TOKYO -- Naoko Fukasawa was a bored and aimless 21-year-old office worker in 1982 when a man in a downtown train station offered to change her life. She had never heard of his group, the Unification Church, but it sounded more meaningful than pouring tea for her bosses all day, so she signed up.
In the decade that followed, Fukasawa became a key cog in the Japanese fund-raising machinery that is a central source of the church's financial might and its high-profile activities in the United States. Church officials say that they raise $400 million a year here and that followers worldwide have invested more than $1 billion in the United States in the last 20 years, including more than $800 million in the Washington Times newspaper.
But there are growing signs that after years as the financial engine driving the church's global machine, Japan is becoming a troublesome base for the Unification Church and its leader, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. Former members and analysts who have followed the church's fortunes say its fund-raising efforts have lost momentum, in large part because of public criticism and lawsuits.
Fukasawa, who quit the church in 1992, is one of 300 Japanese citizens who are suing the church and its members, an unusually high number in a society where it is unusual to resort to civil lawsuits to settle disputes.
The former church members say they were brainwashed into slavelike devotion to the church. Other people have sued because they say they were duped into paying exorbitant prices for vases, prayer beads or other religious objects, sometimes under pressure from church members who said their relatives would "burn in hell" unless they donated.
A lawyers' group that represents those with grievances against the church says its members and government consumer protection officials have received more than 17,000 complaints about Unification Church activities since 1987. The group says the church has paid out about $150 million in settlements to avoid more lawsuits.
Church opponents cite the suits and their settlements as evidence that Japan is drying up as a source of Unification Church funds. "They are [an] organization that uses religion as a coat to hide behind," said Fukasawa, who now works as a graphic illustrator. "In the end, the only thing that mattered was how much money you could earn. We were like puppets on a string, controlled by Mr. Sun Myung Moon."
Since spending 12 months in a U.S. prison in the mid-1980s for tax evasion, Moon, 76, has worked hard to gain respectability and influence in the United States. The Washington Times newspaper, owned by Moon followers, is widely read by Washington power brokers. And Moon-related groups have landed such luminaries as former presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford to speak at their events, including one held last week in Washington at the National Building Museum. Church officials say most of the lawsuits are spurious and that the church and its fund-raising continue to thrive in Japan.
Japan has been fertile fund-raising territory for the Unification Church because many people here have considerable wealth and many are seeking some kind of spiritual fulfillment. Fewer than 1 percent of the population is Christian, still fewer are Jewish, and while many believe in Buddhism or Shintoism, the majority of Japanese do not practice any structured religion.
Before World War II, religious groups were so closely controlled by the Japanese government that it led to a backlash after the war against government intervention in matters of religion. The lax oversight in recent decades has allowed a broad range of nontraditional religious enterprises to flourish.
In Japan, many people seeking spiritual fulfillment, often the lonely and the vulnerable, have given up all connection to their families, donated all their assets to the church, moved into spartan church housing and devoted their life to church activities -- often fund-raising.
The Unification Church teaches that Moon is a "living god" who wants to unite the world under his leadership. A basic tenet of Moon's philosophy is that humans fell from grace when Eve had sexual relations with Satan in the Garden of Eden. For years, Moon's philosophy has attracted many Japanese followers.
But the Unification Church now appears to be at a delicate crossroads in Japan.
Masuo Oe, the church's chief spokesman in Japan, says its Japanese operations are healthier than ever and are still raising more than $400 million a year in donations here -- surpassing the amount raised in the heyday of Japan's booming economy in the mid-1980s.
Oe said the church's activities worldwide are flourishing. As evidence of the church's growing appeal, Oe said its largest mass wedding ever is scheduled for November 1997 in Washington. He said 3.6 million couples would exchange vows linked by satellite around the world, with the largest contingent, 40,000 couples, being in RFK Stadium.
A much different portrait of the church's financial health in Japan emerges in interviews with dozens of former church members, their attorneys and analysts who have investigated the Unification Church, as well as in hundreds of pages of documents filed in Japanese courts.
Each of these sources says the church's immense fund-raising machine in Japan has faltered. It has slipped largely because of intense scrutiny from the media and civic watchdogs, and an ever-increasing number of complaints and lawsuits filed against the church and its members.
"The money flow from Japan has decreased drastically," said Yoshifu Arita, a journalist who has monitored the church for 10 years.
Arita said the money that is raised is often carried in bags of cash on trains, deposited in South Korean banks in Japan, then disbursed to bank accounts of the church or its followers. As scrutiny of the church has grown in major cities, he said the church has moved much of its focus to rural areas where people are not as aware of the bad publicity and "it is still considered shameful to go to lawyers."
Increased scrutiny of the church has led it to adopt a new operating principle, called hayaku genkin, or "quick cash," Arita said. He said that rather than focusing on young recruits, the church now concentrates on attracting older people, particularly women, who have money and assets. It pressures those people to turn over their assets or take large loans against them, turning the money over to the church, Arita said.
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, who heads a group of 300 lawyers who have brought most of the suits against the church, said the church's membership is not growing and that the church can no longer raise large sums from its longtime members. Profits earned through what the church calls spiritual sales of religious objects have also dropped, with the public more wary of church members selling vases, prayer beads and model pagodas for upwards of $50,000 each. And, the attorney said, while some of the companies controlled by church members are making money, most are not.
Yamaguchi said, based on his interviews with those close to the church and his investigation of the church over the past 10 years, that the church is now raising about half of what it did in the 1980s. He said the church overstates how much money it raises in Japan, just as it inflates its membership; he believes the true figures have never been public knowledge.
While the Unification Church states that it has 460,000 members in Japan, Yamaguchi said that at most it has one-tenth that number, with about 10,000 active members. Arita estimated membership at about 30,000.
Japanese police refused to comment on church activities. Last year, Japanese newspapers reported that police raided a Unification church in Okayama in western Japan, arresting five members. The raid reportedly was ordered after the five threatened the brother of a woman who had quit the church.
Yamaguchi said it is particularly frustrating to him that unsuspecting and idealistic Japanese citizens are being asked to fund Moon's aspirations to gain "prestige, socially and politically," in the United States.
"Many Japanese believers are specifically told to donate money so it may be used for the Washington Times, the University of Bridgeport" in Connecticut, which was purchased by church followers for $50 million in 1992, and other church-related business interests in the United States, Yamaguchi said. These and other business enterprises often lose money, Yamaguchi said, but they lend "prestige to Reverend Moon and his church and enable him to draw people like President Bush" to Unification Church-related activities.
Bush and his wife, Barbara, have spoken at several events sponsored by the Women's Federation for World Peace, which is run by Moon's wife, Hak Ja Han Moon. More than 50,000 people paid to see the Bushes at a single event at the Tokyo Dome last year. Tickets cost between $105 and $196 each. The group would not disclose how much it paid Bush and his wife, nor would the former president reveal his fee, but estimates ran as high as $1 million for his six appearances with the group here.
The Unification Church denies any direct business link with the women's federation. Last week in Washington, another group led by Hak Ja Han Moon, the Family Federation for World Peace, attracted Bush, Ford and entertainer Bill Cosby to speak at its Inaugural World Convention.
Oe, the Unification Church's chief spokesman in Japan, denied that there was any impropriety in the church's activities here. He denied the allegation that the church had shifted its recruitment efforts toward older people with assets, and he said the church never pressures anyone into donating money. Those who donate do so of their own free will, Oe said.
Oe said the $400 million in donations from Japan, which he said the church has never before publicly acknowledged, includes only gifts from individuals. Although church members own many companies in Japan -- including a general trading company, a computer company with sales of more than $100 million last year, and businesses that sell jewelry and religious supplies -- those corporate profits are never funneled to the church, Oe said. Japanese law prohibits religious organizations from owning for-profit businesses.
Still, Oe said, the church ultimately benefits from those companies' success. He said many church members are employees of the companies; the more money in their paychecks, the more they are able to donate to the church.
Although Oe stressed that there is no formal ownership connection between the church and the Washington Times, even he seemed to blur the line somewhat as he described why the Washington Times is important to the Unification Church.
"Our policy is anti-communism," Oe said. "The Washington Star was advancing that philosophy before it disappeared [in 1981]. Since Washington is the center of the world, we think the ideology should be balanced and fair, so we thought it was necessary to have a paper that supported Republican policies."
Church spokesman Isao Mizutani said the Washington Times is an important counterbalance to The Washington Post and other U.S. news media, which the church considers to have a liberal bias.
Oe said Unification Church doctrine requires Japan to bankroll church activities. He said South Korea is "Adam's country," Japan is "Eve's country" and the other countries where the church has followers are their offspring. "Japan is mother and wife," Oe said. "So Japan has the mission to support her husband and raise her children."
But as Eve's country grows more hostile to the church, many of those watching the church here say Moon appears to be shifting his focus to Latin America and elsewhere for fund-raising. Church officials said Moon has been spending much of his time recently in Latin America.
Public sentiment against the church has been building since the late 1980s, but appeared to increase last year, when a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway -- blamed on cult guru Shoko Asahara and his Aum Supreme Truth group -- caused a social convulsion.
The Aum case forced Japan to tighten its laws regarding oversight of religious organizations, and it focused Japanese attention particularly on so-called new religions, including the Unification Church.
When the church began building a house in the posh Seijo neighborhood last fall, more than 30,000 people signed a petition to try, unsuccessfully, to stop it, said Gen Takahashi, who organized the neighborhood opposition.
"Their actions are socially unforgivable," Takahashi said.
Oe acknowledged that Moon's followers in Japan have occasionally pushed too hard to elicit donations from people. But he said the church ordered a stop in 1987 to practices by followers that could "invite misunderstanding."
"I think they were too eager to sell and they were excessive, especially taking advantage of a weaker person," Oe said. "But this practice in most cases stopped 10 years ago."
Oe said the vast majority of those who purchased items from church members are satisfied customers: "As far as I know, 22,000 vases were imported and there have been 1,000 cases of complaint," he said. "So it depends on how you look at the figure. Complaints are to be expected whenever you have any kind of economic activity."
Oe said he thought many of those filing suits simply had grudges against the church. "Maybe half of these cases are legitimate," he said.
Fukasawa, the former church member, has unusual insight into the church's fund-raising methods. She said her job for several years was to oversee door-to-door sales of a variety of art and religious objects that were sold for highly inflated prices, in the most extreme cases $30,000 for a set of two marble vases or more than $50,000 for a small jade pagoda.
Fukasawa said her Shinjuku neighborhood office often took in more than $1 million a month, which was turned over, in cash, to church officials. She said there were between 24 and 36 offices similar to hers in Tokyo, all raising similar sums.
Fukasawa said she was taught by church members that the key to successful fund-raising was choosing the right people to target. She said church members were told to focus mainly on housewives, women over 30 who appeared to have some money. Once at the door, she said she pretended to read palms and flattered the person at the door at every opportunity.
"When we felt someone was a good target, it could be very exciting," she said. "The key was to get inside the house. If we got inside, we felt we won the battle."
Fukasawa has a list of people she sold things to, and she has called many of them to apologize for what she did. She said most people forgave her.
Fukasawa lives in a small apartment in Tokyo with her new husband, also a former Unification Church member. Both of them divorced spouses they married in mass weddings performed by Moon, and started careers. They say they feel as if they are waking up from a bad dream.
"I have so much anger at the church; for 10 years, I spent all my strength working for nothing," Fukasawa said. "I am suing them to make it clear what they have done. These things should not be repeated. And they should apologize."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company