Unification Church | The house of Moon

A religious group of South Korean origin often described as a cult, the Church has come under the spotlight after the assassination of former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe last year

Published - January 15, 2023 01:49 am IST

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

A person walks past the sign of the 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 phrase ‘Shukyo Nisei’, literally translating to ‘religion second generation’, featured in the annual list of the top 10 Japanese buzzwords for 2022, curated by Japanese publisher Jiyu Kokumin Sha. The phrase refers to children of parents who are devout followers of a religious group and the children are essentially born into the particular group’s faith. While ‘Shukyo Nisei’ is not associated with the membership of any specific group, it came back into the Japanese lexicon after the brazen assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, 2022. Abe’s 42-year-old assassin Tetsuya Yamagami on Friday was indicted by Japanese prosecutors on charges of murder and violating the country’s gun laws.

Yamagami, who fashioned a makeshift gun out of metal pipes to carry out the assassination, confessed to investigators that he targeted Abe over his ties to the Unification Church, saying that he had long-held a “grudge” against the religious group, which he claimed had pushed his mother into bankruptcy and destroyed his family. After first planning to target the Church’s top leaders and a failed attempt in 2019 to carry an incendiary weapon into a church meeting, Yamagami decided to target the former Premier after watching a video of Abe’s virtual appearance in September 2021 at the digital Rally of Hope organised by the Universal Peace Foundation, a Church-affiliated organisation, under the acting leader of the Church, Hak Ja Han, the widow of its founder Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Abe reportedly appreciated the group’s “focus and emphasis on family values” and said that they had caused “unbelievable” inspiration for the “entire planet”.

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

Mass weddings

The Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, often described as a ‘cult’ by critics, was founded by the late Moon, a self-declared messiah, in 1954 in South Korea.

Moon was born into a family that later converted to Christianity in northwest Korea in 1920 when it was under Japan’s occupation. During the Korean War, he fled from Pyongyang to the South Korean city of Pusan and laid the ground to start his own church. A 2010 investigation by NPR noted that Moon said his purpose on earth was 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 the Unification mass-wedding events. Followers were told that Mr. Moon and his wife were their “true parents”, while the reverend’s family was addressed as the “true family”.

The Church, known for its ultra-conservative, anti-communist views, first expanded its international reach in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Moon, who died in 2012, began tapping 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.

Moon, an ardent Korean nationalist, asked his followers — or Moonies as they are colloquially known — to sacrifice everything to the Church to rid of the sins of their country and ancestors.

Researchers have noted that in order to propagate the Church’s beliefs and his own conservative and anti-communist views, Moon began his political outreach to leaders with similar views in Japan, the U.S. and other countries. Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, also a former Japanese Prime Minister, reportedly helped Moon found the Church’s political wing, the Federation for Victory Over Communism. During the Cold War, Moon leveraged the anti-communist sentiment to get into the circles of global political leaders including all major Republican administrations in the U.S. since Ronald Reagan.In fact, revelations about ties of lawmakers belonging to Japan’s ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), have fuelled large-scale public anger and record low approval ratings for current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration. He was forced to carry out an internal investigation in the party, which found that 179 of its 379 lawmakers had ties with the Church. Many political figures in the country reportedly used Church followers to work free of cost for their election campaigns and as a voter base; while others sent signed congratulatory notes or gave interviews to Church-affiliated publications.

According to a spokesperson, the Church currently has 6,00,000 followers in Japan and 10 million worldwide, although monitoring groups in Japan are doubtful about the figure.

Abe’s assassination has shed light on a generation of the children of Unification Church followers in Japan, including some who have come out to say they were forced to join the Church or were left in poverty or neglected by their parents’ devotion. Former followers and families of adherents have come out over the decades as victims of brainwashing and monetary exploitation. According to their accounts, the group extracts huge amounts through ‘spiritual pressure sales” and by selling religious or blessed items (such as vases, ginseng teas, and seals) and even blessings for exorbitant prices. 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.

While Moonies were told to donate in order to be freed of sin, reports had revealed that Moon and his family used the massive donations to set up a business empire, which included owning the U.S.-based conservative newspaper The Washington Times, the New Yorker Hotel in NYC, a conglomerate called the Tongil group, and a defence equipment manufacturing company, among others.

According to Yamagami’s uncle, his father had died by suicide, the grief of which pushed his mother toward the Church. He said the Church managed to extract nearly 100 million yen ($736,000) from his mother over the past two decades, including insurance payments that came after his father’s death. The Church’s unit in Japan confirmed that his mother has been a member of the group since 1998, adding that the group had paid back 50 million yen to Yamagami’s mother as part of a settlement. It has, however, denied allegations of exploitation and its followers have accused the Japanese media of vilifying it. Notably, while Japan is known for being a fairly secular country, there are about 1,80,000 registered religious organisations. In the aftermath of the Abe killing, the government launched a probe into the Church, enacted a law to restrict donations to religious groups, and help the victims of the group’s exploitation.

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