Shinzo Abe’s Killing Puts Unification Church Under Microscope

TOKYO—The public debate over the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a turn few could have predicted. An initial outpouring of grief has now turned into anger aimed at the government—over the very issue the killer wanted to highlight.

The attack on Abe last month—carried out with a crude homemade weapon, as guns are almost impossible to obtain in Japan, legally or otherwise—targeted the prime minister due to a last-minute change of plans. The attacker’s apparent long-term goal had been to target a religious leader within the Unification Church, a controversial South Korean-based religious group best known for its heavy-handed fundraising among members and its mass wedding ceremonies. The decision to instead attack Abe stemmed from the belief that the former prime minister had ties to the church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

The man arrested in Abe’s assassination, Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year-old former member of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, told investigators that he was upset over the financial ruin of his family when his mother joined the church after the death of his father in 1984. According to a family member, the mother had made donations over the years totaling more than $700,000. The church, founded by the flamboyant Sun Myung Moon in 1954, has had numerous run-ins with Japanese police over allegations of fraud in its high-pressure fundraising tactics. While estimates of the number of Japanese members varies widely, adherents here are believed to be a major source of revenue. Globally, the church claims a membership of 2 million to 3 million.

TOKYO—The public debate over the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken a turn few could have predicted. An initial outpouring of grief has now turned into anger aimed at the government—over the very issue the killer wanted to highlight.

The attack on Abe last month—carried out with a crude homemade weapon, as guns are almost impossible to obtain in Japan, legally or otherwise—targeted the prime minister due to a last-minute change of plans. The attacker’s apparent long-term goal had been to target a religious leader within the Unification Church, a controversial South Korean-based religious group best known for its heavy-handed fundraising among members and its mass wedding ceremonies. The decision to instead attack Abe stemmed from the belief that the former prime minister had ties to the church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

The man arrested in Abe’s assassination, Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year-old former member of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, told investigators that he was upset over the financial ruin of his family when his mother joined the church after the death of his father in 1984. According to a family member, the mother had made donations over the years totaling more than $700,000. The church, founded by the flamboyant Sun Myung Moon in 1954, has had numerous run-ins with Japanese police over allegations of fraud in its high-pressure fundraising tactics. While estimates of the number of Japanese members varies widely, adherents here are believed to be a major source of revenue. Globally, the church claims a membership of 2 million to 3 million.

Yamagami said he initially wanted to target the leadership of the church, specifically Hak Ja Han, Moon’s widow, who took over the group when Moon died in 2012. Due to COVID-19, however, Han had canceled a planned trip to Japan, and Yamagami was unable to travel to South Korea. Around the same time in 2021, he saw a video tribute given by Abe at one of the church’s conferences and switched his plans. He was also aware of the ties between the church and Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that went back to Abe’s grandfather, postwar Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, in the 1950s.

Moon, a savvy political operator, found common ground with conservative groups in Japan and the United States in his staunch anti-communist views. While the Unification Church was always dogged by controversy and derided as a cult, this didn’t stop Moon from cozying up to powerful world leaders—who often returned the affection, not least because it often came with cash attached. Moon received public thanks from Richard Nixon for supporting the embattled U.S. president in the Watergate scandal.

In 1990, Moon traveled to the Soviet Union, meeting with President Mikhail Gorbachev and expressing support for the Soviet leader’s political and economic reform. In 1995, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara Bush, addressed a mass meeting of the Women’s Federation for World Peace, a church-affiliated group run by Moon’s wife. The 2021 online event that included Abe’s appearance was also addressed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who praised the pro-Republican Washington Times, founded by Moon in 1982.

For Moon, Japan was fertile ground for recruitment and funding. With just 10 percent of Japanese saying religion is very important in their lives (many will switch back and forth seamlessly from Shinto weddings to Buddhist funerals), some people have gravitated to the many New Age religions, including the Unification Church. To outsiders, these are brainwashing cults squeezing money from the naive, but their continued popularity suggests they fill some type of need. For the LDP, church members were an eager and well-organized group of supporters willing to undertake the front-line campaign work of getting out the vote among the party faithful.

None of this is unusual or necessarily underhanded. The close ties between U.S. evangelicals and the Republican Party are no secret. At the same time, Black churches in the U.S. South have proven to be effective enough in increasing voter turnout among their members that Republicans in Georgia and Texas tried to ban voting on Sundays, a move that backfired badly.

In Japan, the Komeito party, part of the government ruling coalition for the past decade, is backed by the Soka Gakkai religious group, a Buddhist movement founded in 1930 and often viewed with suspicion by the government in the past. The head of Komeito, Natsuo Yamaguchi, has walked gingerly around the issue of mixing religion and politics, suggesting in an early August news conference that the Unification Church is a different issue. “Regarding groups that have social problems or cause a lot of trouble, politicians should refrain from seeking support for elections and from acting in a way that misleads the public,” he said.

Without the assassination, it’s unlikely any of this would have exploded into scandal now. The church’s fundraising methods have been criticized for years. In 2009, in response to a lawsuit, it promised to reform its methods and return money that adherents demanded back, although it has recently acknowledged that at least some problems continue. Church officials point out that there is a mechanism in place for hearing complaints from former members, and they insist the number of relevant cases has been declining steadily.

But in the weeks since Abe’s killing on July 8, the public seems to have awoken to the political ties and found them worrying, no matter how seemingly innocuous. While nothing illegal has been found, the steady news coverage has focused on the connections between the country’s most establishment political party and what is seen as a South Korean religious group of questionable ethics that appears to be preying on vulnerable Japanese. Among the most senior figures, former Economy, Trade, and Industry Minister Koichi Hagiuda was found to have attended meetings of the same church-related women’s group addressed by Bush and had donated around $650 annually for several years. His explanation was that the members of the group were constituents and that he supported the organization’s charitable work.

Amid this media blitz, the Kyodo news agency took to surveying all 712 national lawmakers in Japan to ask about their ties with the church. It found that 100 said they had some connections to it. Most of this was in attending events or selling tickets for fundraisers to church members. Thirty of the lawmakers said that church members helped them solicit votes.

The public reaction has been strong, with distrust growing as various politicians have sought to deny or play down their links only to have them uncovered by fresh media reports, while some politicians argued unconvincingly that they did not know the meetings and donations were related to the Unification Church. As the steady drip of LDP-church connections emerged, the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has come under increasing pressure. The prime minister moved quickly to reshuffle his cabinet, the tried-and-true Japanese method to breathe new life into an administration. He also said that cabinet members and senior officials had to cut all ties with the church, but he seemed to leave the work to the individual members. “We are receiving various opinions from the people over the Unification Church,” Kishida said in a recent news conference. “To secure trust in politics, politicians should consider how they should behave.”

The hurried action failed to help, however, with reports that three lawmakers with church connections were still in the cabinet. This has put at risk an administration that was flying high just a month ago after a strong showing in early July parliamentary elections. From a healthy 63 percent approval rating in mid-July, the government garnered just 36 percent support in the most recent survey by the Mainichi newspaper. While it is too early to say that Kishida’s term is at risk, a steep decline of this magnitude would normally force the hapless leader out the door. Due to this tendency of national leaders to cut their losses, with the exception of Abe, Japan has been subject to a series of revolving-door prime ministers for the past 16 years.

All of this has also cast a pall over plans to give Abe a state funeral in late September, only the second given to a political figure in Japan’s postwar history, after that of Shigeru Yoshida, who negotiated the Treaty of San Francisco to end World War II. The event promises to be a meeting of the powerful, demonstrating Abe’s broad impact in helping to put Japan back on the map. Planned attendees include former U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. French President Emmanuel Macron and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel are also reported to be possible attendees. Despite the global support, the Mainichi poll showed that 53 percent of those surveyed said they were opposed to the idea of a state funeral.

The public anger now confronting the Kishida government appears to have no clear focus beyond a general unease over the connections and hypocrisies that the sudden attention on the Unification Church and the LDP highlighted. Abe took a hard-line approach on relations with South Korea, reflecting a long-standing undercurrent of anti-Korean sentiment present in much of Japan.

Yet the disclosures since his killing have pointed to a cynical relationship that wedded a pro-Japan nationalist sentiment with a South Korean religious group incentivized to extract money from the vulnerable. Like many world figures, Abe was always more controversial at home than he was internationally. He remains that way even after his death.

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