Photo/Illutration A member of YamatoQ attends a rally in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district on Dec. 18 carrying a backpack adorned with the English character “Q” and a cap supporting former U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2024 election campaign. (Gakushi Fujiwara)

The son of a member of YamatoQ, which calls itself the Japanese arm of the U.S. conspiracy cult QAnon, worries he may never get his old father back.

“Discussing the coronavirus and vaccines just causes us to fight, so I avoid talking about them as much as possible,” said the son, who wishes his family to remain anonymous.

His father is one of eight people from the conspiracy theory group arrested in December last year on suspicion of trespassing, over a break-in reported at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, in March 2022. 

The son, who is in his 20s and lives with his father in the prefecture, said he first felt something was awry in November 2020, when he received a message from him on the Line communication app in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election.

“If President Trump loses in the vote, the United States will be swallowed up by the Chinese Communist Party,” his father wrote. “Japanese media reports (on the election) are totally biased.”

He would get similar messages about once a week, but he was too creeped out to reply.

His father began spending more and more time isolated alone at home once the novel coronavirus crisis began and his social life all but vanished.

His father’s English was good and he was constantly online. Before long, he was hooked on conspiracy theories and actively sought out videos online raising questions about the presidential election.

YamatoQ, headquartered in the prefecture’s Fukuroi, built up a following online around fall 2021.

It started organizing nationwide demonstrations to oppose wearing surgical masks and getting inoculated, arguing that the world is controlled by the so-called “Deep State,” a purported cabal of shadowy figures supposedly controlling governments from behind the scenes.

“YamatoQ grounds its theories in those from QAnon but takes in a range of combinations of occult and spiritual beliefs,” said Hotaka Tsukada, an associate professor of religious sociology at Joetsu University of Education.

It is avowedly anti-vaccine. Last spring, the son was told by his father that he “must not be vaccinated because the agent is toxic.”

The son replied that his claims “lack evidence.” But his father only got mad and shouted, “Never deny my words without doing any research!”

The father started to carry around a glass bottle of a liquid that he claimed could “eliminate the vaccine’s poison.”

When his father told him he went to protest at the vaccination center in Yaizu to “question the doctors thoroughly,” the son felt his sense of alarm grows even further.

In December last year, the son discovered a text from one of his relatives along with a record of a received call.

“I have something to tell you as soon as possible,” the text read.

He quickly called back and learned that his father had been arrested.

After the 20-day detention period was up, his father returned home. He looked exhausted but did not seem to have changed his opinions. He was also later fined and paid the money.

The father said in an interview that he regrets that he ever “made my son worry.”

But he said the arrest was unjustified and insisted he simply entered the vaccination center to “seek medical advice from doctors.”

His father still belongs to YamatoQ and continues to take part in its protests.

“At first I would fight with my father, but he believes that he did nothing wrong,” the son said. “I don’t think I can realistically pull him back.”

Tsukada said that it is important to listen to people who believe in conspiracy theories to help ease their anxieties. But they cannot be persuaded just by explaining scientific facts and rejecting their views outright.

When they start to become aggressive, they need to be told they have crossed the line, according to Tsukada.

But neither approach offers a silver bullet.

The son said his father has now failed to pay several millions of yen (tens of thousands of dollars) owed on his home loan. And that, too, is starting to eat away at him.

He feels he is between a rock and a hard place.

“I do not expect him to leave the group. But abandoning him would make the situation worse. I cannot leave my father alone.”