TOKYO -- Atsuko Nakajima was about 40 when her husband died of heart disease in February 1988, leaving her with a young daughter to raise. During her grieving, a neighbor stopped by to offer her condolences.
According to her lawyers and court documents, this is what followed:
The neighbor was a member of the Unification Church, but did not mention that at the time. She suggested going to an art show to take Nakajima's mind off her tragedy. At the show, she persuaded the widow to pay about $2,200 for a painting. It later turned out the painting was purchased from a company owned by Unification Church members.
Two months later, the church member told Nakajima that a "very famous teacher" would be speaking nearby and invited her to come hear him. When the widow met the teacher, he began crying and trembling. "Your husband is descending. I can see your husband's body suffering in hell. I cannot stop myself from shaking. Your husband is saying he wants you to donate" $50,000.
When Nakajima resisted, the teacher told her, "If you delay your answer, your husband's body suffering in hell will appear to you in your dreams. You had better decide soon." Nakajima paid the money.
Several weeks later, the church member and other church members told her that her husband was still suffering in hell. They persuaded her to help him by purchasing a small holy statue and two pairs of prayer beads for about $70,000. She bought a set of signature stamps, commonly used in Japan instead of a handwritten signature, for another $2,000.
She had turned over a total of about $124,200.
In June 1988, four months after her husband died, Nakajima went with several church members to an apartment, where she met a man who appeared to be praying. He told her: "Your husband is suffering in hell. Your husband desires [about $500,000]. But your husband says that at the least he wants you to donate [about $300,000]."
Nakajima replied that if she paid that much, it would drain the remainder of her husband's life insurance payment. She said she needed the money to send her daughter to college. She was told that her husband died because of bad karma from his ancestors and that if she did not donate, her daughter's life would be shortened by the same bad karma.
Fearing that the church members would never leave her alone, Nakajima relented. She turned over the cash to a church member who told her the money would be used in a Unification Church project to build a tunnel between Japan and South Korea. At a party at a Unification Church to celebrate her donation, she received a photograph of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his wife.
In 1989, Nakajima hired lawyers to sue the Unification Church. In settlements reached with several church members and church-related companies in 1991, she recovered the initial $124,200 she had donated.
In May 1994, a district court in Fukuoka prefecture ordered the church to pay back Nakajima's $300,000 donation, calling the church's actions "socially unacceptable." The church appealed, arguing that the widow had donated of her own free will and that, even if she had not, the church could not be held responsible for the actions of individual followers.
In February, an appellate court upheld the lower court ruling. It said the church members were essentially employees of the church and that the church was liable for their actions. The church has appealed.
Masuo Oe, chief spokesman for the Unification Church in Japan, said the church was prepared to give the woman her money back. But he said the church contested the case because it believed the court was wrong to hold the church responsible for the actions of individual members who might have applied excessive pressure.
Oe said the pressure put on the woman to donate was not as malicious as she had described it in her testimony. "However," he said, "I heard she was deprived of almost all her assets, so I think that was excessive."
Oe said he believes Nakajima donated the money freely, then changed her mind and was encouraged to file her suit by lawyers with an anti-Unification Church agenda.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company