A Brussels-based NGO has expressed “real concern” about the ongoing plight of “missing” 27-year old Masato Ishibashi in Japan.
The highly respected group Human Rights Without Frontiers says Ishibashi has been detained by his family against his will in an effort to force him to renounce his affiliation to a new religious movement.
Last seen by his friends on 29th December 2013, the question is: where is Masato Ishibashi?
What is clear is that despite him missing for one year there has been no police investigation.
Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers Int’l (HRWF), investigated the kidnapping in Tokyo last year and says it is one of several cases of abduction for the purpose of forced de-conversion.
The family of Ishibashi is middle class and his father was a public servant in the local government.
Ishibashi started to learn the doctrine of the Unification Church (UC) in 2005 when he was studying at the Aoyama Gakuin University. A year later, he officially joined the Church and started communal life with other members.
His parents heard about his conversion two years later and forced him to drop out from the university and to live back at home with them in Chiba Prefecture.
Ishibashi started working in Tokyo but went on attending the religious services of the Church behind his parents’ back.
In 2009, Ishibashi left his parents’ house to go and live in the dormitory of the factory where he was working. After six months, he entered an industrial training school and then got a job as electrician in Hachioji. Away from his parents’ control he started communal life at the Church again.
In 2010, he rented an apartment in town and faithfully continued to participate in the life of his religious congregation until his parents found out about it.
Fautré, director of HRWF, goes on, “Fearing to be deprived of his freedom by his parents at this next visit, he wrote and signed a statement saying that if he went missing one day, it would be because he would have been abducted by his family. He further said that the police should try to find him and release him from his confinement.
“In January 2011, his parents tried to “hold him back” for a discussion about his faith but he managed to run away. However, his parents did not give up their fight. They moved to a relatives’ house from where they could keep their son under surveillance,” says Fautre.
In May 2011, Ishibashi moved to Yamagata Prefecture for job training and his parents went back to Chiba’s Prefecture.
One year later, he met a childhood friend who had also joined the Church with his parents. They told him that his father and his mother were in contact with an evangelical pastor who “advises” parents on how “to rescue” young UC members from the Church.
In October 2012, Ishibashi’s parents visited the Church in order to observe the religious church service. After that, they stopped criticizing the UC when he met with them.
Fautre, who has been to Japan to try to interview his family and other people connected to the case, adds, “”On the occasion of his planned visit to his parents at the last New Year, Ishibashi was again afraid of being abducted. Before his departure he told a close friend that he had purchased a GPS device in case he would be deprived of his freedom and would need to call for help.
He was to return home on 2 January but on that day, he activated an emergency signal. The police were immediately informed of the disappearance; however, they refused to open an investigation into his situation.”
A HRWF delegation met with officers of the Chiba police station on 18 February last year. The delegation urged the police to visit Ishibashi’s parents at the location where he was believed to be confined or to at least summon them for questioning.
Two days later the NGO was informed that members of Ishibashi’s family had prevented him from contacting anyone. Even so, Fautre says the police refused to take action to assist him in any way while the delegation was still in Tokyo.
During their fact-finding mission in Tokyo, the HRWF delegation raised the issue with three members of the Diet - the Japanese Parliament - representatives of the Justice Ministry and the victim’s lawyer. The delegation invoked the implementation of “clearly-defined” police procedures in the case of suspected abduction.
“Still,” says Fautre, “no effective action has been taken for one year.”
Ishibashi’s case is, according to HRWF, by no means unique.
Last year a couple, Mr and Mrs Seo, were simultaneously abducted by their respective families for the same purpose but they managed to escape after a few days. They now have submitted a criminal charge against their parents.
Another well known case is the one of Toru Goto. He was abducted and confined twice by his family: in 1987 and in 1995. He recovered his freedom from the second kidnapping in 2008 after 12 years and five months in detention.
On 28 January 2014, Goto won an important lawsuit against the members of his family for abduction and involuntary detention.
The family members had detained him in an effort to force him to renounce his faith, which he never did.
In 2011 HRWF interviewed numerous victims of abductions for the purpose of forced religious de-conversion. These incidents were denounced in a report which attracted the attention of several international human rights institutions.
In 2013, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted this “egregious violation” of freedom of conscience in its annual report.
The US State Department has likewise acknowledged this phenomenon in Japan.
Last summer, the UN Human Rights Committee, which was alerted by HRWF, raised this concern during Japan’s Sixth Periodic Report.