Explained | The controversial Unification Church and Japan’s investigation into it

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has had to reshuffle his cabinet in response to public anger over the ruling party’s ties with the Church

Updated - October 20, 2022 01:08 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2022 12:40 pm IST

File photo: A person walks past the sign of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more commonly known as the Unification Church, at its Tokyo headquarters in Tokyo, Japan August 29, 2022.

File photo: A person walks past the sign of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more commonly known as the Unification Church, at its Tokyo headquarters in Tokyo, Japan August 29, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: The Japanese government on Monday, October 17, ordered an immediate investigation into the Unification Church, a religious group that has come under scrutiny after the assassination of the country’s former Premier Shinzo Abe. The suspected assassin revealed that he targeted Mr. Abe owing to his ties with the Church. Revelations about the association of nearly half of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lawmakers with the religious group have resulted in public anger and dwindled support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration.

According to the Japan Times, a poll conducted by public broadcaster NHK between Ocober 8 and October 10 showed that the percentage of those who did not support the Kishida administration (43%) was more than those who did (38%) for the first time since he came to power a year ago. Mr. Kishida was forced in August to reshuffle his cabinet and remove Ministers with ties to the Unification Church as damage control in response to the unfolding scandal.

What is the Unification Church?

The Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, is a religious group, often described as a ‘cult’ by critics, founded by late Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 1954 in South Korea. The Church, known for its ultra-conservative, anti-communist views, and mass-weddings where thousands of unmarried persons were matched by the Reverend, first expanded its international reach in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Church’s Seoul-based spokesperson, Ahn Ho-yeul, told Reuters that it has 6,00,000 followers in Japan and 10 million worldwide, although monitoring groups in Japan are doubtful about the figure.

Reverend Moon, who died in 2012, was a self-declared messiah who tapped into the Japanese demographic by invoking traditional family values and leveraging a feeling of guilt over the country’s past colonisation of the Korean Peninsula.

According to The New York Times, Mr. Moon, an ardent Korean nationalist, had an ambivalence toward Japan, and told his followers—or Moonies as they often called— that their country and ancestors had sinned greatly for which they had to sacrifice everything to the Church. Members were recruited in Japan through door-to-door campaigns, engaging relatives of existing members, railway station drives and university campaigns. A former member of the group narrated to the Japan Times how he was drawn in to the Church under the guise of a student exchange program and made to participate for long hours in recruitment drives and camps, where he was brainwashed.

The religious group collected massive donations from its adherents in multiple ways, with Japan becoming its biggest source of income. Mr. Moon reportedly used these donations to expand his business empire, the Church’s affliated organisations, and also started publications like The Washington Times.

A 2010 NPR investigation noted that Mr. Moon said he was here to complete the mission of Jesus, who had appeared to him when he was a poor teenager. According to the Reverend, Jesus was not supposed to be crucified but marry and raise a family. This, he said, is why he matched thousands of men and women who had never seen each other before and officiated their weddings at Unification mass-wedding events.

Why is it facing public backlash?

Former followers of the Church and families of adherants have come out over the decades as victims of brainwashing and monetary exploitation.

Late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s suspected assassin, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami confessed to the police that he targeted Mr. Abe because of his ties with the Unification Church, which he said had pushed his mother into bankruptcy and destroyed his family. Mr. Yamagami said the Church managed to extract nearly 100 million yen ($736,000) from his mother overthe past two decades. The Unification Church in Japan confirmed that his mother has been a member of the group since 1998. The Church said that it had paid back 50 million yen to Mr. Yamagami’s mother as part of a settlement in 2009.

According to victims of the group’s exploitation, the Church extracts huge amounts through ‘spiritual pressure-sales” and by selling religious or blessed items and even blessings for exorbitant prices. Notably, members have also set up businesses affiliated to the Church in order to make these pressure sales.

A lawyers group called the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which has been working since the 1980s, said it had received 35,000 complaints claiming damages of over $900 million.

The New York Times report mentions a 2016 case, where a husband of a Unification member was awarded damages of $270,000 by a civil court in Tokyo after the member parted with her inheritance, salary, and savings, purportedly to save the family and its ancestors from doom. A similar order was issued in a 2020 case.

What is known about the Church’s political ties?

In 1968, Mr. Moon established the Federation for Victory Over Communism, the Church’s political wing, and during the Cold War, used anti-communist sentiment to get into the circles of global political leaders including those in Japan and the United States.

Mr. Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, who was also a Prime Minister of Japan, helped Mr. Moon found the political wing. Mr. Abe, while not a member of the Church, was reported to have participated in multiple events of platforms associated with it, including a virtual appearance in September 2021 at the digital Rally of Hope event organised by a Church-affiliated group under the acting leader and Mr. Moon’s widow Hak Ja Han. At the video conference, Mr. Abe reportedly appreciated the group’s “focus and emphasis on family values” and said that they had caused “unbelievable” inspiration for the “entire planet”.

After Mr. Abe’s assasination, an internal probe by the ruling LDP found that 179 of 379 lawmakers of the party had ties with the church. Reports of further links subseqently pushed Mr. Kishida’s approval ratings to record lows and forced a cabinet reshuffle, which included removing Nobuo Kishi, Mr. Abe’s younger brother and former Defence Minister, from his post.

Over the decades, the church built ties with political heavyweights to attract followers and gain legitimacy, while the politicians gained access to church members as a set of voters and as volunteers, often unpaid, to help with their election campaigns.

On October 3, in his speech opening Japan’s 69-day Parliamentary session, Mr. Kishida promised to regain the public’s trust in the aftermath of the Unification Church scandal and his decision of holding a taxpayer-funded state funeral for Mr. Abe.

He said that he would humbly listen to people’s “harsh voices” criticising his party’s ties to the Unification Church and help victims of its allegedly fraudulent businesses and huge donation collection. Besides a deep impact on support for the current government, the NHK opinion poll in October also revealed that 73% of the respondents negatively judged how Mr. Kishida has handled the Unification Church scandal.

What can happen after the government investigation?

Mr. Kishida has ordered the country’s Education and Culture Ministry to investigate the Unification Church under the religious corporation law to determine if it has engaged in activities damaging public welfare. If the religious group is found to have violated the law, it could be stripped of its status as a tax-exempt religious organisation. It will, however, be able to carry out its religious activities.

Notably, while Japan is known for being a fairly secular country, there are about 1,80,000 registered religious organisations. According to the Japan Times, only two religious groups till date have been stripped of their status — the Myokakuji Temple for its spiritual sale methods and the Aum Shinrikyu (supreme truth) doomsday cult, whose members were responsible for the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas subway attacks that killed 13 people.

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