Police kept mum on church link despite suspect’s stated motive

The Asahi Shimbun/January 8, 2023

Nara -- Prosecutors have concluded the suspect in the slaying of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is mentally competent to bear criminal liability based on a months-long psychiatric evaluation and will indict him within days, investigative sources said.

A formal charge of murder will be filed by Jan. 13 when the detention period for 42-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami ends.

He has been undergoing psychiatric evaluation at the Osaka Detention House since July 25 last year following his arrest 17 days earlier. The psychiatric examinations are due to wind up on Jan. 10.

Yamagami fired two shots at Abe while the veteran politician, the nation’s longest-serving prime minister, gave a campaign speech in Nara city on July 8. He was arrested on the spot.

Based on the psychiatric tests, investigators with the Nara District Public Prosecutors Office determined that Yamagami was of sound mind when he shot Abe with a handmade gun, the sources said.

Prosecutors are also expected to charge him with violating the Firearm and Sword Possession Control Law as he was found in possession of a handmade gun at the scene of shooting. More handmade guns were found during a search of his Nara home.

Yamagami told police from the outset that his motive for the attack stemmed from a longstanding grudge he held against the Unification Church, according to the sources.

Police did not disclose that fact during a news conference held in the evening after Abe was killed, referring simply to a “certain group.”

In criminal cases, suspects are given an opportunity to make a statement soon after police explain the reason for arresting them.

Yamagami admitted to the shooting during police questioning at the Nara-Nishi Police Station, to which he was taken immediately after his arrest, according to the sources.

“I fired the gun, thinking that it cannot be helped even if it resulted in Abe’s death,” he was quoted as telling investigators. “My prime target was the Unification Church’s top official, Hak Ja Han, not Abe, but she did not come to Japan due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. So, I shot the former prime minister, who is deeply connected with the Unification Church.”

The Unification Church, which now calls itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, was founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon. Hak took over the group after her husband’s death in 2012.

Yamagami’s statement came just 30 minutes after the attack, which shows that the police were aware of his motive from the start.

During questioning that continued into that evening, Yamagami explained Abe’s “deep connection” with the church, according to the sources.

“Originally, Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the Unification Church gain a foothold in Japan. But since Kishi is dead, I targeted his grandson,” Yamagami said.

He also knew that Abe sent a video message to an organization affiliated with the church in 2021, according to the sources.

Yamagami remained consistent as he outlined his resentment of the group. He said his family was financially ruined by the church after his mother, a devout follower, made huge donations to the group.

While investigators continued questioning Yamagami, other police officials scrambled to verify his accounts.

Police were initially skeptical about his story. Some were in disbelief that Abe’s murder was simply spurred by animosity against a religious organization.

But they found themselves obliged to change their view as they gathered more information about Yamagami’s family history as well as details about the Unification Church, including the group’s current leader.


Police were perplexed as to how to explain the motive to the media considering the fact it concerned a religious group, a delicate issue.

Prior to the scheduled news conference, police officials huddled to discuss strategy to explain the chain of events.

Given the gravity of the case, police agreed it would be impossible for them not to refer to Yamagami’s motive.

But they also decided it would be inappropriate to refer to the Unification Church at such an early stage in the investigation, given that its relations with Yamagami and Abe were not yet fully understood.

Police officials were also concerned that if they simply cited a “grudge against a religious group,” many people might presume it meant Soka Gakkai, a community-based Buddhist organization and key support base of Komeito, the junior partner of the ruling coalition.

That, they feared, could affect the fairness and neutrality of the Upper House election that would be held two days later.

The news conference began promptly at 9:30 p.m. with an official with the Nara prefectural police saying in reply to a question from a reporter, “Yamagami has told us he committed the attack as he harbored grudge against a specific group and he assumed that Abe was linked to it.”

Reporters clamored for an explanation, wanting to know whether the group was political or otherwise.

But the official declined to answer, as instructed in advance.

Three days after the shooting, a top official with the Unification Church gave a news conference in which he confirmed that Yamagami’s mother is a follower.

The official also said the church was ready to “fully cooperate with police if they request” it concerning donations by the mother.

Numerous revelations about ties between politicians and the Unification Church emerged in the months following the shooting. The organization already had an unsavory reputation concerning incidents where followers coerced others into making huge donations or buying goods at highly inflated prices by playing on their fears.

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