Japanese man wins landmark lawsuit on religious oppression

A Japanese man who had been kidnapped by family members and subjected to violent attempts to renounce his religion has won a court ruling against his captors, an outcome religious freedom advocates applaud while saying more needs to done to stop religious oppression in Japan.

Toru Goto, a member of the Unification Church, this week was awarded the equivalent of $47,000 by a Tokyo District Court.

“My heartfelt wish is that this will be of help in eradicating kidnapping and confinement,” Mr. Goto, 50, said during a news conference in Tokyo. “With the opportunity provided by this victory, I hope that Japan, which guarantees freedom and human rights, can at least become a country where people do not have to fear daily being kidnapped and confined because of their faith.”

A spokesman for the Unification Church said Thursday that the verdict is welcome news. Michael Balcomb, president of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in the United States, said it “brings the Unification Church in Japan one step closer to closing the sad chapter on forced conversions.”

Religion in Japan is strongly represented by Shintoism and Buddhism, though newer religions such as the Unification Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are gaining popularity.

Last year, the U.S. Committee on International Religious Freedom cited Japan’s judicial system for turning a blind eye to the kidnapping and forced deprogramming of people in the Unification Church and other “new religious movements” over the past several decades.

“In some extreme cases, as with Unification Church member Toro [sic] Goto, individuals were confined against their will for a decade or more,” the committee said in its 2013 report. “Those abducted describe psychological harassment and physical abuse by both family members and ‘professional deprogrammers.’ Police and judicial authorities have neither investigated nor indicted those responsible for these acts, often citing lack of evidence.”

Scott Flipse, the committee’s deputy director of policy, expressed pleasure Thursday with outcome of the Goto case, saying the panel hopes “his judgment sends the signal that forced renunciations of faith cannot continue with impunity.”

The Japanese Embassy and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, the State Department cited Japan for inaction in religious oppression cases such as Mr. Goto’s in its 2010 International Religious Freedom Report.

The Washington Times was founded by the Unification Church in 1982, and now operates independently of the Church.

Mr. Goto filed a lawsuit against his brother, sister and sister-in-law, as well as professional deprogrammer Takashi Miyamur, and Yasutomo Matsunaga, a Christian minister. All but Mr. Matsunaga were found liable.

Dan Fefferman, president of the International Coalition for Religious Freedom, said the ruling is important because “the top deprogrammer in Japan was held culpable in a court of law. That’s important because makes it difficult for him to operate.”

“It’s a very important case because it’s very rare for a court to find in favor of victims of deprogramming in Japan,” he added.

Freedom Rights Project co-founder Aaron Rhodes, called the court’s $47,000 reward “paltry,” but said it was an important first step.

“Finally the Japanese judicial system is waking up to religious discrimination and a bit more ready to act despite taboos that have no place in a democracy.”

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