South Korea’s Unification Church said on Monday it was baffled by reports the man suspected of killing former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was motivated by anger against the group.
The head of the Japanese branch of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, often known as the Moonies, confirmed that the mother of suspect Tetsuya Yamagami was a member of the church.
But branch chair Tomihiro Tanaka declined to comment on suggestions large donations by Yamagami’s mother had put the family under severe financial stress, and said gifts to the church from members were voluntary.
For decades, close ties between the Moonies and powerful figures in the governing Liberal Democratic party have been a little-discussed open secret in Japanese politics.
But Abe’s death and the suspect’s alleged family troubles with the group have shone a spotlight on the relationship as the nation seeks answers to one of its worst incidents of political violence since the second world war.
Tanaka told a news conference, to which only leading Japanese media outlets were invited, that Yamagami’s mother had been a church member since about 1998 and had been attending its events until two months ago. The 41-year-old suspect himself was not affiliated with the church.
Local police said Yamagami told investigators that he held a grudge against “a particular group” with which he believed Abe had a close relationship. Police have not named the group but a person familiar with the investigation said he referred to the Unification Church.
Japanese media have widely reported that Yamagami, a former member of the nation’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, said his mother had made large donations to the group, upending their household finances. Yamagami’s mother could not be reached for comment.
Tanaka declined to comment on the mother’s donations, but said the church did not force people to make donations against their will. He said it believed Yamagami’s mother went bankrupt in 2002.
“We find it confusing and difficult to understand why resentment against the church would lead to former prime minister Abe’s killing,” Tanaka said at the news conference, which was live-streamed.
He said that, if asked, the group would co-operate with the police to uncover Yamagami’s precise motive.
Originally known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, the Unification Church was founded in 1954 in the South Korean port city of Busan.
Its founder, excommunicated Presbyterian minister Moon Sun-myung, claimed to have been charged by God with completing Jesus Christ’s unfinished work on earth.
Widely derided as a cult, the Unification Church spread to the west in the late 1950s and expanded aggressively throughout the world in the 1990s. Its Japanese branch opened in 1959 and has 600,000 members.
Although not members, Abe and his late grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, also a former Japanese prime minister, were publicly known as supporters of the church.
Yamagami also reportedly believed Kishi played a role in the church establishing itself in Japan. “It was Mr Kishi who brought the group that destroyed my family so I targeted his grandson,” Japanese media reports quoted him as telling investigators. Local police officials declined to comment.
Jeffrey J Hall, an expert on nationalist activism at Kanda University of International Studies, said the Unification Church had been involved in conservative politics in Japan since Abe’s grandfather’s era.
“This group has been one of the bases of the LDP’s campaigns since that time in the cold war when the church was a reliable ally against communism,” Hall said. “They worked with the Kishi faction of the LDP, which later became the Abe faction.”
The church has denied providing financial donations to the LDP. But Hall said strict laws on political campaigning in Japan that made it hard to connect with voters meant non-monetary ties were also valuable.
“Having religious groups that can provide a very reliable group of voters who will definitely turn out on election day, will definitely vote for your party, can provide volunteers for your campaign, is important,” he said.
In September last year, Abe appeared at an event organised by the widow of Unification Church founder Moon. The event also featured former US president Donald Trump as a keynote speaker. “I am honoured to be given this opportunity to speak with my close friend president Trump, who has also been a driving force for world peace,” Abe said in the five-minute speech.
The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which represents people forced to make donations or to purchase “spiritual goods” such as personal seals and vases from religious groups, protested against Abe’s appearance last year. The network alleged that the church “caused serious damage to many citizens in Japan, family breakdown and destruction of lives”.
According to the lawyers, damages sought by people they represent from the church total more than ¥123bn ($894mn) over the past 30 years. In one case, a single family donated ¥2bn to the group.
The then Japan chair of the Unification Church resigned in 2009 after some of its executives were charged with illegal door-to-door sales of spiritual goods. Hiroshi Yamaguchi, one of the lawyers representing the victims, said: “The followers of the Moonies are still assigned strict quotas for donations.”
Tanaka said the church had strengthened compliance measures since the late 2000s and denied assigning donation quotas to members. The group also said it had not been involved in police cases since 2009.
Kimiaki Nishida, an expert on cult psychology at Rissho University, said the Japanese establishment and media had long turned a blind eye to political links to Moonies. “This is not a religious group but a cult that is hungry for money. But no one touched on the issue,” he said.
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