Guidelines by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare substantially limit parents’ rights to pass religious faith to their children.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 2.
Japan has emerged in recent months as the main theater, at least as far as democratic countries are concerned, of the conflict between states that want to limit freedom of religion or belief and advocates of religious liberty.
On July 8, 2022, the son of a member of the Unification Church who believed his mother had been bankrupt by her excessive donations to that religion assassinated former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The killer claimed he wanted to punish Abe for his participation in events sponsored by an organization connected with the Unification Church (now called Family Federation for World Peace and Unification).
Rather than blaming the assassin, most Japanese media launched an unprecedented assault against the Unification Church, based on the strange argument that, had the killer’s mother not made donations to the movement, the son would not have assassinated Abe. Action was taken to investigate the Family Federation in view of depriving it of its status of a religion, and laws were passed introducing both limits to religious donations and the possibility of rescinding them.
One of the most alarming by-products of this campaign is a document published at the end of 2022 by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare. It includes directives sent to all local governments throughout Japan, under the title “Q&A on Handling Child Abuse and Similar Cases Related to Religious and Similar Beliefs.” Unlike the legislative measures against donations to religions, this text escaped the attention of most English-language observers, except for a good article published on January 7, 2023, in the “Financial Times” by its Asia business editor, Leo Lewis.
Lewis commented that “in its rush to enact something, Japan has skipped some extraordinarily nuanced theological questions and created potential trouble for a much larger circle of organizations and activities than it has bargained for.” Noting that the directives can also affect “Japan’s mainstay religions of Shinto and Buddhism, and even the substantial Christian presence here,” he suggested that “the political backlash could be more severe than the one it was meant to head-off.”
What is it all about? As Lewis understood, the guidelines “have the Unification Church squarely in their sights,” and are designed for “breaking it down.” However, whoever drafted them also took into account post-Abe-assassination attacks against the Jehovah’s Witness and conservative Christian groups.
The starting point of the guidelines may seem well-intentioned. They state that child abuse should never be tolerated, and perpetrators cannot use religious liberty as a defense. I agree. The problems, however, start when the document tries to define what child abuse in a religious or spiritual context is. The first case, it states, is “physical abuse.” It reminds the local governments that corporal punishments are illegal in Japan, and cannot be justified by religious reasons.
This is less obvious than it may seem, and has given risen to significant legal contentiousness in Germany and elsewhere, where conservative Christian groups insist that mild corporal punishment is prescribed by the Bible. On the other hand, there are now similar provisions in most democratic countries.
Less common is the statement that taking children to religious services where they are required “not to move for a long period of time,” or told “to make specific movements or keep specific postures, such as prostrations,” also amounts to physical abuse. We can certainly imagine excesses in this field, but except in the People’s Republic of China, where those under 18 years of age are prohibited from attending religious services, minors routinely participate in religious activities where they are asked to remain seated or to genuflect or prostrate at certain times during the service, and this is an integral part of their socialization into their parents’ religion.
What is certainly new in the directive is the definition of a religion-based “psychological abuse.” This is defined as “forcing the children to participate in religious activities and similar,” or inducing minors to certain specific behaviors by “threatening them with words such as ‘If you don’t do this, or do this, you will go to hell,’” or “with images or materials that may arouse fear.”
Although perhaps less fashionable now, Christians of my generation remember how priests and pastor at Catholic Catechism or Protestant Sunday School did tell children that sinners go to hell. My parents did too, and as for “images or materials that may arouse fear” the provision may imply that Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” with its graphic depictions of hell, is forbidden to minors in Japan, and Japanese travel agents should not take families with minors to the famous Medieval Cemetery of Pisa or to countless European cathedrals whose frescos or paintings show how devils will torment the sinners in the afterlife (Buddhist depictions of Cold Hells are not less terrifying).
It is also forbidden as religious “psychological abuse” to prevent minors from “socializing with friends in a way that our society generally accepts,” keep them away from birthday parties (something only the Jehovah’s Witnesses do among religions active in Japan), or from comics, cartoons or video games “that are considered age-appropriate for the children based on their general acceptance in our society.”
This may seem a minor point but betrays the rationale of the directive in general, i.e., that religionists do not have the right to pass on their children a way of living that is different from what is “generally accepted in our society.” Obviously, many religions teach that what is “generally accepted” by the majority is in fact morally decadent or unacceptable.
We will see other examples of this attitude in the second article of this series.