The Agency for Cultural Affairs, after learning about dodgy donation-collection practices at the Unification Church, held at least nine interviews with the group over 11 years from 1998, documents obtained by The Asahi Shimbun showed.
At these meetings, the agency instructed the Unification Church to conduct “adequate management and administration.”
But these interviews stopped in 2009 when a former follower of the group sued both the church and the government.
The agency acknowledged on Aug. 22 that the halt in interviews weakened its oversight of the group.
Its previous objections to the church’s plan to change its name also disappeared after the lawsuit was filed.
The agency in 2015 gave the green light to the new name, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), despite complaints from a lawyers group and other concerned parties that the organization was trying to conceal its notoriety.
Kihei Maekawa, who headed the agency’s Religious Affairs Division, had told public gatherings that he informed the Unification Church in 1997 that the agency would reject its application for the name change to the FFWPU.
Maekawa said the church’s so-called spiritual sales that involved pressing followers and lay people to buy items, such as pots, at exorbitant prices was widely recognized as a social problem over many years.
He said he also believed at that time that the name change could “cover up the true nature (of the church).”
The concern was that many people would not recognize the FFWPU as the Unification Church. The FFWPU could gain new followers and continue its spiritual sales and pressure for large donations.
It was those practices that prompted the agency to interview the church on a voluntary basis between January 1998 and April 2009, according to the documents and other sources.
The agency conducted those sessions because “damages have been reported from (the Unification Church’s) missionary activities, spiritual sales, coercion for donations and commitments.”
The agency said in the document that it “has been aware of such issues since they were first brought to public attention.”
It also said the agency “needed to make some response to the Unification Church within the range acceptable under the Constitution and the Religious Corporations Law.”
The agency said it instructed the church to exercise “adequate management and administration” and “sincerely respond to individual cases,” based on a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that found the church liable for financial damages that it caused with its practices.
Such oversight of the group ended after a former follower brought a lawsuit against the church in 2009 and demanded the return of donations.
The plaintiff also sued the state, arguing that the government allowed the church to continue with its activities despite the many allegations brought against the group.
The Asahi Shimbun obtained copies of documents submitted to a court by the state side in the lawsuit.
Maekawa later became the highest-ranked bureaucrat at the education ministry, which has oversight of the Agency of Cultural Affairs.
The agency accepted the application for the name change in 2015.
Many lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party with ties to organizations linked to the church said they didn’t know about the affiliation to the Unification Church.
An official who now heads the agency’s Regional Affairs Division told The Asahi Shimbun on Aug. 22 that “the agency back then may have thought having contact with the church when they were both sued in the same lawsuit could lead to unnecessary misunderstandings.”
The official acknowledged that the suspension of interviews could have weakened the agency’s watch for the church.
But the official said the name change and the suspension of interviews are “separate issues.”
The official added that it is not clear if the agency has resumed interviews with the church from 2017, when another church-related lawsuit brought against the state was settled.
Hiroshi Segi, a former judge and professor of the law of civil procedure at Meiji University, raised doubts about the agency’s approach.
“Generally speaking, the agency should make a distinction between interviews it conducts as a government agency and its exercise of restraint as a party involved in a lawsuit,” he said.
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