Tokyo -- Japan launched a probe into the Unification Church on Tuesday that could threaten its legal status, after the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July revealed its close ties to the ruling party and triggered a public backlash.
For the Unification Church, founded in South Korea in 1954 and relying on its Japan followers as a key source of income, the investigation could deliver a severe financial blow, affecting its tax exemptions and even its property holdings.
The stakes are also high for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government, teetering at an approval rate of just 30% and eager to quell the uproar over links to the Unification Church, which forced the resignation of his economic revitalisation minister last month.
"For Kishida, it's clear that this is a huge drag on him. He's going to be linked to the Unification Church issue no matter what," said Levi McLaughlin, an associate professor at North Carolina State University studying religion in Japan.
The government has given the Unification Church until Dec. 9 to answer an initial series of questions about its finances and organisation, Culture Minister Keiko Nagaoka told a news conference.
After gathering evidence, the ministry will decide whether to seek a court order revoking the Unification Church's legal standing, which could take several months and be followed by a lengthy legal battle.
The Unification Church expects to receive the first batch of government questions on Wednesday and will cooperate with the investigation, a spokesperson for the group in Japan said.
A senior church official at its South Korean headquarters added: "Japan is a democratic country that guarantees the freedom of religion, so we are closely monitoring the situation."
Shiori Kanno, a lawyer on a Consumer Affairs Agency panel looking into the church's practice of selling ginseng drinks, marble sculptures and other items to raise money from followers, said she expects the case to go all the way to the Supreme Court if the government ends up seeking to legally disband the church.
"The church would lose tax exemptions such as those on donations from members," she said. "It will find it harder to borrow money."
She added, however, that losing its status as a religious organisation would not prevent the church from continuing its activities or its members from meeting.
When Tetsuya Yamagami was arrested for the killing of former Prime Minister Abe in July, he blamed the religious organisation for impoverishing his family and said Abe, who had appeared at events sponsored by Unification Church-affiliated groups, had promoted it.
The Unification Church, known globally for its mass weddings, says it has stopped soliciting donations that create financial hardships for its followers and has curtailed aggressive door-to-door sales of church goods, after convictions a decade ago related to such practices prompted its then-leader in Japan to resign.
With the spotlight on the church's activities, however, Kishida has come under pressure to address public anger, stoked by revelations that more than half of all lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had links to the church.
The uproar has persisted despite a cabinet reshuffle on Aug. 10 that purged some senior figures with links to the church. In late October, Economic Revitalisation Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa resigned after revealing that he, too, had ties to the church.
Kishida will be particularly keen to put the issue behind him before a series of local elections next April, when his party will face voters on a national scale for the first time since winning the July upper house election that immediately followed Abe's death.