Leading scholar reveals the reasons for distorted media reporting in Japan
The Japanese monthly opinion magazine Seiron (正論) published in its December 2023 issue a feature article on the vicious persecution of the Family Federation (formerly the Unification Church) in Japan.
Two parts of the report by Makiko Takita, well known journalist and editor-in-chief of the magazine, contain an interview with Dr. Massimo Introvigne, Italian sociologist of religion and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, the leading international online magazine on religious freedom and human rights.
Bitter Winter published this part of the report of Seiron on 22nd January 2024, as the fourth of six parts of the English version of the original Japanese feature article. Read the whole Bitter Winter article. More on article 1, article 2, article 3, article 5, article 6.
In this part of the interview with Dr. Introvigne, he discusses the challenges facing the media in Japan regarding their coverage of the Family Federation, formerly the Unification Church, and other new religious movements. The scholar expresses concerns about the reliance of the media on certain sources, particularly National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales (Zenkoku Benren), which operates as a so-called anti-cult movement. Introvigne argues that in a democratic society, it is crucial for the media to gather information from various sources and present a balanced perspective.
Massimo Introvigne highlights a lack of neutral and independent organizations in Japan similar to those found in Europe, such as the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Italy and INFORM in England. He suggests that the absence of such organizations in Japan has created a situation where the media is effectively dependent on entities hostile to the Family Federation. This leads undeniably to biased reporting.
The Italian scholar advocates for a more balanced and diverse approach in media reporting, urging the inclusion of perspectives from different sources, including new religious movements themselves.
To present a comprehensive view of the issues at hand, Introvigne discusses the aftermath of the Aum Shinrikyo incident in 1995 and its impact on the perception of scholars in Japan who express sympathy or understanding toward new religious movements. The author points out that, following the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway carried out by Aum Shinrikyo, a peculiar situation arose in Japan. Scholars who participated in symposiums under the auspices of Aum Shinrikyo before the attack, whether Japanese or foreign, were criticized and accused of giving a social endorsement to a criminal group.
The author notes that even when some scholars explained that they were not aware of Aum Shinrikyo’s criminal actions when they attended its events, their social credibility was damaged. The consequences for scholars were portrayed as differing between Japan and abroad. Foreign scholars, like Gordon Melton, were said to have faced less severe consequences despite some anti-cult criticism.
In contrast, Japanese scholars, including prominent figures like Professor Emeritus Susumu Shimazono of the University of Tokyo, allegedly had to adopt a different attitude when speaking to the media about new religious movements.
Introvigne suggests that the negative impact of the Aum Shinrikyo incident has created a situation in Japan where scholars sympathetic to new religious movements are not trusted, leading to a lack of neutral and independent organizations similar to those found overseas. The interview also briefly mentions the Dalai Lama’s video message to an Aum Shinrikyo event before the sarin gas attack, which is reported by China for propaganda purposes.
Dr. Introvigne shares his impression that, even in Japan, most ordinary believers of Aum were sincere and innocent individuals. However, despite their innocence, these believers were often demonized and blamed for their association with Aum. The scholar acknowledges the bitterness in Japan surrounding scholars of religion and the Aum case.
The Seiron interview also highlights Introvigne’s caution and sensitivity when commenting on the Unification Church in Japan. He explains that he is very careful in his remarks due to the aftermath of the Aum incident. He mentions attending a seminar on religious liberty and the ‘cult’ issue organized by independent organizations, but expresses potential reluctance to participate if it had been organized by the Family Federation, possibly due to the unique situation in Japan.
Dr. Introvigne suggests that scholars of religion in Japan may be cautious and mindful of their comments about new religious movements, such as the Unification Church, because of the negative repercussions experienced by scholars in the aftermath of the Aum Shinrikyo incident. This cautious approach is presented as a shared sentiment among scholars who navigate the sensitive landscape of discussing religious movements in Japan.
The Italian scholar addresses a concern related to media coverage, specifically focusing on the testimonies of “apostates” in the context of reporting on religious groups. He distinguishes between “former believers” and “apostates”, emphasizing that the two categories are different.
A “former believer” is described as someone who has abandoned his faith and left his previous church or religion, a phenomenon that is considered normal as individuals may lose passion for their faith. On the other hand, an “apostate” is characterized as a former believer who actively engages in activities critical of the denomination they were once a part of.
Introvigne expresses his concern about how Japanese media tends to treat “apostates” and “former believers” as if they were the same. He notes that, in the United States and Europe, many critical books about religious groups are written by apostates. Testimonies of apostates are a peculiar literary genre, often focused more on expressing feelings than objectively presenting facts about the religion they left.
To illustrate the bias in relying solely on the perspective of an apostate, Introvigne uses a parable about a divorce case. The analogy suggests that relying only on one party’s perspective (in this case, the ex-wife’s story) may introduce emotional biases and may not provide a fair and balanced assessment of the situation.
Overall, Dr. Introvigne encourages a more nuanced approach in media coverage, advocating for a distinction between former believers and apostates and cautioning against relying solely on the emotional testimonies of apostates to understand a particular religion or religious group.
The scholar discusses a more detailed study conducted by David Bromley, an American sociologist of religion, on the distinction between “apostates” and ordinary “former believers” within religious contexts. The key point highlighted is that not all former believers become apostates, and the majority of those who leave a religious organization do not actively attack or criticize their former faith. Introvigne suggests that media often mistakenly uses “former believer” as a synonym for “apostate,” contributing to a misleading perception that all individuals who leave a religion harbor resentment or negative feelings towards it.
Massimo Introvigne emphasizes that it is normal for people who leave a religious organization to view that phase of their life differently or as part of their personal growth. However, the media tends to portray apostates as representative of all former believers, creating a distorted image that all individuals leaving a religion have strong negative feelings.
David Bromley’s research findings include the observation that people who have experienced forced conversion or deprogramming have a higher likelihood of becoming apostates. The Seiron interview also references Eileen Barker, who likens a new religion to a revolving door, where individuals enter and exit continuously. However, the author notes that the media tends to focus disproportionately on apostates, perpetuating a narrative that all former believers harbor hatred for the religion they left.
Media portrayals often exaggerate the negative sentiments of those who leave a religion, contributing to a distorted public perception of religious organizations like the Unification Church.
Featured image above: Some Japanese media outlets. Photo: Knut Holdhus
“Highly Distorted Media Reporting” – text: Knut Holdhus
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