Many Japanese were surprised when revelations emerged this week about links between the church and Japan’s top leaders, which have their roots in shared anti-communist efforts during the Cold War. Analysts say it could lead people to take a closer look at how powerfully the ruling party’s conservative worldviews have guided the policies of modern Japan.
A look at the church and its deep ties to the Japanese ruling party and Abe’s own family:
WHAT IS THE CHURCH OF UNIFICATION?
The church was founded in Seoul in 1954, a year after the end of the Korean War, by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-proclaimed messiah who preached new interpretations of the Bible and conservative, family-oriented value systems.
The church championed anti-communism and the unification of the Korean peninsula, which is divided between the totalitarian north and the democratic south.
The church is perhaps best known for mass weddings where it mated couples, often from different countries, and renews the vows of those already married, in large, open places such as stadiums and gymnasiums. The group is said to have millions of members worldwide, including hundreds of thousands in Japan.
The church was accused in the 1970s and 1980s of using devious recruiting tactics and brainwashing adherents to transfer huge chunks of their salaries to Moon. The church has denied such allegations and says many new religious movements faced similar accusations in their early years.
In Japan, the group faced lawsuits for offering “spiritual merchandise” that would have led members to buy expensive art and jewelry or sell their real estate to collect donations for the Church.
WHAT IS THE CHURCH’S LINK WITH WORLD LEADERS?
Throughout his life, Moon worked to transform his church into a global religious movement and expand its business and charitable activities. Moon was convicted of tax evasion in 1982 and was serving a prison term in New York. He died in 2012.
The Church has developed relationships with conservative world leaders, including US Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush and more recently Donald Trump.
Moon also had ties to North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of current ruler Kim Jong Un.
Moon said in his autobiography that he asked Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions, and that Kim replied that his nuclear program was for peaceful purposes and that he had no intention of using it to “kill (Korean) compatriots”.
WHAT WAS ABE’S CONNECTION WITH THE CHURCH?
Known for his arch-conservative views on security and history issues, Abe was also backed by powerful lobbies such as the Nippon Kaigi. He has appeared in events hosted by church affiliates, including one in September 2021.
In a video shown on a big screen at the meeting of the church-related Universal Peace Federation, or UPF, Abe praised her work for peace in the Korean peninsula and the group’s focus on family values. The emphasis on traditional, paternalistic family systems was one of Abe’s key positions.
“I appreciate UPF’s focus on family values,” he said in the video. “Let’s be aware of so-called social-revolutionary movements with narrow values.”
Reports of his appearance at the 2021 event drew criticism from the Japanese Communist Party and cult watchers, including a group of lawyers who have watched the Unification Church’s activities and supported the alleged victims.
In a news conference Monday after the church’s connection to Abe’s murder was revealed, Church leader in Japan Tomohiro Tanaka said Abe supported UPF’s peace movement but was not a member.
Police have still not publicly identified the group mentioned by the suspect, presumably to prevent incitement to violence.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE RULING PARTY OF JAPAN?
The ties between the church and the ruling Japanese party date back to Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister and shared with Washington his concerns about the spread of communism in Japan in the 1960s as union activists gained momentum.
Kishi, who was arrested as a war criminal but never charged, was known for his right-wing political views, and the Unification Church’s anti-communist stance matched his views on Japan’s national interests, experts say.
Kishi’s close relationship with the Church was well known. The church headquarters was at one point housed in a building adjacent to Kishi’s Tokyo residence, and he was seen with Moon in photos taken inside the church and published in group publications. According to media reports, the suspect believed Kishi had brought the church to Japan.
“Japanese leaders at the time saw the church as a tool to promote anti-communist views in Japan,” said Masaki Kito, a lawyer and expert on religious affairs. For the group, showing close ties to prominent politicians was a way to gain approval for its activities.
Ties between church-affiliated organizations and LDP lawmakers developed over decades since the church expanded, with solid political support and votes for the ruling party, experts say, though the group denied this.
A survey of 128 lawmakers, obtained from the police and published in the Weekly Gendai magazine in 1999, found the most attended events organized by the anti-communist branch of the Unification Church, the International Federation for Victory Over Communism, also funded by Moon, and more than 20 LDP legislators had at least one church member volunteer in their offices.
WHAT IS SAYING BY THE CHURCH AND ITS CRITICS?
The church denied any favorable treatment from Kishi when it opened a Japanese branch. Tanaka said Abe supported current leader Hak Ja Han Moon’s peace movement but denied any movement of money between the group and the LDP.
The church said Monday there was no record of Yamagami being a member. The church said she had no direct relationship with Abe, although she was in contact with other lawmakers through an affiliated organization.
Members of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales who monitor the Church say they have repeatedly asked Abe and other LDP lawmakers to stop appearing or messaging the events organized by the Unification Church of affiliates, while addressing long-standing church-related problems.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE PARTY?
“The murder sheds light on the Unification Church,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of international politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. “The Church’s relationship with the right-wing factions of the LDP and its far-right policies could come under close scrutiny,” leading to a re-evaluation of Abe’s legacy.
It could lead to revelations about how the party’s stances have distorted post-war Japanese society while stifling the advancement of gender equality and sexual diversity issues, Nakano said.
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed.