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New Donations Law

The Japanese Diet recently passed a new law, called “The Law Concerning the Prevention of Inappropriate Solicitation of Donations by Corporations and Other Bodies, and Other Issues”. (I think that whoever started the trend for Japanese light novel titles like “That time I was reincarnated as a slime” may have had legal training.) This law was inspired by the actions of the former Unification Church, and thus it is particularly directed at religious corporations. The February 20th issue of Jinja Shinpō included an article reporting on a meeting held by the Japanese Religions Alliance, at which a senior civil servant from the government department responsible for overseeing the law gave a presentation on it.

The law forbids inappropriate solicitation of donations, and, as well as imposing penalties and permitting administrative action, allows people to reclaim their donation if the solicitation was inappropriate. If the money used for the donation was needed for the support of other members of the donor’s family, then those family members can have the donation cancelled, irrespective of the wishes of the donor. (I think — this bit of the article was not entirely clear to me, and I suspect that some technical terms that were explained at the meeting were repeated without explanation in the summary.)

“Inappropriate solicitation” is defined as solicitation that meets one or more of half a dozen conditions. This includes things like locking people up until they agree to make a donation, and no-one seems particularly concerned about those conditions. It also includes threatening to break up with a romantic partner unless they make a donation, which is interesting given the primary target, but also uncontroversial. The one that draws concern is the last on the list, which is “statements using information based on spiritual senses”.

This includes not only straightforward divination, but also the use of religious statements that are hard to verify to make the donor uneasy, and then say that the only way to avoid the problem is to make a donation. So, for example, it would be illegal under this law to tell people that they will suffer in Purgatory for centuries after they die, but that if they donate money to this monastery to have prayers said for their souls, they will go on to heaven much more quickly, and suffer much less.

It should now be clear why religious organisations are concerned. An awful lot of religions include the idea that you will suffer greatly in the afterlife because you are bad, and that donations to the religion can reduce this suffering. Thus, there is room for concern that this law will allow anyone to cancel any donation they have made to almost any religion. (Shinto actually has a bit less to worry about here, but things like haraë could well fall under this category.)

The presenter basically said that the law would only cover extreme cases, where people made an effort to make the donor feel worried and guilty, and suggested that there was no way other than a donation to avoid these problems. Japanese Christian preachers need to be careful about hellfire sermons if they are going to have an offertory. He also argued that the law did not actually change very much, because cases that were covered by this law would also be covered by the existing law on contracts. (A gift is a contract under Japanese law.) This may well be true, but I suspect that the existence of a specific law will lead to more cases concerning dubious religious donations.

I think this law may lead to decisions that have important consequences for the freedom of religion. If an organisation takes the doctrinal position that you will be tortured for eternity if you are not a member of that organisation, and that as a member of that organisation you must donate 10% of your income to it, then it would seem to risk falling foul of this law, and be liable to punishment and having all donations to itself nullified. (Note that this example is the historical position of the Christian church.) What is more, the law does not only apply to legally constituted religious corporations — it also applies to informal groups. This is important, because it is often argued that the state can regulate religious corporations under their status as legal corporations without touching their religious activities, but this law would seem to clearly restrict religious activities, regardless of whether they are associated with a corporation. At some point, the Supreme Court is probably going to have to decide just how far religions are allowed to have doctrines like doctrines of Hell.

Personally, I do not think that this law will be a major threat to most religious groups in Japan, but its broader legal implications are very interesting.

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