29 Oct 2010

Japanese universities taking steps to protect students from cults

Mainichi Daily News - Japan May 22, 2009

Universities, which in the past had been hesitant to violate students' freedom of religion, are now taking active steps to protect their students from religious cults.

Seeing no end to the number of new students who become involved in religious cults, student advisors at 45 universities across Japan have begun exchanging information through a mailing list on effective measures against cults.

In 2006, Osaka University found that 78 of its students were involved in three cults. In response, the school established a compulsory lecture targeted at new students about dealing with solicitations to join such groups. A lecture given on May 9 warned students of groups that may approach them under the pretext of inviting them to join clubs or participate in seminars and surveys, eventually forbidding them to socialize freely with others.

At Okayama University's entrance exams this spring, a group claiming to offer instructions on choosing courses after acceptance to the school was found distributing fliers to exam takers. The school subsequently made the decision to issue 1,000 arm bands for members of school sanctioned clubs and groups to wear so that new students would be able to distinguish them from non-legitimate organizations. Other efforts by universities include that by Chiba University, which has set up a cult consultation office to systematize counter-cult measures. Still other schools inform parents of students whose involvement with cults has been discovered, and others rescind official school approval of groups involved in cult-like activities.

Taro Takimoto, a Yokohama-based lawyer who is well-acquainted with cult-related issues, along with Kenji Kawashima, a professor of religious studies at Keisen University and Atsushi Yamatodani, a professor of health sciences at Osaka University, were among the driving forces behind the mailing list. Among its participants are officials from Osaka University, Okayama University, Chiba University, Hokkaido University and the University of Shizuoka. In cooperation with the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery and the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, this consortium of schools shares information obtained from former cult members and effective methods for dealing with students who have cult-related issues.

"If we neglect the cult problem, we will not only create problems for our schools but for our society as well," says Professor Yamatodani. "Universities have the responsibility of providing students with the most up-to-date information so that they themselves can make informed decisions."

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  1. Universities learned the lesson of cult mischief, get proactive

    The Japan Times Thursday, May 31, 2012

    Kyodo - Toshiyuki Tachikake, an associate professor at Osaka University, pointed to a close-up picture of a man and asked his class of first-year students if they knew who the figure was. Only a few, perhaps about 30 percent, raised their hands.

    The person projected on the screen was Shoko Asahara, the infamous Aum Shinrikyo founder who is on death row for masterminding the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and other crimes.

    The students' response reflects how memories of heinous incidents involving cults — even Aum, the worst of the lot — are gradually fading away and how the older generation has failed to educate young people about what happened.

    Tachikake's class in early May was part of a compulsory course on various aspects of college life for incoming students at Osaka University. While also covering problems such as alcohol and drugs, Tachikake and his colleagues devoted a significant portion of the course to the dangers of cults.

    "It's a university's social responsibility to prevent (students from being recruited into) cults," Tachikake says, while stressing that attention is paid to ensure freedom of religion.

    Osaka University, some of whose graduates were among the highly educated members of Aum involved in the sarin gas attack in Tokyo and another in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994, is known for being one of the colleges that began tackling the issue of cults early on.

    But even though cults' recruiting efforts on university campuses made headlines in the past, many students today appear to be unaware of this danger.

    Even today, so-called religious groups continue to recruit students by initially identifying themselves as campus sports, music or volunteer clubs.

    "There are many camouflaged groups out there," said Tachikake. "The problem is that they do not follow the rules of communication and fail to disclose accurate information (about their activities)."

    At Taisho University, a Buddhist school in Tokyo, religious scholar Tatsuya Yumiyama told some 100 students in his introductory course on religion: "You're probably thinking only weirdos join cults. Well, you're wrong.

    "You may think that a 'sempai' (senior student) with high aspirations gives you a helping hand and prays for you, and with 100 percent good intent," said Yumiyama, a professor known for his research on Aum and expertise on the relationship between young people and religion. "But that is illegal soliciting."

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    To illustrate how often it is the most serious-minded students who fall prey to the repeated cycle of cult recruiting, he told the class of a case in which a university student joined a such a cult out of admiration for a sempai and ended up having to quit school.

    At the same time, Yumiyama stressed the importance of learning about true religion.

    He said many students told him after the class that they now realize how wrong they had been to think they would not be deceived by cult members.

    Kenji Kawashima, president of Keisen University, a Christian women's school in Tokyo, warns that cults have grown increasingly sophisticated in their recruiting tactics.

    For example, cultists passing themselves off as members of volleyball or other sports clubs will rent and host activities in gyms at public elementary schools to give their targets a false sense of security, Kawashima said.

    Also, as universities have stepped up measures against cults, recruiters have shifted to younger marks — high school students. Of particular interest are those preparing for their university entrance exams.

    Cult members typically approach such students as they cram for their tests in coffee shops and other public places, he said.

    Kawashima, a former pastor, said the shock from the Aum incidents prompted him to look into cult activity in Japan. He and others founded a nationwide network of universities to address the problem. It now numbers about 150 schools.

    He said his conviction that religious belief is important weighs heavily when he considers that students, aspiring to do good in society and thinking seriously about their futures, have been drawn into cults, where they have suffered both psychologically and financially.

    "I believe that had they not been taken into the cults, they would have been promising and talented members of society," he said. "It's a tough job, but one worth doing."