Many local legislators from Japan attended an event in South Korea held in February 2020 by a group affiliated with the controversial Unification Church, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.
One former municipal assembly member who took part said they heard from those involved with the gathering that about "170 people attended" from Japan. In some cases, the religious group covered travel expenses and in others lawmakers used their political activity funds.
When approached by the Mainichi Shimbun, participants denied that the religious group had had any influence on political activities, but one expert has told the Mainichi that having the group cover expenses was inappropriate.
Participants from 170 countries with greeting from head of group
The event the local councilors attended was the "World Summit 2020." It was held in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sun Myung Moon, the late founder of the Unification Church, which is now formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. It was hosted by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), which is affiliated with the religious group.
According to the group's website, more than 6,000 politicians, religious leaders, scholars and others from 170 countries took part in the gathering, where issues from peace to climate change were discussed. Moon's widow Hak Ja Han, who heads the Unification Church, said in an address to participants, "If all nations were to become children of heavenly parents then wars and conflicts could never occur."
A former member of the Kaizuka Municipal Assembly in Osaka Prefecture, an incumbent at the time, was invited to attend the conference with several other assembly members by an acquaintance of the Federation for World Peace, which is affiliated with the Unification Church. The acquaintance explained that parliamentary members couldn't be invited because the Diet was in session at the time, and requested that the assembly members go instead. The round-trip flights were paid for by the religious group, while the former lawmaker personally covered hotel accommodation fees for two nights.
The former city assembly member recalled seeing about 300 Japanese people at the hotel dining hall. They were told by an acquaintance of the UPF that "about 170 of them are local legislators," and they actually had conversations with several of them. The former assembly member stated, "I was invited to go and just went, so I don't think it's a problem. There was no pressure from the religious group."
The speaker of the Nishinomiya Municipal Assembly in western Japan's Hyogo Prefecture also attended, with travel expenses covered by UPF. The assembly head was invited by a UPF acquaintance with whom they had been in contact since being a Diet member's secretary. At the time, the speaker was reportedly told that the 50,000 to 60,000 yen (roughly $370 to 440 in the current exchange rate) cost of the trip was "not necessary this time." After the problem was discovered, the official examined the expenses carefully and returned 97,200 yen. They told the Mainichi Shimbun that their actions had been "thoughtless," but stressed that it was personal and "not illegal."
Expenses processed as political activities and then returned
A former Fukui Prefectural Assembly member who was similarly in office at the time of the gathering, was invited by an acquaintance of the religious group to participate in a "world peace event" and accordingly took part. The trip was for two days with a one-night stay, and the member used a travel agency affiliated with the church to arrange the airfare and lodging. The total cost of about 105,000 yen ($770) was paid out of a political activity fund, but the former member later returned the money. When approached by the Mainichi Shimbun, they said, "I met various lawmakers there. There was no problem with applying for the money as political activity funds, but with the way things are in society, I returned it."
Hiroshi Kamiwaki, a professor of constitutional law at Kobe Gakuin University who is versed in the issue of political funds, commented, "Having the religious group cover the expenses creates a weakness in the assembly member toward the church. It is inappropriate because it could lead to a back-scratching relationship. In addition, political activity funds are used to pay for such things as research for council activities, but participation in the event itself was not for that purpose. There is a high possibility it was illegal expenditure."
The Mainichi Shimbun sent UPF an email, but had not received a reply by the deadline.
According to the UPF's website, the organization was founded in New York in 2005 by Sun Myung Moon and Hak Ja Han, and has branches in 150 countries including Japan, and the group is involved in peace initiatives. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a video address at an event hosted by the group in September 2021.
(Japanese original by Shunsuke Takara, Izumisano Resident Bureau and Kayo Inada, Hanshin Bureau and Tsuyoshi Yamada, Osaka City News Department)