Explained: The Unification Church scandal haunting Fumio Kishida's Cabinet in Japan

Four ministers have been sacked by Fumio Kishida in the past two months amid the Unification Church scandal that emerged following Shinzo Abe’s assassination. The controversial religious group's deep political ties with the ruling party have caused public outrage and hurt the prime minister's image

First Post/December 29, 2022

Four ministers have exited Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida-led Cabinet in the past two months. Kishida sacked reconstruction minister Kenya Akiba on Tuesday (27 December) amid the Unification Church scandal rocking Japan politics.

“I have made a heavy decision and submitted my resignation,” Akiba told reporters after meeting the Japanese prime minister.

Former reconstruction minister Hiromichi Watanabe will succeed Akiba, Kishida announced as per Reuters.

Confirming Akiba’s resignation, the Japanese prime minister said, “I take my responsibility very seriously as the one who appoints (ministers)”.

“By rising to my political responsibilities, I hope to be fulfilling my duties as prime minister,” Reuters further quoted him as saying.

In November, Japan’s internal affairs minister, Minoru Terada, and justice minister Yasuhiro Hanashi had stepped down from their posts. Earlier in October, economic revitalisation minister Daishiro Yamagiwa had resigned over his ties to the Unification Church.

What is known about the Unification Church and how is it linked to the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe? How has the scandal hurt Fumio Kishida? Let’s take a closer look.

Unification Church

Founded by the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 1954, the church is known for its ultra-conservative, anti-communist views and mass-weddings, notes The Hindu.

The church expanded its reach in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “Experts say the church’s right-wing beliefs helped it expand overseas during the Cold War,” says Al Jazeera report.

Nobusuke Kishi, Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, helped Moon in establishing the church’s political arm, the International Federation for Victory Over Communism in Japan in 1968, as per the Japanese media.

The church has also strengthened political ties over the past decades in Japan to gain followers, while the politicians have benefited from this association by securing votes from the church members and ensuring their help in election campaigning, as per The Hindu.

A cult?

“The Unification Church is not so much regarded as a religious organisation, but rather as a predatory cult in Japan,” Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at the Sophia University in Tokyo, told Al Jazeera earlier.

Abe’s assassination

The killing of Abe in July this year opened a can of worms for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

Tetsuya Yamagami told investigators he shot dead the former Japanese prime minister because of his ties with the Unification Church, reported Deutsche Welle (DW).

Yamagami said the church was responsible for his mother bankrupting their family by donating 100 million yen to it.

While Abe was not a member of the Unification Church, he had reportedly taken part in multiple events organised by the group’s affiliated arms.

In 2021, he had reportedly praised Hak Ja Han Moon, the widow of the church’s founder, at a meeting of the Universal Peace Federation, a church affiliate.

Allegations against the church

Since the 1980s, the Unification Church has been accused of brainwashing followers – known as Moonies – into offering a large amount of their income to it, as per Associated Press (AP).

A former senior member said after the church gained steam in Japan, it treated its followers like an “economic army”, raised money through donations and sold “spiritual goods” like expensive ginseng tea or miniature stone pagodas, Reuters reported.

According to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales – which represents people pressured by the church to make huge donations – said that over 30,000 complaints have been made against the religious group but the Japanese government did not take any action, reported DW.

“As lawyers, we have witnessed the distress, anguish and economic suffering of too many former members, current members’ families and ‘second-generation’ ex-members of the Unification Church, and we have long been deeply concerned with this dire reality,” the organisation said in a statement earlier.

It accused the church of using pressure and psychological tactics and fear of “karma and fate” to get donations from the members.

The Unification Church has refuted the claims as well as its role in Japan’s politics. However, it has accepted that “groups affiliated with the church have relationships with politicians as part of their political activities”, as per DW.

Unification Church scandal

Earlier in December, Japan’s parliament passed a law to restrict soliciting funds by religious and other groups through coercion, threats, or linking donations to spiritual salvation, notes AP.

In October, the Japanese government had ordered a probe into the Unification Church amid huge criticism from the public and the Opposition.

Kishida’s approval ratings have plunged since his party’s links with the church emerged after Abe’s assassination.

As many as 179 of the 379 LDP lawmakers have admitted ties to the church, including 23 of the 54 vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the Cabinet.

Despite his unpopularity, Kishida will survive, believes Yukihisa Fujita, a former member of the Constitutional Democratic Party.

He told DW that the government has been attenuated by the scandal and will always be remembered for the ruling party’s links to the church.

“None of this would have come into the open without the killing of Abe earlier in the year, and it is alarming to think that, had that not happened, then we would probably not know the scale of the church’s influence on politics here,” he was quoted as saying by DW.

Meanwhile, speculations are rife that Kishida will reshuffle his Cabinet soon to contain the unpopularity of his government.

With inputs from agencies

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