The Family In Japan

A Whole New Way To Abuse Children

A picture of a group of people who look like they might be performing music at a park or something.
I can't bring myself to say anything sarcastic about this picture. It just makes me sad.

(Please note, this was written a couple years ago, and so some details might have changed since. At the time I wrote it I checked my facts, but I did not recheck them before posting. I'm trying to just get all the stuff I've written over the years out so they don't just fade away on my hard drive, so this is presented as is.)

When you live in "gaijin Tokyo," as I do, you get used to meeting people on the edge between "gaikokujin" and "Japanese," such as returnees, halfs, naturalized citizens, dual citizens, and foreigners born and raised in Japan. There are crazy circumstances like people called "zainichi" who might be the third generation born on Japanese soil who still are not automatically granted Japanese citizenship. Even the blanket term "third culture kids" doesn't seem to quite encompass all the variety, as it implies two distinct cultures as a base to start from, not quite taking into account the nebulous variety within those cultures. You also learn that no matter what categories one comes up with, there are people who don't easily fall into them. The longer one lives in "gaijin Tokyo," the less one is shocked to meet somebody with a category defying background.

There is, however, one community of people that I've seen surprise even the most jaded denizen of gaijin Tokyo. I have some times I've even described these people to friends, and those friends didn't even believe me that such a situation was possible. What is that description? Imagine a person who had two Japanese parents, absolutely nothing but "pure Japanese blood," lived in Japan their entire lives and never even visited any other country, and spoke perfectly native English. That sounds a little rare, but not unbelievable. Some Japanese would maybe even find it a little enviable. Sounds like the person being described just had a really good English language education.

But what if I told you that person does not and can not speak Japanese? It's not a trick question, it has nothing to do with the person being mute or any exception that, once revealed, would land the person squarely back into the realm of unusual but expectable. The person I'm speaking about was simply never taught Japanese.

That's where a lot of people stop believing the possibility of such a person if they haven't directly met them. How on earth could a person grow up and live a whole life in a country and not learn it's language? It would be one thing if the parents were themselves speakers of a foreign language, but we're talking about Japanese parents who are both native speakers themselves, and, further, aren't very good at English. It would seem to take such a massive effort to prevent a Japanese person from learning Japanese in Japan that most people just think it could not happen. Especially in a country as uniform in culture and language as this. It's not as if we're talking about a French Canadian raised in the farthest reaches of Northern Quebec who doesn't know English, or Tibetan villager who doesn't speak Mandarin.

It does take a huge effort to deny a child the overwhelmingly default language of their surroundings. In fact it takes a whole community of people to pull it off. I have met that community, and its members. I have twice been in long term relationships with women from from that community. In circumstances completely unconnected to each other, at two different times I met women who grew up in this group, and ended up living with them. Through that experience, I gained insight into a tiny bubble of a somewhat sad little subculture.

The community is called "The Family", and it's a very small Christian group that came to Japan from the United States in the early seventies. They run a very tight community which is distrustful of the surrounding world and the people in it, who they refer to as "systemites." According to some estimates, there are about 800 members in Japan, of which about 600 are Japanese citizens.

Some people would call The Family a "cult." For me, I don't make a lot of hard distinctions between "cults" and "religions," just that the latter tends to have more members. For most, though, the term evokes a lot of extreme imagery, of brainwashing and apocalyptic fear mongering. In Japan, the term almost immediately brings to mind the Aum Shinrikyo, famous for their sarin gas attacks in 1995. Being a "cult," then, when talking about The Family, a lot of people imagine some fairly extreme situation. The Family, however, does not brainwash its members or have hostile intentions against the rest of the world. They even run charitable activities. The harm they do is entirely to their own members, because despite their best intentions, they are tragically misguided.

I just want to focus on the group's integration, or lack of it, in Japan. However, no description of their situation in Japan can be sufficient without some background. The group was founded in the 1960's in California by a man named David Berg. In 1969 Berg predicted an earthquake would destroy California, and so the Family began migrating throughout the US. Soon after, the group began expanding internationally as well. Japan was one of the many countries that members first emigrated to, from as far back as the early seventies. At first they were called "The Children Of God," later "The Family," and today their formal name is "The Family International." Their own web site claims they have representation in over 90 countries. In Japanese they go by "Ai no Kazoku", which translates to "Family of Love."

The Family first gained notoriety, 'round about the 1980s, in the United States, and a few other countries, for a practise called "flirty fishing." This is where attractive members of The Family would use their sex appeal as a way of attracting new members. Of course, the media sensationalized it, demonizing the group as being the kind of scary, brain washing, sexually deviant cult that makes for interesting press. The truth is more complicated, but in a nutshell, on the one hand they are a very fundamentalist Christian group, believing in a literal interpretation of the bible. At the same time, though, they are very sexually permissive, even sexually proactive, in a way that is unusual for similar extreme Christian groups.

Sexuality is not merely pleasure seeking, though. The group puts a heavy emphasis on having children, which they refer to as "going for the gold." According to some estimates, over 50% of their current world wide membership is under 20. This last statistic matters, because it means there are lots of children in this group, and more being born all the time. From my personal experience, every grouping of the Family I ever saw had as much as three times as many children as adults. And even of the members over twenty, many are in their early twenties, still suffering the repercussions of having grown up in the group.

There are a lot of mixed race children in The Family. Not just Americans and Japanese, but from heritages originating from all over the world, because members of The Family tend to be highly mobile between nations. Also, they occasionally have a practise of "sharing," where extra-marital sex can be condoned so long as all participants agree. This is one of the areas that sensationalists will want to jump all over, in order to portray the group as sexual deviants. However, the truth is less sensational, more mundane, and actually a little more sad. Were it all about the sex, maybe it could be dismissed as mere spouse swapping for sexual adventure. But, since contraception is strongly discouraged in favour of leaving family planning up to God, children are born of these unions, resulting in diffuse family groupings, and complicated interpersonal relationships.

In any case, it wasn't just a matter of Japanese meeting members of this foreign group and getting married, and having a mixed race child. Japanese people joined up, and then in turn convinced other Japanese to join. My first girlfriend of the two I dated was a product of this kind of union. And here's where the situation that defies expectation becomes a reality. With two Japanese parents who were native Japanese speakers, how could you not raise a child to speak Japanese?

The Family in Japan essentially believes that English is the de facto international language, and does not give priority to studying Japanese. But to leave it at that makes it sound like there is a decree from the group's higher authorities to deliberately exclude Japanese in favour of English. Not so, because the group is nowhere near that organized. The Family is fragmented into "homes" that consist of one, two, or maybe three families, dotted around the country. Each home tends to default into a lot of their own habits and attitudes toward education. All children are home schooled with a heavy emphasis on Christian studies, meaning not just the Bible, but also tracts written by the founder where he describes visions that came to him in dreams. I read one once, and it was about him having sex with some kind of fish woman, and it was clear to me that the sexual mores in The Family originate largely with the founder having been just a really, really horny guy. For example, there is permissibilaty when it comes to homosexual female relationships, but there is a fairly strong sentiment against male homosexuality. The same standards that you typically see in porn for straight males.

Anyway, in The Family, teachers, parents, and elder siblings who are often burdened with taking care of the younger siblings, are themselves the products of having been raised by people too young and inexperienced to really know what they're doing. As a result, the members of Family who should be providing education to younger members do not have the maturity, education, or skills to do so. It's the blind leading the blind. The one, and maybe the only, strongly asserted rule about sexual couplings that I ever heard about in The Family was that no one over 18 was allowed to have sex with anyone under 18, a rule I very much doubt was there from the start and almost certainly developed some time in the past when the group found itself under the spotlight of society at large. To be clear, the rule does not say no one under 18 should be having sex, just that sex should not span across older and younger than 18, and younger members are very sexually aware and active. Even putting aside the occasional incidents of that rule being broken, you still have 17 year olds in positions of authority over 14 year olds and the like. A situation that not only has the potential for sexual abuse, but other kinds of emotional mistreatment. This, just to keep it stressed in your mind, is the core of the problem of The Family. They don't set out for anyone to be mistreated or sexually abused and even have rules and intentions in place to prevent it. It's just that their rules are half assed, their enforcement is paltry, and their incompetence is staggering.

Returning to the issues particular to Japan, though. Some children growing up in The Family in Japan do pick up Japanese and speak it to some degree, though a lot of them speak it no better than a lot of ex-pat foreigners who came here later. I've met a few members that spoke Japanese natively, and if you were to talk to a Family member about the language issue, they will point to the few examples of those that do learn Japanese as being an indication of a degree of choice on the part of the parents, as if it could ever be a sensible choice for a parent to not teach their children the language of their citizenship. More worryingly, though, some members I spoke to talked about it in terms of it being a choice of the children themselves, as if children could be expected to know how to place a value on what language to learn.

The reality is that most children growing up in The Family have a very haphazard education. A disproportionate amount of their cultural socialization and exposure to language is in the form of English movies and music. Most I have met are overly concerned with pop culture, particularly that which comes out of the US. I saw first hand that what little Japanese language education trickles in just doesn't matter enough to really take to heart because it's not used in day to day life among friends and family. A Japanese parent might even speak to their child in Japanese, but the child responds in English. The parent understands English as a second language, having picked it up within the Family. Thus a lot of the children and young adults have a sort of strange familiarity with Japanese, but no ability to express themselves. Reading and writing is even more neglected.

Overall the education is simply very poor, since they are more likely to teach the Bible, instead of critical thinking skills, or history, or math. Some work toward getting what is called a GED from the United States, which is a document proving high school equivalency. I don't know if there is a similar thing in Japan, but it doesn't matter because these members would not be able to take it anyway because of the Japanese needed. It's doubtful that many even achieve the GED, because by the time they are in their teens, a lot of their education is left in their own hands. If they don't have the initiative to pursue it themselves, they won't get it. And having grown up in a community that values the Bible, instead of knowledge or self sufficiency, their efforts are often misplaced.

One's age in The Family matters when it comes to Japanese ability. Members and ex members in their twenties and late teens grew up in a time when the family seems to have been more tightly insulated from the surrounding world. However, with the death of the founder in the late 1990's, the group has slowly become more diffuse. It's future would be in more in doubt except for the fact that they seem to have children at a rate that outpaces the organizational fracturing.

They've had some significant struggles along the way, as they've faced various pressures from both inside and outside the group that have forced The Family to adjust both internal policies and its public face. Every now and again, some kind of scandal will bubble up around The Family, and they face both legal and public relations backlashes. Usually, they gain attention for the way in which young members are exposed to too much sexuality, which authorities want to prosecute as child abuse. Other times can be more sensational, like a case in the US when the son of the founder loaded up a bunch of guns and went on a road trip with the intention to kill his mother, but ended up killing another high ranking cult member and himself. He posted a video on YouTube before the attacks, leaving no doubt about the severe emotional and psychological price paid by the children growing up in this environment.

When authorities and public attention is focused on the group as a result of these actions, The Family dismisses any and all attention as deliberate persecution by an evil and secular world on their religious truths. But they do have to adapt at least a little each time, or face continued and intensified scrutiny. Scrutiny which could force their group apart if it went far enough. Unfortunately, the slight adjustments they make has not meant the group has developed a tighter focus on education. Far from it. But the boundary between their internal world and the outside world is blurrier now, meaning more local influence can creep in. In Japan, it would be optimistic to think that this might mean more Japanese integration. It probably means more extremes of some kids getting full Japanese education, and others getting none at all, depending on the parent.

For the ones that are in their teens and twenties, the damage is already done. The Family web site states that only 10% of its members stay within the group. They have a policy that when a person reaches 18, that person can opt out of the group. But the claim that 9 out of 10 members take that option is for the world wide membership. In Japan, it's hard to leave the Family without Japanese skills. And it's not as if they can just go live somewhere else, either. They have Japanese passports and no degree or qualifications that would lend itself to getting a visa elsewhere. Lucky ones who had one international parent might have inherited a citizenship, others marry into citizenship elsewhere.

Some stay in The Family and work within it. The Family has a variety of income sources, though I could never discern which ones earned more and what total income they generate. A lot of the financial workings of the family are kept secret. Asking about certain details is met with the answer "It's say la," which is a strange term, not derived from any meaningful grammar from either English or Japanese, but it means that only central organizers of the group have that information. Exactly who and where the central organizers are is not something I was able to entirely figure out. I know some families within The Family had more money and influence, but, beyond that, it was opaque to me.

A drawing of Jesus and a woman.
They produce a lot of art and imagery with a weird mix of sexuality and Christianity. Some it is kind of hot.

They get a lot of charity, a lot in the form of food that is marked for disposal by stores. I went to a number of large group dinners where it was a running joke as to whether or not the sushi could be trusted. They have substantial donors they refer to as "Kings," consisting of at least one significantly wealthy Japanese family, and possibly other people, including possible criminal activity. If someone donates money to the church of The Family, and then The Family returns most of it but keeps an amount that is less than what the donor would have paid in income tax, then both parties benefit. Individual Family members make money doing various tasks, such as performing wedding services, or doing music and performances. The group is very heavily focused on arts and entertainment, and basically make money in all sorts of ways that don't require higher education. Each home pays an amount to the Family, and some of that money is redistributed back in ways that, again, are unclear. As a group, they make Christian education materials and other varied enterprises. They also have a front organization, "The Family Care Foundation," which, despite the name, does not overtly make clear their specific connection to The Family. I came across the Family Care Foundation in Japan through a friend, and only found out about their connection to The Family because on of my ex-girlfriends was able to recognize members within it.

The group used to be strict that people inside the Family can not have relationships with people outside. This is probably also lapsing, but both my ex-girlfriends were ex-members and when I met them had only just left. But with both their family and friends all still in The Family, the transition was anything but clear cut. And as far as jobs go, they were limited by a lack of any credentials or skills. And, of course, no Japanese ability.

Sometimes I was out with my first of the two girlfriends, at a restaurant, and the waiter would automatically begin speaking to her, assuming she spoke Japanese and I didn't. Especially since my girlfriend was not only Japanese, but has features that a lot would describe as matching a stereotype of "typically" Japanese. We used to laugh about how flustered the server would be as they tried to understand that the situation was the reverse of their expectation.

Those situations were amusing for me, but, as you might imagine, tiresome for her. Japanese people and foreigners alike might speak to her in Japanese, and however she answered it was soon clear that she didn't speak Japanese. Then they would assume she was Chinese or nissei. No... Then they would ask if she had lived abroad. No... Well, what then? Sometimes she preferred to tell people she went to international school, to avoid any stereotypes from being perceived as having grown up in a cult. But of course, any lie inspires questions that require more lies. You lived abroad? Where? You went to an international school? Which one? No matter what kind of convenient deflection she came up with, her situation was just too exceptional to be simplified down into something that didn't inspire curiosity in the people she spoke to.

Of course, the important effects were far more serious. Having grown up in a group like The Family has many emotional and psychological implications, that will be common to a lot of strict and unusual religious environments. But as far as the language issue goes, both my ex-girlfriends not only found it difficult to interact in Japanese, they outright resented the language. Constantly being confronted with people who expected them to speak Japanese agitated a feeling inside them that they felt maybe they should speak Japanese. And they should, but, as I tried to convey to them, what they shouldn't be doing is blaming themselves. Children can't decide for themselves what language to learn, they need to absorb it from an environment that supports them in learning. But The Family goes further than not provide that support. They leave it to the child to make decisions beyond their age, which, at least with my ex-girlfriends, instilled an insecurity of self blame that is buried deep inside of them from early on. The whole point that parenting is to provide guidance in areas that children do not have the capacity to decide themselves is lost in the world of The Family.

The Family means well, and pretty much all the members I have met are warm, friendly, helpful, and loving people. Their main problem is that they educate their children as if that's all that is needed in this world, and the things they neglect to provide hurt the people that can't help themselves. As loving as the parents of my ex-girlfriends are, they failed completely as parents to provide their children with the skills, both emotional and intellectual, that they needed. Not home schooling their children in at least some basic math or history is bad enough. But not instilling in them the language that is tied to their country of birth is a level of incompetence so great that literally some people can not believe such a failure is even possible.

It's a level of incompetence that makes a case for state intervention. And I personally consider it a form of child abuse in the form of neglect. While I was going out with my second girlfriend, I looked into Japanese law to find out how it is that this situation is continuing. I found out that article 26 of the Japanese constitution says "All people shall be obliged to ensure that all boys and girls under their protection receive ordinary education as provided for by law." So you would think that this means that minors are obligated to go to public school or something like that. But the reality is that, as I learned from a lawyer who deals with human rights issues, religious freedom generally trumps other considerations, and in practice the Japanese authorities prefer to not do anything that interferes with the wishes of the parents. Also, the Family may have a lot of Japanese citizens being neglected, but overall the group has an aura of foreignness about it that probably leaves the authorities assuming that the law doesn't really apply. It's a larger contentious issue in Japan, as to whether or not the constitution applies to people in Japan in general, or just its citizens, and is the the source of difficulties for other groups as well, such as Brazilian nissei and Korean zainichi.

I don't speak to one of my ex-girlfriends anymore, but the other, the one who looks more "traditionally" Japanese, is fortunately doing very well. In the years after leaving The Family, she worked hard to earn her GED, which was more about her educating herself for self sufficiency and personal pride than credentials. She took the jobs she could get, starting out with daycare, something she could claim practical experience with, since in the Family older children often are burdened with taking care of younger ones. Little by little she found opportunities to change her jobs and circumstances, did a working holiday program and lived overseas, eventually got married and now lives in an English speaking country where she earned a degree related to her current career. It's the kind of story that inspires hope in people's ability to overcome circumstances.

But she still doesn't speak Japanese, and the idea of ever learning it is now firmly in her rear view mirror. When I was with her, she tried to learn now and again, but it was too stressful for her. A language isn't just an academic subject at school, it's a part of a person's identity. And it was impossible to open a book on Japanese language without being confronted with deep issues about what she should have learned, who she is now, and what it means to be a person living with cultural contradictions.

Other ex-Family members don't do quite as well. Others I know of have far less certain futures. Aside from limited job options, there are members who have fallen prey to abusive relationships, drug dependency, crime, and I know of one suicide.

All else being equal, if either of my ex-girlfriends had not grown up in the Family, they would have very likely learned native Japanese. But then, you could argue that they would not have been the person that I fell in love with. Which points to another issue that perpetuates the lack of Japanese in the Family. I have spoken to some members, ones who only speak English, that are very defensive, strongly against notion that The Family let them down by not teaching them Japanese. They point to the idea that having learned Japanese would fundamentally change them as a person. And so, if you insist that they should have learned Japanese, you are, in a way, saying that they should not be who they are now. No one wants to hear that, and so even the people who have been denied learning Japanese will sometimes defend their upbringing. Not to mention they often find it hard to judge their parents so harshly. The problem in that reaction is that it assumes that it is a binary choice between learning Japanese and being who you are. I'm also not even suggesting that they not also be the fluent English speaker they are, since there is no reason anyone in their position couldn't learn both languages. No doubt a Family member would be a different person if they learned Japanese, but that's different from talking about the death of the personality of the person they are now. We're talking about another part in the whole universe that is a person's personality. One more facet of themselves to combine with all the rest. In that sense, learning Japanese is an expansion of who they are, not a demolition.

That's why, even though I disagree with some Family practises, while simultaneously trying to be diplomatic about the Family's right to religious freedoms, I am firm on this one point. There is no question that it is a fundamental human right that a child be given the full support and opportunity needed to speak the language of the country of their birth. It's so fundamental that it seems strange to need to state it, or that it would ever be the case that someone was denied that right. That's part of the problem. It's so outside people's expectations that it continues underneath the radar of society's disbelief. Were that the only problem, it might be solvable. Maybe you could lobby in some way for state intervention for, if nothing else, that all these children have to learn Japanese to some degree.

Of course, that's far from the only problem. The total number of Family members is probably too small to draw any action from the government, who are unlikely to have full confidence in their legal standpoint anyway. The blurry boundaries on which children are raised to speak English or not, whether they are citizens or not, whether or not they stay in the country, the way the group avoids outside scrutiny, and all sorts of other factors would make it hard to pin down exactly what to do and with who.

But it's bigger than that. As a foreigner who lives in Japan, I'm all too aware of the limitations on Japanese society's ability to cope with outsiders. Holding a passport is not enough to fit the standard Japanese model for being "one of us." So even if The Family were brought to the level of attention of the authorities who might act on it, I strongly suspect that their approach would not be to try and figure out how to bring these people under the umbrella of Japanese society, but how to quietly sweep them under the rug and hope they go away. Which I guess is kind of what is happening now, so maybe that decision has already been made.

Left as they are, though, are they going to go away? Will the Family either dissipate as a lack of coordinated central leadership allows for more of the surrounding culture to influence the younger members? Will the family stabilize and grow beyond it's uncertain roots and gain a level of legitimacy on a level similar to other cults like the Mormons or Catholics?

I don't know. At this point it's been a few years since I've been intimately connected to these issues. I'm friends with one of my ex-girlfriends from The Family, but she generally prefers not to talk about it, so with her the topic has almost entirely faded away. I've also occasionally bumped into other members of the group, or come across it in other ways now and again, since I know how to recognize it, but the people I happen across don't know that I know that part of their background, and I don't bring it up. I don't really know, then, what the exact state of The Family in Japan is right now.

I'm sure, though, that there are a lot of people around who are worse off for being in, or having been in, the Family. At the very least a lot of the people who were children when I saw them and would be teenagers now. I suspect there are more beyond what I witnessed, especially considering their birth rate.

I don't know what should be done about it, though, which makes this an unsatisfying essay to write. Ideally something that punished some of the older founding members would be awesome. There's an old guy who I see here and there in Tokyo handing out flyers for The Family who I'd like to just punch in the face for all the harm to children he has to accept responsibility for. I don't, though, I just ignore him, even the one time he stopped me and tried to proselytize. As cathartic as it would be, it wouldn't help anything. For younger members though, by which I include people up into even mid-thirties or so, they were just victims of circumstance, I just hope they can at least find acceptance and opportunity in the gaijin world in Japan, the same one I live in. It's not quite living in the Japan they should have been born into, but it's better than living in The Family.