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The Unification Church splinters Japan

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Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese branch of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, known as the Unification Church, takes part in a moment of silence for former prime minister Shinzo Abe during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, 11 July 2022 (Photo: Kyodo via Reuters Connect)

In Brief

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead on 8 July 2022 in Nara Prefecture while giving a campaign speech in support of a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate standing in the House of Councillors election. The assassination has led to public scrutiny of the links between the Unification Church and the LDP despite the suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, telling police that the assassination ‘was not [an act of] revenge against [Abe’s] political faith’.


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Yamagami alluded to the assassination before the incident, posting on his blog that ‘[Mr Abe was] one of the most influential Unification Church sympathisers’. Yamagami remains imprisoned for psychiatric evaluation.

The Japanese media has tended to avoid cult-related issues since the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack in which members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (now known as Aleph) killed 13 civilians and injured another 6000. There is now significant uncertainty in Japan about the damage caused by the Unification Church. This includes damage caused by its exorbitantly expensive sales of ‘psychic’ ginseng tea and marble vases to supposedly ‘appease’ ancestral spirits as well as coerced donations.

Still, foreign media outlets have raised questions about why conservative politicians — who are members of Nippon Kaigi, the Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership and other religious organisations —supported the Unification Church. The foreign press was especially curious about why former prime minister Shinzo Abe, who refused to accept state responsibility for the forcible mobilisation of comfort women by the Imperial Japanese Army, supported the activities of the Unification Church and its related organisations.

The Unification Church began missionary work in Japan in 1959. It is a conglomerate of several organisations. First, the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, a Christian religious movement founded in Seoul by Sun Myung Moon in 1954. Second, a political organisation established in 1968 called the International Federation for Victory Over Communism. Third, a collection of South Korean business entities and, more recently, the Universal Peace Federation — a UN NGO concerned with peace and women’s issues.

At the core of its teachings is the Korean shamanistic ritual of expelling the resentment of the dead and their ancestors. The Unification Church’s growth strategy draws on Korean resentment over Japanese colonial rule and a strong belief in seeking redemption for war crimes committed by Japan between 1937–1945.

According to a survey conducted by the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, there were 34,537 cases reported to bar associations and consumer centres across Japan from 1987 to 2021, amounting to US$854,576,997 in damages. According to former executive members, most of the money went to the South Korean headquarters of the Unification Church and was used for investment in South Korean Unification Church-affiliated companies, lobbying activities and political groups.

The church’s practices have resulted in labour exploitation and the financial deprivation of believers in Japan since the 1980s. According to a survey conducted by the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, there were 34 criminal cases filed against the Unification Church from 1970 to 2021. The courts fined Unification Church members for violations of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law and the Specified Commercial Transactions Law. There were also 28 claims for damages that resulted in judgments handed down by civil courts ordering the Unification Church to pay compensation. The Unification Church has, in other cases, paid settlements to victims based on victim-led petitions.

Still, politicians from the LDP have not hesitated to receive free electoral support from the church and speak well of the group at meetings held by related organisations. The National Police Agency and the judiciary have refrained from filing fraud charges against the Unification Church for its fundraising methods — which are sometimes labelled as a ‘psychic business’. The Religious Affairs Division of the Agency for Cultural Affairs, which has jurisdiction over religious administrations, has never filed against the Unification Church to dissolve its religious corporations.

Investigative reports over the past month reveal that at least 180 out of 379 LDP lawmakers in Japan’s National Diet have ties with the Unification Church. This include 23 out of 54 members appointed as vice-ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the second Kishida cabinet, formed after the October 2021 upper house election, have ties with the church. After the Japanese public discovered the extent to which the Unification Church had entrenched itself in Japanese politics, Kishida’s cabinet approval rating plummeted from 52 per cent to 36 per cent in just one month.

Liberal Democratic Party politicians receive electoral support from the Unification Church, including the dispatch of believers to volunteer in election campaigns and the mediation of organisational votes. In return, many LDP lawmakers have become billboards for the Unification Church. They are often seen giving favourable speeches at church meetings and related organisations.

Concerns raised by lawmakers from opposition parties have often been ignored by the media and government officials. That enabled the Unification Church to develop extensive relationships with Japanese political parties, particularly LDP lawmakers, and receive political patronage.

The Unification Church was suddenly brought to public attention by Tetsuya Yamagami — a young man despondent about the extent to which Japanese politicians and the mass media had ignored the problems associated with the organisation. He claims that his mother made over 100 million yen (US$670,000) in donations to the Unification Church, forcing his family into bankruptcy and ruining his life.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida conducted a state funeral for former prime minister Shinzo Abe on 27 September 2022. But the public expressed dissatisfaction with allegations that Abe had inherited his relationship with the Unification Church from his grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, and that he was managing the organisation’s votes.

According to an Yomiuri Shimbun poll, 56 per cent of the public was opposed to the state funeral. Police clashed with funeral protestors in front of the National Diet. No G7 leaders came to Japan for the condolence diplomacy planned by Kishida, with national opinion still divided.

Yoshihide Sakurai is a Professor of Sociology at Hokkaido University, Japan.

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