational impetus increased tremendously after the 1978 tragedy at Jonestown, Guyana, in which more than 900 men, women, and children committed suicide or were murdered at the order of their leader, Jim Jones.  The Jonestown event underlined how destructive cults could become and, because of the enormous press coverage it generated, brought together hundreds of parents, former members, and professionals who had been ignorant of one another's interest in this field.  The two major secular cult education organizations in the U.S. were officially established shortly after Jonestown.  The Cult Awareness Network (CAN - then called the "Citizens Freedom Foundation") was composed mainly of parents, especially those who wanted to get their children out of cults.  The American Family Foundation (AFF), with which I am associated, focused on writing, research, and the mobilization of professionals (including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, clergy, educators, and lawyers) to study the problem and help victims.

During the early years of the movement to counter cults, misconceptions abounded -- among activists, as well as the general public.  The public -- and most helping professionals -- mistakenly believed that only psychologically troubled people from disturbed families would join destructive groups.  Parents in CAN and AFF tended to overestimate the psychological power of cult leaders.  Indeed, many mistakenly believed that nobody left cults unless they were deprogrammed -- a belief that was mathematically impossible to sustain, given the recruitment rates of the larger cults and the small number of people being deprogrammed.  Research has since demonstrated that cults have high turnover rates and the overwhelming majority of members either leave on their own or are ejected by the group.  Unfortunately, we cannot reliably predict who will and who will not leave, or who will and who will not be seriously harmed.

Although AFF and CAN have made much progress in educating the public and professionals, most unaffected people still believe that only "crazy people would join crazy groups."  Moreover, most people do not appreciate the magnitude of the cult problem, in part because they do not notice cult-related news stories unless they make the front page of the New York Times or the evening news.  Our organization's Cult Observer has reviewed about 3,000 media stories on cults since 1979.  Yet when a cult makes the front page, friends and colleagues in other fields will say to me, "I didn't know that cults were still around."  Also supporting the magnitude of cults' impact on the United States are the results of a survey of more than 1,400 primary care physicians in Pennsylvania.  When asked if they or a member of their immediate family had been involved in a cult, 2.2% of these physicians responded "yes."  In the survey, "cult" was clearly defined as a destructive group, so it was unlikely that respondents were talking about benign new movements.  This study and other research strongly suggest that at least 2,000,000 people are members of cultic groups and that many millions more have been involved with cultic groups during the past three decades.

If so many people have been involved in cults, why don't cult educational organizations have more support and influence?  Two points must be addressed to answer this rhetorical question.  First, cultic groups lie on a spectrum of abusiveness and members differ markedly in their capacities to maintain their psychological balance within these diverse groups.  Therefore, not everybody who leaves a cult experiences significant psychological difficulties.  Second, of those who need help, only a small percentage will hear about and contact cult educational organizations.  Some of these people may seek help elsewhere, while others (probably most) suffer in silence.  Most cult victims have been indoctrinated to believe that the group is always right and they, when dissenting, are always wrong.  When these people leave cults, they tend to blame themselves for their adjustment problems and don't see the connection with the cult experience.  This reaction is also common among victims of other forms of psychological abuse (e.g., abused women, abused children).

Certain colleagues and I have begun to study the similarities between cult victims and victims of other forms of psychological and physical/sexual abuse.  In one of my surveys of former cult members, respondents clearly indicated a preference for terms such as "psychological abuse" and "spiritual abuse" over terms such as "cult" and "mind control."  Ex-members prefer terms that describe their experience (i.e., being abused - whether in a religious or nonreligious group), whereas parents prefer concepts that help them understand what they have observed in their children (i.e., "mind control," "cult").  The term "cult" can also impede communication with people who associate "cult" with nonreligious groups, high-profile groups that make the front page, or criteria reflecting theological deviance, rather than the psychological criteria that I and my colleagues prefer.  Thus, Dr. Ronald Enroth, an evangelical Christian sociologist associated with our organization, entitled his book, "Churches that Abuse" -- the term "cult" is hardly used in the book.  Focusing on "abuse" enabled Dr. Enroth to avoid theological arguments about what is and is not a cult and to direct his readers' attention to the psychological criteria that concern us:  authoritarian social structure and induced dependency; extreme psychological manipulation; control of even mundane aspects of members' lives; and financial, sexual, and other forms of exploitation.

This shift in terminological emphasis also reflects a shift in the pattern of people approaching cult educational organizations for help.  In the early years, the vast majority of inquirers were parents.  But in recent years increasing numbers of former cult members have been approaching AFF for help.  Because we believe that the "walk-away" population (those who leave cults on their own, without an intervention) is so large, we have initiated a project to reach out systematically to former cult members.  In a few years, I expect the situation to be the reverse of the early 1980s, with parents constituting a small minority of the population seeking assistance from us.  In the meantime, however, we are in a transition period.  We must use the term "cult" because it has become so much a part of the contemporary vocabulary.  Yet when trying to communicate with certain groups, we must either avoid "cult" or clearly define it and demonstrate its relevance to terms such as "psychological abuse."

Now let us turn to Japan.

Even though it reportedly has 10,000 followers in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo did not generate much concern in Japan until the sarin attack in March.  Although this group would be conspicuous in the U.S., in which the overwhelming majority of religious groups are Christian, in Japan it would appear on the surface to be merely one of thousands of groups operating within Japan's remarkably tolerant and varied religious landscape.  Japanese people I have talked to seem fond of saying: "We are Shinto when we are born, Christian when we marry, and Buddhist when we die."  This statement reflects the preferred ceremonies for these stages of life, not any thoughtful commitment to the particular religious tradition.  For example, although fewer than 1% of Japanese are practicing Christians, many of them want a western-style marriage ceremony.  In such a varied and tolerant religious climate, abusive groups have little trouble fading into the background.  It is easy for them to escape public scrutiny.

The situation in Japan is somewhat analogous to that of fringe Christian groups in the United States.  The latter can escape public scrutiny more easily than Eastern or new age groups because they are not culturally alien -- they do not stick out.  And as the term "cult" is difficult to attach to abusive Christian groups in the United States, I expect that the term "cult" will be difficult to attach to Japanese groups that, though harmful, are not as strikingly harmful as Aum Shinrikyo appears to be.  If Aum Shinrikyo defines "cult" for the Japanese, few groups will appear to qualify as cults in the future.  Even though on a psychological level, Aum Shinrikyo may have much in common with less violent groups, the public's attention has been focused on the violence, not on the psychological subtleties.  Thus, I suggest Japanese people concerned about this problem not rely on the term "cult" (which though necessary for us, has caused us many problems) and focus instead on a term that will have more applicability in their culture; perhaps "abusive group" might be a useful term.  Their problem is the same as ours:  educating the public to psychological subtleties and complexities that are difficult to explain properly in the brief media reports that define public perceptions of cultural events and movements.

Japan's first cult educational organization, the Mind Control Research Center in Sapporo, identifies many more troubling groups than the Japanese public recognizes.  In addition to Aum Shinrikyo and the Unification Church (which has generated considerable press coverage), groups operating in Japan that are controversial in the U.S. include, but are not limited to, Hare Krishna, Rajneesh, the Boston Church of Christ movement, Children of God, Sai Baba, and the Jehovah Witnesses.  It is important to remember that these groups vary significantly in the nature and degree of harm or controversy they may cause in the U.S.  Additional variations may occur in Japan.  The Mind Control Research Center also claims that there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of native Japanese groups that are abusive to varying degrees.

Common sense also suggests that there are probably many more harmful groups exploiting Japanese religious tolerance than is generally recognized.  Given that more than 230,000 religious organizations are registered in Japan and given that religious organizations can be headed by abusive leaders just as can other types of organizations, it seems reasonable to believe that many more religious organizations are abusive than the public realizes.  If we were talking about 230,000 business organizations, would one expect no more than a handful to engage in abusive or fraudulent tactics?  Even if only one-tenth of one percent (probably a conservative estimate) of the registered religious organizations had abusive leaders, there would be approximately 230 abusive religious organizations in Japan today (and that estimate would exclude non-registered religious and nonreligious organizations that are abusive).  That a group as large and abusive as Aum Shinrikyo could escape public scrutiny for so long certainly makes one wonder how many smaller, less conspicuously abusive groups currently avoid public condemnation.  Moreover, as Japan becomes more westernized, more nonreligious abusive groups may come into being.

Another factor that probably contributes to an underestimation of the cult problem in Japan is the Japanese system for socializing youth.  Japanese young people are taught from an early age to obey parents and teachers.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this cultural characteristic.  Indeed, it helps account for much of Japan's economic success and social stability.  But something that is an asset in one situation may be a liability in another.  When Japanese youngsters experience stress or frustration, they are expected to turn to family or school for help.  But when family or school officials do not understand the problem (because the older generation, being less westernized, never experienced the particular stressor troubling the young person) or when the problem is the young person's relationship to family or school, he or she has virtually nowhere to turn, especially given the sense of shame that often attaches to personal problems.  American college students, on the other hand, can turn to their college counseling centers, to residence hall staff, or to friends who are probably more psychologically sophisticated than their Japanese counterparts.  Even with these resources, many American young people succumb to the blandishments of cult recruiters.  Japanese youth experiencing the normal stresses of growing up will also be vulnerable.  The fascination with occult notions that they demonstrate in opinion surveys adds to their vulnerability.

Thus, I suggest that Japanese concerned about preventive education concerning cults work with people concerned about adolescent issues and the development of non-family resources for youth.  Together they must try to increase the general psychological sophistication of Japanese youth, as well as their specific understanding of psychological manipulation.  In examining possible American resources, Japanese educators should keep in mind that much that passes for psychology in the United States is appropriately ridiculed as "psychobabble."  Therefore, Japanese wishing to increase their country's psychological sophistication should be discerning in the adoption or adaptation of American resources.

I suspect that most of the psychological information Japan needs is already available in Japan, if concerned Japanese will identify and listen to their own experts.  Several professionals and academicians knowledgeable about cults are associated with the Mind Control Research Center.  I hope that other professionals also show an interest in abusive groups and a willingness to work together to study the issue, educate the public, and help victims.

If my analysis is correct, the Japanese share with us a need to conduct scientific research on abusive groups.  First, we need to develop objective methods for evaluating the abusiveness of groups.  In this regard, I invite Japanese psychologists to join AFF's effort to further develop our Group Psychological Abuse Scale.  Second, researchers need to systematically study groups deemed abusive or at risk of being abusive.  For too long we all have relied on anecdotal information, media reports, and clinical observations.  Third, researchers need to study the vulnerabilities and needs of families and youth caught up in abusive groups.  This research will help make interventions designed to help families and victims of abuse more effective.

Obviously, those desiring to help Japanese youth cannot wait for scientific research any more than we can in the United States.  They must direct resources to treatment and prevention, while they pursue research.  When possible, treatment and research should be combined, as we are doing at a residential treatment center for ex-cultists in Ohio, the Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center.  If the Aum Shinrikyo group fragments, many members who leave are likely to need a great deal of help.  Some may even need counseling in a residential setting in order to readjust to life outside the group.

The Japanese are fortunate in the legal arena.  The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, organized in February 1987, now includes approximately 300 attorneys, whose work and dedication are impressive.  These attorneys have been helping cult victims recover damages that they suffered.  AFF has only been able to interest a handful of lawyers in the cult problem, so this is one area in which Japanese activists are much more successful than are we in the U.S.

What I have suggested will require much more effort than Japanese society has thus far been willing to put into combating the cult danger.  I truly hope they meet the challenge.  I left Japan with much tenderness in my heart for the many kind, hard-working, and warm people I had the privilege of meeting and working with.  Japanese society is admirable in so many respects.  But Japan also has a social problem that it has not fully faced.  For the sake of the beautiful, laughing children I have seen in Tokyo, the desperately worried parents I have talked to, and the unknown number of Japanese youth being abused in cultic groups, I hope that Japanese society responds to this problem as it has to so many others -- with intelligence, determination, and cooperation.


The preceding essay was written after Dr. Langone returned from a trip to Japan after the Aum Shinrikyo poison gas release in the Tokyo subway in 1995.






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Our E-Library contains full text articles and other resources related to the information below.  Click here.


Please note:

ICSA does NOT maintain a list of "bad" groups or "cults."  We nonjudgmentally list groups on which we have information.

Groups listed, described, or referred to on ICSA's Web sites may be mainstream or nonmainstream, controversial or noncontroversial, religious or nonreligious, cult or not cult, harmful or benign.

We encourage inquirers to consider a variety of opinions, negative and positive, so that inquirers can make independent and informed judgments pertinent to their particular concerns.

Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors.

See:  Definitional Issues Collection; Understanding Groups Collection

Views expressed on our Web sites are those of the document's author(s) and are not necessarily shared, endorsed, or recommended by ICSA or any of its directors, staff, or advisors.

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