How Shinzo Abe’s murder and his ties to Moonies blindsided Japanese politics

Unification church’s links to ruling Liberal Democrat politicians have led to controversy over donations and mistrust of party

The Guardian/January 10, 2023

By Justin McCurry

In the days after Shinzo Abe was shot dead last summer while making an election campaign speech, commentators struggled to articulate a motive for a seemingly senseless attack on Japan’s former and longest-serving prime minister in a country admired for its near-absence of gun crime.

Abe’s violent death was an affront to democracy, said the prime minister, Fumio Kishida, adding that his mentor would be honoured with a state funeral.

But Kishida was mistaken if he believed that Abe’s controversial, and expensive, official farewell would achieve closure. Eight months on, the fallout from the assassination is still being felt throughout Japan’s politics and will continue well into this year. It has sent Kishida’s approval ratings into a nosedive, triggered ministerial resignations, and ensnared hundreds of ruling Liberal Democratic party [LDP] politicians.

At the heart of the scandal lies the Unification church, whose members are known colloquially as Moonies. Founded in South Korea in 1956 by the self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon, the church has established a global presence – it once claimed to have about 3 million followers – with Japan proving fertile ground for converts and their donations.

When he allegedly fired the second, and decisive, shot from a homemade gun, standing just metres behind Abe as he addressed voters outside a railway station on 8 July, Tetsuya Yamagami can have had little inkling of how deeply his alleged crime would reverberate through Nagatacho, Japan’s political nerve centre.

As the public reeled from the sudden death of one of Japan’s most influential postwar politicians, media reports initially mentioned only that Yamagami harboured a grudge against a “certain organisation” with which he believed Abe had connections.

It was only after weekly news magazines gave more detail that TV and newspaper reports began to name the organisation: the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, or, as it is more commonly known, the Unification church.

Yamagami had targeted Abe, he told police, because he believed the politician was a supporter of the church, which he blamed for destroying his family after his mother, a follower, donated more than 100m yen (£627,000) to the group two decades earlier.

While never a member, Abe had sent a congratulatory video message to a church affiliate in late 2021, in which he praised the movement for its commitment to traditional family values.

But the church’s connections with Japanese politicians did not end with Abe. As the story gathered momentum, an erstwhile cautious media uncovered evidence that other LDP politicians – and a much smaller number of opposition MPs – had ties to the group, from giving speeches at church-sponsored events to enlisting followers to work on election campaigns.

“Unpaid volunteers from religious groups are especially useful for Japanese politicians who lack the fame of celebrity candidates or the established support bases of candidates from famous political families,” said Jeffrey Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at Kanda University of International Studies near Tokyo. “The Unification church also functioned as a voter bloc that the LDP could distribute to upper house candidates who lacked the popularity to win on their own.”

While there are no laws banning people with religious beliefs from becoming politically active, the Unification church had long been accused of exploiting vulnerable people to secure new followers, whom it would then pressure into buying “spiritual” items, such as vases, it claimed would relieve their families of bad “ancestral karma”.

The group, which claims to have 100,000 active believers in Japan, has collected nearly $1bn in donations since 1987 and generated 35,000 compensation claims, according to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, a group of 300 lawyers representing people, including the children of followers, who claim they have suffered financial damage because of the church.

Best known for conducting mass weddings in packed sports stadiums, the church has used its brand of conservative politics to foster ties with conservative politicians, from Donald Trump to Abe, and even North Korea’s ruling Kim dynasty.

The LDP-Unification church connection stretches back to the postwar period, when Japanese conservatives feared new political freedoms enshrined in the US-authored constitution could expose Japan to communist influence and increasingly influential trade unions.

Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister in the late 1950s, was instrumental in helping the church establish a presence in Japan, viewing Moon as a natural ally in the campaign to crush the left.

The LDP-church relationship has endured, even as the threat from communism faded and the party became one of the most successful political forces in history, governing Japan almost uninterrupted since the mid-1950s.

Despite denials by Kishida that his party and the church have formal organisational ties, the revelations have sparked speculation that the church may have influenced the LDP’s stance on social issues, including its opposition to same-sex marriage.

“It’s difficult to know whether the Unification church has influenced the LDP with its conservative stance on gender and family-related issues, since there are other religious groups … that are bigger and similarly lobby the LDP from the same position,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“And many LDP members, particularly Abe followers, are likely to have taken a very similar conservative stance on these issues without being lobbied. The more likely scenario is that the LDP, the church and other rightwing religious organisations share a common outlook on these issues.”

Hall at Kanda University said the church had effectively lobbied national and local lawmakers on pivotal issues such as gender equality and sex education.

“Church-affiliated organisations also required politicians to sign policy support pledges before receiving their electoral endorsement,” Hall said. “It would be a stretch to say that the Unification church controls the LDP, but it is one of a number of pressure groups that exert influence on the way that conservative politicians draft policies.”

Kishida’s initial response to the furore was to direct members of his party to establish whether they had ever cooperated with the church and to “reflect” on their actions. Amid mounting pressure from the public, he ordered an internal investigation that revealed 179 of the party’s 379 lawmakers had interacted with the church.

At the end of last year, Japan’s lower house of parliament passed a law that makes it a crime for religious and other organisations to “maliciously” secure donations from members – a move seen as an attempt by Kishida to defuse the controversy.

But the biggest scandal to hit Japanese politics for decades is far from over. Yamagami is due to be indicted later this month after a psychiatric evaluation, according to media reports, followed by a trial that will be Japan’s most closely watched since that of Shoko Asahara, the founder of the doomsday cult that carried out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

And an education ministry inquiry launched in November into the church’s organisation and finances, and which could strip of its legal status, is expected to take several months.

Fallout from the controversy could damage LDP candidates at key local elections this April, while Kishida at least has time to repair the damage to his reputation before the next general election in October 2025, provided his party does not replace him first.

“Several LDP politicians who were exposed to have very close ties with the church will have difficult re-election campaigns the next time there’s a national election, but the LDP is not in major trouble,” Hall said.

“Polls consistently show that decreases in support for the prime minister and the LDP do not translate into corresponding increases in support for the major opposition parties. And the opposition is fragmented to the point of not being able to use this major scandal to its advantage.”

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