The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As world gathers to honor Abe, Japan grapples with church’s influence

Protesters rally in Tokyo on Aug. 31 against the state funeral for former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated on July 8. (Kimimasa Mayama/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

TOKYO — For nearly two decades, public discussion of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties with the Unification Church was taboo in Japan. Now, the organization’s decades-long influence in Japanese politics is at the forefront of a political outcry.

The turning point: The July 8 assassination of Shinzo Abe.

Dignitaries are gathering in Tokyo this week to commemorate Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. But the event has put a spotlight on the scandal ensnaring the ruling party over its links with the church and use of taxpayer money for the state funeral of a leader who was popular abroad but divisive at home.

The church has faced scrutiny after Tetsuya Yamagami, the suspected gunman, told police he wanted to carry out the assassination because his life and family had been ruined as a result of his mother’s large donations to a religious group to which Abe had apparent close ties. The Unification Church confirmed that Yamagami’s mother is a longtime member and that it had received donations from her.

Other families emerged to say that their lives were similarly upended because of donations made by their relatives, some of whom have ongoing legal battles with the Unification Church. The accounts highlighted a controversial practice known as “spiritual sales,” in which goods or services that supposedly possess supernatural powers were sold to members at often exorbitant prices.

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“When I first heard that Abe’s death was related to a certain religious organization, I knew right away, that … something huge was going to unfold,” said Eito Suzuki, a journalist who has been tracking the church’s activities since 2002. “There is no other cult aside from the Unification Church which extends so deeply and widely within Japanese politics, reaching the ruling party, opposition parties, and beyond.”

Church officials said in a news conference last week that they are unaware of spiritual sales made after 2009, when the group signed a legal agreement after facing criminal charges over the practice. The church has addressed anger over its links with the ruling party by saying that on various issues its stance tends to align with the LDP membership.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has apologized for his party’s cozy relationship with the church and vowed to sever relations. He reshuffled his cabinet, removing leaders with the strongest links to the group, and surveyed members to identify their relationships with the organization.

But Kishida’s approval ratings have plummeted, especially after it emerged that several members of his new cabinet had ties to the church. Last week, Kishida said he would not call for an investigation into Abe’s ties with the church.

The public — and even some members of the LDP — are increasingly skeptical of the party’s ability to divorce itself. Even after the party released the names of officials who reported links to the church and its affiliates, another top LDP official acknowledged ties. The internal review has drawn further criticism from those demanding an independent investigation.

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In light of the controversy, there has been a backlash against the government’s decision to host a state funeral for Abe — the first in 55 years and only the second in the postwar era. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition to oppose the move, and thousands have protested in front of the Diet, Japan’s national assembly.

Japan is not a particularly religious country, but the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the official name of the Unification Church, controls dozens of ministries in Japan.

The church’s roots in Japan date to 1968, when it founded a political organization, the International Federation for Victory over Communism, with the support of former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s grandfather, who had befriended the group’s founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

The group became a reliable partner for the LDP in rallying against communism and left-wing protests through the 1960s. In the 1980s, conservative politicians began receiving endorsements, donations and grass roots support from the group, Suzuki said.

As the Cold War ended, the group aligned with right-wing politicians over social issues, opposing the introduction of gender equality policies and sex education, according to its website.

As Abe rose to power in the LDP and eventually became prime minister, the church’s members became a conservative voting bloc and mobilizing force, Suzuki said — an important source of support in a country that prohibits individual donations to political candidates.

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“We do not have a stance of asking members to support any specific party or one particular party,” Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese office of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, said at an August news conference. “Our fundamental stance is a stance in opposition to communism, so from that perspective there may be more points of encounter with members of the LDP.”

Over those decades, Japan became the key profit center for the Unification Church and its offshoots, largely through door-to-door “spiritual sales” that often targeted grieving elderly people, according to several academic studies, government investigators and historians.

These items included jars and miniature stone pagodas, which believers were told would absolve the sins of their ancestors for their occupation of South Korea, according to academic research. The group’s membership in Japan surpasses that of South Korea, where the organization was founded.

The Japanese government has set up a consumer affairs agency to investigate the proliferation of spiritual sales. It received more than 1,000 calls in the first five days.

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Mainstream media at times covered church members’ political support for the LDP but in the mid-2000s, it gradually became a social taboo to discuss the topic openly, Suzuki said. In earlier times, media outlets had faced a torrent of calls after critical coverage of the issue, he said.

“After Abe’s death, hearing the words ‘cult’ and ‘Unification Church’ so prevalently now in major media outlets for the past two months still feels unreal and shocking even for me, especially because those words had been taboo for so many years,” he said.

In September 2021, Abe made his most public appearance at an event hosted by the church through a video message, alongside other prominent politicians who recorded messages.

That video message may have provoked the suspected gunman, according to police sources quoted in Japanese media. Yamagami’s uncle told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that Yamagami had attempted suicide because of his family’s financial difficulties, and that the suspect’s mother was traumatized after her husband killed himself.

Yamagami is now detained and undergoing psychiatric evaluations until November, when prosecutors will decide whether to press formal murder charges.

Nobuya Fukumoto, a lawyer for the Unification Church, said in a news conference last week that the donations from Yamagami’s mother exceeded $704,000, including funds from a life insurance policy and real estate sales. The lawyer said he believed she made an “excessive donation.”

Yamagami’s story of grief and financial turmoil has drawn some sympathizers. Thousands have signed a petition advocating for a reduced sentence, and people have donated over $7,000 in cash, clothing, books and other items to Yamagami, according to Japanese news outlet Jiji Press.

His story is not unique, said Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a lawyer with the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, a Tokyo-based advocacy group. From 1987 to 2021, there were nearly 35,000 cases brought by defendants claiming about $863 million in damages from the Unification Church, according to the advocacy group’s website.

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“His mother was mentally in a very difficult situation … and it is typical for people in a situation like her to become victims to the Unification Church,” Yamaguchi said.

Yamaguchi wants to see greater regulation of spiritual sales or excessive donations, and proper care of children of parents who are members of “new religion” groups who may be donating heavily to such organizations.

“I really felt that it was a matter of time before something like this happened,” Yamaguchi said. “I have seen countless tragedies and difficulties faced by children of parents who are part of the Unification Church … I can easily imagine that Yamagami must have suffered in a similar manner.”

Marc Fisher in Washington contributed to this report.

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