Bitter Winter serializes a great piece of investigative journalism from Japan’s “Hanada” magazine.
by Masumi Fukuda
Article 1 of 5
Sayuri Ogawa (pseudonym, 27 years old), who claims to be “the daughter of a former head minister of the Unification Church,” attracted a lot of attention last year (and possibly this year too).
She appeared in a number of media, attended hearings organized by politicians from both the ruling and opposition parties, and held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Not long after this press conference, Prime Minister Kishida decided to exercise the government’s right to pose questions to the former Unification Church [“former” since it is now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification]. He had previously been reluctant to do so, since he believed the case of the former Unification Church did not meet the conditions prescribed by the law for such questioning. When the government exercises its right to pose questions to a religious organization, this is a measure that may anticipate a request for the legal dissolution of the group, in this case the former Unification Church.
At the same time, deliberations on the new Victims Relief Act, a law proposed in response to the problems of the former Unification Church, proceeded at an unusually fast pace, and on December 7, 2022, the ruling and opposition parties reached an agreement. On December 9, Ogawa was summoned as a witness to the Diet, and she tearfully said that, “I was called ‘a liar’ and ‘a hypocrite’ every day by the members of the former Unification Church and by some others, and I tried to accept their words as an opinion, but I could not stand them at the end. I was so ill that I would rather die. I am grateful to be allowed to speak today in the Diet as an official witness.”
On December 10, the next day, the Victims Relief Act was passed. Despite the slander she claimed to be a victim of, Ogawa made a great contribution to the government’s decision to exercise the right to pose questions to the former Unification Church and the enactment of the new law. Most of the public opinion supports the dissolution of the former Unification Church and regards Ogawa as a praiseworthy woman.
On the other hand, as she herself inadvertently mentioned in the Diet, there are some who strongly doubt the plausibility of her statements. Her statements change from time to time, and the timeline of her story is often inconsistent.
Needless to say, those who make statements in the public space have a serious responsibility. If false statements influence national politics, this will remain a stain on the political history of our country and will be remembered in the future.
At the end of last year, I met Sayuri Ogawa’s parents somewhere in Mie Prefecture. Her father is a tall, thin man with a smart look, and her mother a small woman with a kind smile. Their own daughter had denounced them for the religion-based abuse they allegedly submitted her to, and the poverty she claims she had been forced to endure because of their large donations to the former Unification Church.
The father said, “It is hard for parents to be criticized like this, but I cannot blame my daughter because it is also true that she has suffered, even though what she says is based on a misunderstanding.”
It was on July 20, 2022, that her parents learned that their eldest daughter, who was married and living in the Tokyo metropolitan area, was talking to the media and claiming she had been victimized by the former Unification Church. Her father, whom I would call Yoshihiko (a pseudonym), told me that, “The head minister of our local church told us about it, and I watched the recording of Zero News [an evening news program on Nippon Television Network Corporation] on July 15. I do not remember the details clearly anymore. But my second son spoke to my daughter on the phone, and told us, ‘I think she is doing this to distract herself from the stress of raising her child.’ So, I did not take it too seriously at that time.”
“Later, however, on August 15, I watched the recording of the MBS (Mainichi Broadcasting System) News that aired on August 4, and realized that the situation was much more serious than I thought,” he said. “I did not understand why our parent-child relationship, which had been good until last time we had met on July 9, had changed so much, and I wondered why she was saying so many things that were not true. However, I reflected on what might have been my own shortcomings as a parent, and the next day, on August 16, after careful consideration, I wrote a message and sent it to my daughter via [the messaging application] LINE.”
“It was only after this message that I became aware of my daughter’s Twitter feed,” he continued. “Not only was she telling there many stories that were not true, I also felt her strong resentment and hostility toward the church, and I worried about my daughter’s state of mind.”
As Ogawa has disclosed herself, she had been examined by doctors and hospitalized several times in the past for mental disorders. Her parents were more worried about their daughter’s physical and mental health than about anything else.
But that was not all her parents worried about.
“What our daughter is saying about us is only a family matter, her father said, but the image of the church and the image of its second-generation members have been seriously damaged by our daughter’s statements. If this campaign will lead to the dissolution of the church, then many church members will lose the spiritual support and other benefits that are important to them. When I think of their pain, I feel a deep sense of responsibility.”
Thorn between their daughter and their church, her parents are deeply concerned.
As her father pointed out, Ogawa first caught the attention of the public on Twitter.
She seems to have several Twitter accounts, but when the former Unification Church started being slandered after the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe, she started using an account called “The Daughter of the Former Head Minister of the Unification Church,” and going on and on about how vicious her parents, who are members of that church, and the church itself, are.
In a tweet of July 13, 2022, she wrote that, “Since I was a child, I was forced to live in poverty, and bullied at school, but my parents just went out to have lunch with other believers. When I started a part-time job, my parents took all my wages, and the money I had tried to hide and saved was withdrawn without my permission when I was first hospitalized in a psychiatric ward. The reason I was hospitalized was that my family was abusing my non-self-sufficient grandmother. Every day, my family shouted at my grandma, telling her they hoped she would die soon, and also used violence. Dad, who was the head minister of the church, pretended not to see it, saying to us children, ‘It is the fault of both of them, grandma and your mother.’ Mom was still working hard to meet her quota of donations, borrowing money to maintain her position as the head of the local women’s department of the church. At one stage, I found the courage to confess to my mother that I had been seriously bullied, and even undressed, but she just said, ‘God expected so much of you. It is a challenge of love.’ She explained everything with God, so I regretted I had told the story to her.
I just wanted them to genuinely look at me and say something to me as parents.
When I started a job, I did not fit in with my colleagues. I was depressed and became a shut-in. I would spend my days looking up at the ceiling.
Mom treated me kindly at home, and she looked like the only person who was trying to save me. However, I learned that she was complaining to my younger sister when I was not at home, ‘When is she going to work? I want her to bring home some money soon.’ So, I decided to leave the church and to run away from home.
I went to the police to complain that my parents were withdrawing money from my account without my permission, but they told me this was a family issue to be solved within the family.
I do not agree with what the criminal who killed Abe did, but at that time I also wanted to kill or set on fire and burn the church’s premises and top leaders, so I would have become a criminal if I had not met the man who is now my beloved husband.
Sorry I scribbled this quickly, so a correction is needed. In fact, my mental illness was triggered by the exploitation of my parents, whom I trusted at that time.”
She had also written on the same Twitter account the day before, July 12, “It is fun to see the Unification Church on fire, LOL [laughing out loud], Eog Manse!!!!!” She was using a Korean expression. “Manse” means “ten thousand years” in Korean, and it is used to wish a long life, just as the Japanese “Banzai.” “Eog” reinforces “manse” with the two words indicating an even longer period of time, literally 100 million years, as does “Banbanzai” (ten thousand and ten thousand years) in Japanese. So, she was shouting a loud “Hurrah,” and one got the impression that she was very happy to see that the former Unification Church was at the receiving end of intensive bashing.
Some readers may find it strange, but in a way it is true that the more extreme a story is, the easier it is for the media to jump on it without asking questions. On August 4, the young woman first appeared on the regional MBS News for the Kinki region using the pseudonym “Sayuri Ogawa.” The part of the interview where she discussed the situation with her family at home largely repeated the story she had told on Twitter, but some parts were more specific.
For example, when she talked about how poor she was as a child, she said: “My parents confiscated all the money gifts I received from other relatives for the New Year, and they never gave me gifts for Christmas or for my birthday.” The family had no money, she said, but there were pots and seals at home. These were artifacts normally given by the former Unification Church to donors, and implied that her parents had made large donations.
The reason Ogawa gave for her decision to leave the church was the family situation and the quarrels about how to care for her maternal grandmother. Ogawa’s mother, who was tired of taking care of her own mother, had become harsh with Ogawa, she claimed, and the stress had caused her to suffer from panic disorder.
However, I already see a contradiction here. In the Tweet account she used to criticize the church, Ogawa said, “I learned that she [my mother] was complaining to my younger sister when I was not at home, ‘When is she going to work? I want her to bring home some money soon.’ So, I decided to leave the church and to run away from home.”
In addition, she initially stated on Twitter that the reason she became psychotic (and the reason why she was hospitalized at a mental hospital) was that her family “was abusing my non-self-sufficient grandmother.” However, at the end of the same Twitter thread she corrected herself: “Sorry I scribbled this quickly, so a correction is needed. In fact, my mental illness was triggered by the exploitation of my parents, whom I trusted at that time.”
But in the interview with MBS News she went largely back to her original Twitter statement, the one she had later corrected. She claimed in the interview that “My mom, who was tired of taking care of her own mother, had become harsh with me, and the stress had caused me to suffer from panic disorder.”
According to the interview, Ogawa became suicidal around the age of nineteen, both before and after she left the church, and she even wrote a suicide note. She kept it in a clear file folder. The TV program was glad to show part of the suicide note: “I still cannot digest the mistakes of my dad and mom. It is your fault that I died. But it is not a lie that I loved you. I regret it. I regret it. I wished I had lived. I wanted to love and be loved.”
As I noted at the beginning of this article, Ogawa is now 27 years old. The TV camera showed a message she allegedly wrote when she was nineteen. The paper the message was written on, however, looked new. Moreover, the paper had no line of folding, and there was no sign it had ever been folded. Normally, suicide notes are folded and hidden somewhere. Furthermore, she claimed she had also written shocking words in this suicide note: “First, I wanted to kill my grandma. Then, someone from my family. I did not care who it was, but I wanted one of them to die.”
But wasn’t she heartbroken that her family was abusing her non-self-sufficient grandmother?
Eventually, Ogawa was approached by various media outlets. In one YouTube program, she testified that when she participated in a training session at a church event, she was sexually harassed by a male group leader. She was told that this had happened because she was possessed by an evil spirit. She said she was sent to the church’s facility where evil spirits can be exorcized located in Cheongpyeong, Korea, where she had a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized.
She also claimed that three of her six siblings were adopted by other church members, but the eldest among her three younger sisters eventually returned home. Adoption practices in the former Unification Church later became an issue in the media. In later interviews, Ogawa criticized the practice harshly. “It is almost like human trafficking,” she said. However, at the time of the early YouTube video, she reported that she had been “glad that my sisters were adopted. Each of them became the only child in her adoptive family, they were so well cared for.”
Politicians who wanted to understand the reality of the former Unification Church started approaching her too. On August 23, she attended a hearing organized by the Constitutional Democratic Party and shared with the politicians what she claimed had been her sad experience.
“Because my parents made large donations to the church, just as it happened in the case of Abe’s assassin, I was born poor and was always poor. I was bullied for a long time at school because of it. Since childhood, I was forced to attend church events and religious services, and if there were church events on a weekday, I was forced to be absent from school to attend. I was told that romance was evil. My parents did not allow anything that was against the doctrines of the church, such as TV, comic magazines, and so on, and romance novels. My life has been like this.
One of the reasons why I decided to leave the church was money. I started a part-time job when I was a high school student, but all the money was confiscated by my parents since they had a hard time making a living. After graduating from high school, I earned about 100,000 yen a month from my part-time job, but my parents confiscated all my wages. They claimed they needed the money for the family’s living expenses, but they actually spent it for their donations to the church. When I was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward, my mom withdrew all my hidden savings without my permission.
The second reason why I left the church was psychological. My parents became verbally abusive and violent toward my non-self-sufficient grandma during my high school days. They told her ‘You should die!’ and repeatedly beat and kicked her. These violent words and actions were totally inconsistent with the doctrines of ‘the family is all-important’ and ‘true love’ that I heard proclaimed every day. Faced with these contradictions, I started asking myself questions.
During a 21-day training session that I had to attend before I could participate in a collective wedding, I was sexually harassed by a male group leader. Later, when I attended three training sessions at the training center in Cheongpyeong, Korea, where my evil spirits should have been expelled, I saw many believers who suffered from mental breakdowns. I myself became mentally unstable and developed a mental illness.
The doctor did not give me a specific name for my disease, but it was like panic disorder, depression, or schizophrenia.”
She concluded that “I, like the suspect of the Abe assassination, Yamagami, have been victimized by the former Unification Church.”
During the press conference held at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on October 7, something unexpected happened. Fifty minutes after it had started, when Ogawa had almost concluded her speech, the foreign woman who served as chair of the event suddenly started talking to Ogawa’s husband, who was also present, while looking at some documents. Immediately after that, her husband spoke up on behalf of Ogawa.
“I am going to speak on her behalf, he said. I just received a message from a member of the former Unification Church. Her parents’ signatures are here. To summarize it, she is, they say, mentally disturbed. ‘And since the shooting of former Prime Minister Abe, her condition has worsened, and she has been telling many lies. For this reason, we request you to cancel this press conference immediately.’”
Ogawa, who was sitting next to her husband, was clearly upset by these words. Then, she said in tears that her personality disorder had been cured several years before, and she was now healthy. She concluded, “I think many people who have seen this will understand who is the worst, those who continue to insist that they are right or myself.”
Thus, the image of the former Unification Church as a despicable organization that was manipulating the parents of a former member to shut down their daughters’ press conference was spread throughout the world.