The Church Linked to Abe’s Assassination, Japan’s Political Turmoil


Shinzo Abe was not his killer’s favorite target.

Investigators say Tetsuya Yamagami, who shot and killed Japan’s longest-serving prime minister on July 8, initially wanted to assassinate the leader of the Unification Church — a South Korean religious sect that blames the 41-year-old for his family’s financial ruin. But the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way.

Hak Ja Han Moon, who has led the church since the death of its founder – her husband Sun Myung Moon – in 2012 has stopped coming to Japan following pandemic-related border closures.

In a letter sent to a blogger the day before he shot Abe with a handmade gun, Yamagami wrote that it was “impossible” to kill Hak Ja Han Moon. And while Abe was “not my original enemy,” the 67-year-old politician was “one of the most influential sympathizers” of the Unification Church, he wrote. “I can no longer afford to think about the political implications and consequences that Abe’s death will bring,” he added.

The brutal murder in the city of Nara, while Abe was delivering a campaign speech, shocked Japan, a country where political violence and gun crimes are extremely rare. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was quick to declare that he would hold a state funeral for Abe, while the Japanese public handed his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) an overwhelming victory in the upper house elections held just days after the assassination.

But the grief quickly gave way to anger amid a growing media investigation into the Church’s extensive ties to Abe and the LDP, and alleged abuses, including claims of forced donations. Meanwhile, Kishida saw his ratings plummet from 63 percent at the time of Abe’s assassination to about 29 percent in mid-September — a level analysts say makes it difficult for a prime minister to gain enough support to carry out his agenda.

“The Unification Church is not so much regarded as a religious organization in Japan, but rather as a predatory cult,” said Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Church or sect?

Officially known as Family Federation for World Peace and Reunification and scornfully called “the Moonies”, Sun Myung Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. The self-proclaimed messiah was a staunch anti-communist who championed conservative family-oriented beliefs. He is known to oversee mass weddings where he matched thousands of couples, sometimes by linking photos of people who had never met before.

Experts say the church’s right-wing beliefs helped her expand overseas during the Cold War.

Moon became good friends with Nobusuke Kishi, who was Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960 and who was Abe’s grandfather. According to Japanese media, it was Kishi who helped establish the church’s political arm, the International Federation for Victory over Communism in Japan in 1968. After gaining a foothold in Japan, the church treated its followers there as an “economic army,” a former senior member told Reuters news agency. .

In the case of Yamagami, Abe’s killer, relatives say his mother, a devout follower, donated some 100 million yen ($692,000) to the church, much of which came from a life insurance benefit after his death. father by suicide. The donations bankrupted the family and Yamagami, who was described by his uncle as “extremely smart” and “hardworking,” was forced to abandon plans to attend college.

The Unification Church is known for its mass weddings, where some couples are simply matched in photo [File: Kim Hong-Ji/ Reuters]
Moon Sun Myung, the founder of the Unification Church, drinks a toast with his relatives at his 91st birthday party
Moon Sun Myung, the founder of the Unification Church, drinks a toast with his family members at his 91st birthday party in 2011 [File: Jo Yong-Hak/ Reuters]

A group of lawyers representing victims of the church’s “spiritual sale” in Japan said the religious group has been associated with some 30,000 complaints since 1987 with losses of 123.7 billion yen ($856 million) and that the Church has used the funds raised in Japan to build and sow a multi-billion dollar business empire around the world.

According to the British Financial Times, Moon founded a conglomerate called Tongil Group in South Korea in 1963, and its subsidiaries now operate ski and golf resorts, a defense company, a chemical group, an auto parts company and a newspaper. In the United States, the Church’s business interests include the conservative Washington Times newspaper, the New Yorker Hotel in New York, the seafood wholesale business of True World Foods, and an extensive real estate portfolio.

Despite complaints about its fundraising practices in Japan, the church continued to find favor with LDP politicians, with whom it shared conservative values, including opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Investigators say it was a video message sent by Abe to an event hosted by a Unification Church-affiliated group, the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), and attended by Hak Ja Han Moon, that led his killer to commit suicide last year. consider changing his goals. In the message to the UPF, Abe Hak had praised Ja Han Moon and thanked the group for its “focus and emphasis on family values.”

Japanese media, meanwhile, have claimed that the church, which now has about 100,000 active followers in Japan, has instructed its members to help elect LDP candidates. A former follower told Asahi Shimbun newspaper that she had volunteered to participate in campaigns to help choose Abe ally Koichi Haguida to “save” Japan. Five former followers also told Reuters that church officials had instructed them to vote for LDP candidates who opposed gay rights.

“The intertwining of right-wing politicians and a right-wing church who oppose both gender and LGBTQ rights and want to turn history’s hands on social developments involving the family has sparked anger,” said Jeffrey Kingston, history professor and Asian Studies at Temple University in Japan. “Their conservative dogma has no public support.”

‘No shocking links’

In an effort to address the growing protest, Kishida ordered LDP lawmakers to cut ties with the church and announced a new program to help those experiencing problems with the group. This includes offering legal aid to those seeking to get their donations back. The LDP also conducted an internal investigation that found that nearly half of the 379 state lawmakers had ties to the Church.

It said about 96 of the lawmakers reported attending events organized by the church or its affiliates, while 29 said they had accepted donations from the group. Another 17 said they had received election support from church followers who volunteered to join their campaigns.

Kingston said a thorough investigation into the allegations of the Church’s activities in Japan was necessary.

“His extensive and long-standing political role has been kept obscure until the assassination,” he said. “It is in the public interest to thoroughly screen the organization and its role in politics and whether it complies with the regulations for religious organizations.”

The church has denied supporting any particular political party and said it does not provide political leadership to its members. However, it said its political branch, the UPF, has courted Japanese lawmakers and most of them were from the LDP because of shared values.

A spokesman for UPF, Kajikuri Masayoshi, also told NHK that he did not understand the fuss over ties between the two groups. “Our relationship is just normal. In most cases they sent congratulatory telegrams or conducted interviews with our magazines. I don’t think there were any legal or ethical issues,” he said at the end of August.

As Japan prepares for Abe’s funeral on Tuesday, some analysts said they expect the protests to blow over.

Masaki Nakamasa, a philosophy professor at Kanazawa University, said he believed ties between the Unification Church and the LDP were “not that strong.”

Attending church meetings to recruit election volunteers does not turn lawmakers into believers, said Nakamasa, who was also a former member of the church.

“It’s really hard to turn conservative Japanese politicians into devoted Moonies,” he said, adding: “After the Abe memorial service, the media and internet opinion will lose interest, because there are no real shocking links between Abe and the Unification. Church.”

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