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The terrible consequences of Japan’s stalking epidemic

Even the Catholic Church is not immune to the impact caused by the actions of ‘religious stalkers’
Japan’s two-time figure skating Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu performs during his first professional ice show since announcing his retirement in July, at the Pia Arena MM in Yokohama on Nov. 4, 2022.

Japan’s two-time figure skating Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu performs during his first professional ice show since announcing his retirement in July, at the Pia Arena MM in Yokohama on Nov. 4, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 21, 2023 11:27 AM GMT
Updated: November 21, 2023 11:40 AM GMT

Japan, often heralded for its safety and low crime rates, is facing a disconcerting paradox as the shadows of stalking incidents cast a pall over the lives of public figures.

While the country boasts a reputation for security — its low crime rates and disciplined society contribute to an environment that fosters trust and tranquility — the unsettling reality is that individuals in the public eye, including TV personalities, actresses, and idols, find themselves navigating a landscape where safety is elusive and personal boundaries are under constant threat.

Celebrities are often confronted with the sinister underbelly of fan obsession, leading to a disturbing surge in incidents that jeopardize their well-being.

In a shocking turn of events, Japanese figure skating sensation Yuzuru Hanyu, a two-time Olympic champion and a global icon in the sport, recently took to social media to announce his divorce.

The revelation came merely three months after the celebrated skater had publicly disclosed his marriage. Hanyu cited a distressing barrage of stalking, slander, and intrusive media coverage as the reasons for the dissolution.

What’s even more interesting is that the cultural perspective in Japan diverges sharply from the more Westernized approach to celebrities. For many Japanese, approaching a famous individual and requesting their time for a selfie or a brief exchange is perceived as bothersome, even a nuisance.

"The idea of obsessively pursuing and intruding upon someone's life goes against the cultural grain"

This nuanced cultural etiquette sheds light on the broader national character, where respect for personal space and consideration for others' privacy take precedence.

I vividly recall a conversation with a Japanese friend who serendipitously encountered the renowned Ghibli creator, Hayao Miyazaki, near his studio. Intrigued, I asked if he seized the opportunity for an autograph or a selfie. To my surprise, he explained that he wouldn't dare make such a request.

In fact, he didn't even pause to say hello, deeming it impolite. This, he conveyed, is deeply ingrained in the Japanese mindset.

In a society where restraint and modesty are valued virtues, the notion of a stalker stands in stark contrast to the typical Japanese demeanor. The idea of obsessively pursuing and intruding upon someone's life goes against the cultural grain, highlighting the significant divergence between the mindset of a stalker and the ingrained values of the average Japanese citizen.

But in Japan, the stalking trend isn't confined to the realm of celebrities. Since 2001, stalking incidents have increased from less than 15,000 to 20,189 a year in 2020. And it also extends its ominous reach into the tactics employed by certain small religious groups, often referred to as new religions.

This aspect adds another layer to the concerns faced by religious institutions in Japan, including the Catholic Church. In fact, one of the reasons these institutions still have broadly speaking a low reputation in the country is intricately linked to the subtle and at times cunning proselytizing techniques employed by certain types of devotees, which often manifest as a form of stalking.

"These zealous devotees may even go to the extent of following individuals to their homes, all in a determined effort to 'hook' them"

Whoever has been living in Japan has been certainly exposed, directly or indirectly to the unsettling experiences of encountering fervent religious believers in unexpected places.

A seemingly chance encounter with a friendly stranger who initiates a conversation with enthusiasm and warmth on a train or inside a cafe can swiftly transform into a disconcerting situation. What initially appears as a fortunate meeting often unravels as a deliberate attempt by a religious follower to engage in a subtle form of proselytizing.

The modus operandi involves the stranger requesting an exchange of contact information, an apparently innocuous gesture that can escalate into persistent attempts to stay connected. In extreme cases, these zealous devotees may even go to the extent of following individuals to their homes, all in a determined effort to "hook" them into participating in the communal gatherings of their respective religious institutions.

This clandestine form of proselytizing, akin to stalking, is a pervasive issue that impacts the perception of religious institutions in Japan.

The Catholic Church, despite its distinct teachings and practices, is not immune to the skepticism cast upon religious organizations due to the actions of these ‘religious stalkers.’

The reputation of religious institutions in Japan suffers as a consequence of the thousands of such incidents where unaware individuals are pursued with relentless zeal to become part of these minor congregations.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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