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Abe’s death reignites religion and state debate

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Koichi Hagiuda, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, meets the press at the LDP's headquarters after being reported to have visited a facility linked to the Unification Church, now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Tokyo, 18 August 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo).

In Brief

The assassination of Japanese former prime minister Shinzo Abe on 8 July 2022 brought to light the role that religious organisations play in Japanese politics. While the Unification Church was not directly involved in the incident, Abe’s shooter is outspoken about being motivated by the ties between Abe and the church.

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Although the incident has led to some debate about mental health and Japan’s ‘lost generation’, it has also reignited discussions about the role of religious organisations in contemporary Japanese society.

Concerns about the public role of religious organisations were high following the 1995 sarin gas attacks carried out by the cult movement, Aum Shinrikyo, but data shows that these concerns have diminished over the last two decades. An NHK survey showed that concerns about the influence of religious leaders in politics fell from 65 per cent in 1998 to just over 45 per cent in 2018. The same survey showed a steady decline in concerns about the political influence of religious organisations.

It is too early to say what effect the recent spotlight on the Unification Church will have on the Japanese public. In a poll carried out a week after the July upper house elections, 71 per cent of respondents agreed that Abe’s assassination impacted the election results — but the assassination did not influence their policy concerns. As has been the case for much of the last decade, voter concerns centre on the economy, cost of living and Japan’s declining population.

By publicly citing his hatred for the Unification Church as the motivation for the attack, the shooter has reignited interest in the role that religious organisations play in political lobbying. During Abe’s stint as prime minister, the affiliation between a majority of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers and the Association of Shinto Shrines (ASS) became public knowledge.

Concerns were also raised about the involvement of religious organisations in right-wing policymaking once the influence of Nippon Kaigi — an ultra-conservative, nationalistic lobby group — became more widely known in the mid-2010s. While not a religious organisation, Nippon Kaigi was borne out of a religious movement, Seicho no le, and retains close ties to the ASS.

The relationships between religious and political actors are complicated by Japan’s post-war constitution. The United States was worried about the return of ‘State Shinto’ following Japan’s defeat, so the 1947 constitution contains a strict commitment to secularism. Article 20 was enshrined to ensure the religious neutrality of the state and prohibit religious organisations from exercising ‘political authority’.

The meaning of ‘political authority’ has been debated throughout the post-war years. While the Komeito party no longer has any formal ties to the Buddhist organisation Soka Gakkai, it has often been at the centre of discussions about the role of religion in national politics. Much of the criticism from the political right about its religiosity has toned down since Komeito became a key ally of the LDP in the late 1990s, but its origins in organised religion remain a divisive topic.

Much of the discussion surrounding religion and politics in Japan in recent years has focussed on the ties between the LDP and the ASS or the lingering relationship between Komeito and Soka Gakkai. But since Abe’s assassination the public role of the Unification Church has also come under scrutiny.

That includes the personal relationship fostered in the 1960s between former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s maternal grandfather, and Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church. Their common goal of opposing communism saw the two men build a relationship between the LDP and the Unification Church that continues to this day. According to journalist Eito Suzuki, at least 168 LDP lawmakers retain connections to the church.

The practical implications of these connections remain unclear. Japanese politicians often involve themselves with various lobbying groups and organisations as part of their election networks, and such relationships should not be too closely read into. For most LDP lawmakers, the Unification Church is one of several venues used to mobilise their conservative electoral base.

Reverend Moon might have been a self-declared Messiah, but he was also a staunch anti-communist whose conservative ideology aligned with that of the ruling elite in the United States and Japan during the Cold War. Beyond their religious beliefs, many members of the Unification Church adhere to conservative values similar to those embraced by the LDP.

The vocal protests against the government’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe suggest that, while Abe was popular among his supporters, he was also a divisive prime minister. His relationships with Nippon Kaigi and the ASS were cause for much discussion during his time in office, and the current spotlight on the deep ties between his LDP faction and the Unification Church is likely to cause further debate over the role of religion in contemporary Japanese politics.

In response to the public backlash, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared on 31 August 2022 that he wants all LDP lawmakers to distance themselves from the church. Many LDP politicians have already made clear their intentions to do so.

While it is difficult to determine the true extent of the relationship between the Unification Church and the LDP, the pace at which the Party is now distancing itself from the church indicates that, in the end, the relationship was primarily a matter of pragmatic election strategy.

Ernils Larsson is Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Religion and Society at Uppsala University, Sweden.

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