Lawyers attempting to assist past and present members of the South Korean cult Setsuri, or Providence, which has been accused of raping a number of its female members, have outlined the seriousness of the situation.
Setsuri, established by a South Korean named Jong Myong Suk, 61, in about 1980, gained a foothold in Japan in about 1987, initially calling itself "Morning Star." In South Korea, the organization is called JMS--derived from the initials of Jong's name--and has about 40,000 members. There are believed to be about 2,000 followers in Japan.
The cult successfully disguised its religious nature when recruiting members, instead portraying itself as an organizer of sporting and cultural activities, which attracted many college students. It rented gymnasiums and community halls under false names for its various events.
"We were told to pretend that we'd met the students by accident," a former member, 29, from the Kansai region said.
After gaining the new members' trust, veteran cult members would ask them, "Shall we study the Bible together?"
Interviews with several former members of the organization showed them to be ordinary young people with no serious concerns, typical of young people attracted to religious organizations.
The cult's activities were recognized as a social problem in 1999 after cases of sexual assault perpetrated by Jong were revealed on South Korean television. Jong, who fled overseas, was put on an international wanted list in 2001 by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office on suspicion of rape.
Cases in which Japanese women were victimized by Jong have also come to light.
Lawyer Hiroshi Watanabe of the Daini Tokyo Bar Association, who is helping victims of the cult, held three press conferences in Tokyo late last month and told reporters that that cult's members were still being victimized, and that this was likely to continue as long as Jong remained at large.
Watanabe filed a criminal complaint with the Chiba prefectural police against a 44-year-old South Korean woman, a high-ranking cult executive, on suspicion of violating the Immigration Law.
According to former members, the woman and another South Korean female executive supervise cultists in the Kanto and Kansai regions, respectively.
"In April, I saw about 30 Japanese women in Anshan, China, where Jong is hiding," a former cult member from South Korea said at the press conference.
Setsuri is said to have actively recruited members from students attending universities such as Tokyo, Chiba, Waseda and Keio in the Kanto region, and Kyoto, Osaka, Kwansei Gakuin, among others, in the Kansai region. Though university authorities run warnings about "dangerous religious organizations" on their respective homepages, they have not implemented any concrete measures relating to the problem.
It was only late last month that Nanzan University in Nagoya directly mentioned the Setsuri organization on its homepage.
"There's not a lot we can do about this because it involves freedom of religion," an Osaka University official said. Many other universities are equally reluctant to take action over the issue.
"Too much emphasis is placed only on the raping of female members--male members are also suffering," said an office worker, who was a cult member for 10 years.
He said he could not fully shake his brainwashed condition and still felt guilt over his part in recruiting new members.
"In many cases, members of cult organizations approach people without clarifying their purpose," said Sadaharu Takayama, a priest belonging to Japan Alliance Christ Church's Niwase Megumi Church.
"It's sometimes necessary to doubt people's intentions. We have to recognize that there is often something lurking behind the sweet talk," he added.