Shinzo Abe Assassination Highlights Unification Church’s Ties to Japanese Politics: NPR

A woman prays after offering a bouquet of flowers at the memorial area set up for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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A woman prays after offering a bouquet of flowers at the memorial area set up for former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Hiro Komae/AP

TOKYO — Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was an unlikely target, and his July 8 assassination was a bizarre and shocking twist of fate for the country’s longest-serving prime minister and a well-known global diplomat.

The assassination drew public attention to the religious movement that was apparently the target of the alleged killer’s hatred – and its decades-old ties to Japan’s rulers and ruling party.

The initial target was reportedly Hak Ja Han Moon, leader of the Unification Church and widow of its founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. A self-proclaimed messiah and “true father” to his followers, Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954.

Japanese media reported that the suspected killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, told police he had a long-standing grudge against the church because his mother had donated more than $700,000 to him, bankrupting the family.

He reportedly intended to target members of the church, including the leader, but instead focused on Abe after viewing a video message Abe made at a church-related virtual event. last September.

Abe did not belong to the church. But like other Japanese politicians, he had made appearances at church-related events, including one last September, where former President Donald Trump also spoke.

A renewed examination of the role of the Church in Japan

The church immediately distanced itself from the assassination. Tomihiro Tanaka, president of its Japanese branch, officially known as the Federation of Families for World Peace and Unification, told a press conference that Yamagami was not a member of the church, but that his mother was.

“Regarding suspect Yamagami’s motive for crime and the issue of donations reported by the media,” Tanaka said, “we would like to refrain from discussing it, as the matter is under police investigation. “.

On Wednesday, Yamagami’s mother told investigators she felt sorry for causing trouble at the church. “For her, the Unification Church is everything. It’s life itself. She doesn’t think about her son,” another insider reportedly said.

An undated family photo shows Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and his wife Ryoko with Abe and his brother Hironobu Abe (in his grandfather’s lap).

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An undated family photo shows Shinzo Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, and his wife Ryoko with Abe and his brother Hironobu Abe (in his grandfather’s lap).

-/AFP via Getty Images

The Unification Church has long-standing ties to Japanese politics

Abe’s ties to the church go back generations, including his father Shintaro Abe and his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi.

When World War II ended, his grandfather was imprisoned as a suspected war criminal. In prison, Kishi contacted other right-wing nationalists, including businessman and politician Ryoichi Sasakawa.

When Reverend Moon established an anti-communist group in South Korea in 1968, he made Sasakawa honorary president of its Japanese branch – whose headquarters were located on land next to Kishi’s residence.

Couples from around the world take part in a mass wedding ceremony organized by the Unification Church, at the CheongShim Peace World Center in Gapyeong, South Korea, in 2014.

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Couples from around the world take part in a mass wedding ceremony organized by the Unification Church, at the CheongShim Peace World Center in Gapyeong, South Korea, in 2014.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

“They created the Federation for Victory over Communism and Kishi supported it,” says Hiromi Shimada, a religion expert at Tokyo Women’s Christian University. “And that situation laid the groundwork for Abe’s assassination.”

The church has long provided volunteers to help Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party at election time, Shimada says. And although LDP politicians have not been able to fully shield the church from lawsuits or criticism, they have turned a blind eye to the allegations against it, he says.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi – who is Abe’s brother – said this week that members of the Unification Church had volunteered during his own past election campaigns. And the head of the Japanese agency investigating security flaws in Abe’s murder told reporters he was leading the executive committee of a church-related event in 2018.

The church has faced a series of lawsuits and bad publicity

Despite the current burst of public attention, the Unification Church, like other new religions, has waned in influence since its rise in popularity during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth in the 1960s.

“It was a time of urbanization, which produced a lot of new believers,” Shimada explains. “Now that period is over. Believers are getting old and few new ones are joining us.”

The church’s anti-communist mission lost relevance with the end of the Cold War, he says. A series of lawsuits against the church have also shaken its popularity.

Former Church Members Say They Were Scammed

A former church member who goes by the pseudonym Fumiaki Tada, because he says the church targets its critics, claims the church tricked him into becoming a student. He says their representatives hid their true identity for months, and says they brainwashed him and then cheated him out of his money.

“They strike fear in you, saying that you are full of sin and corrupt, that you will end up in hell and that your family will face a similar fate,” he says.

In addition to the sins of Adam and Eve, Tada says, church members are told about the sins of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea from 1910 to 1945.

But the church also offered the faithful a path to salvation.

“We were told we had to compensate with money,” says Tada. “So for the church’s South Korean headquarters, the Japanese branch is their portfolio.”

Tada later became a church leader in the city of Sendai. He says the church headquarters in South Korea has sent out fundraising quotas for branches, sub-branches and individual followers to meet. Congregants who couldn’t meet the quotas, he said, were often told to borrow money to contribute to the church.

Tada says his family eventually forced him out of the church. His successful lawsuit against the church helped him overcome his ordeal and share his experiences with other plaintiffs.

But it’s an opportunity he says Abe’s alleged killer never had.

“He was the child of a believer and he had no one to talk to,” Tada says. “That’s one of the reasons he committed the crime, and I’m sorry about that.”

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

Robert M. Larson