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Abe Killing Puts Pressure on Lawmakers’ Unification Church Ties

·6 min read

(Bloomberg) -- The assassination of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has thrown a spotlight on the little-known relationship between the country’s ruling party and the Unification Church.

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The South Korea-based church is best known for its mass weddings and its followers are nicknamed “Moonies” after its founder and self-proclaimed messiah Reverend Sun Myung Moon. The man arrested for shooting Abe with a homemade gun has been quoted by local media as saying he was motivated by a perceived connection between Abe and the Unification Church, which he blamed for his family’s financial ruin.

The church has confirmed that the alleged perpetrator’s mother is a member, and that Abe contributed a video message to an event staged by a related organization. It has hit back at suggestions that the church was to blame for the assassination, saying the motive behind the attack was still under investigation and that it was cooperating with police.

“There’s going to be a lot of pressure,” said Koji Nakakita, a professor at Hitotsubashi University. “The Liberal Democratic Party will start to distance itself from the Unification Church.”

The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan on Monday held its first task force meeting to look into the Unification Church -- officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification -- including its ties with politicians. While several of the party’s own lawmakers reportedly had ties with church members, an overwhelming majority of politicians identified by media as having such links are members of the LDP.

Tabloid Nikkan Gendai published a list of over 30 senior lawmakers it said had links with the church, from sending congratulatory messages to giving speeches and interviews for the group’s media outlets. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was not on the list, but other prominent LDP members, including Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, were mentioned.

Until the attack on Abe, such relationships were hardly known outside political circles, unlike the LDP’s more established relationships with other religions including Soka Gakkai, the Buddhist group which backs the party’s coalition partner Komeito, as well as the ultra-conservative group Nippon Kaigi with Shinto roots.

LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi on Monday said there was no official, organizational relationship between the party and the Unification Church, but that it was asking individual party members to exercise caution. While a church spokesman denied a direct relationship between the church and the LDP, he said its affiliate group had ties with some politicians.

“Regular voters don’t know that this particular religious group provides support, and that’s a problem,” Shigeharu Aoyama, an upper house LDP lawmaker, said of the Unification Church last week in his blog. Aoyama said that he had heard the church provided electoral support for some LDP politicians during July’s upper house elections, and that he had questioned this arrangement.

Since it was founded in 1954, the Unification Church has grown into a global religious movement and a vast business empire with interests including seafood and the Washington Times newspaper. It has also faced controversy in the US, where Moon was convicted of tax evasion in 1982 and served time in prison. He died in 2012.

In Japan, where it was registered as a religion in 1964, it has been hit by lawsuits from families of followers who made large donations to the church. It has also faced criticism for selling books of scripture and other items at inflated prices in a practice known as “spiritual sales.”

In one case listed on the website of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, church members induced an individual to buy 10 books at a cost of 300 million yen ($2.2 million), more than 50 times Japan’s average salary, saying that this was the only way to ensure the recovery of an elderly relative from heart surgery.

Since 1987, there have been more than 35,000 complaints about such practices, amounting to a total 124 billion yen, according to the lawyers’ group. Their website lists 17 cases where courts ordered the church to pay damages and 34 criminal judgments against its members.

The church said it has issued a compliance guide in 2009 aimed at addressing “excessive actions” by some of its members. Lawsuits against the group have since decreased, it said in a statement on its website.

Japanese Communist Party executive Akira Koike said lawmakers “shouldn’t have anything to do with groups like this that cause societal problems.”

One regional LDP assembly member said he would now have to keep a distance with the Unification Church and their gatherings. Church members had helped during elections by writing campaign postcards, he said, adding that they had approached him and identified their affiliation with the church. Money was never involved, he added, asking not to be identified discussing internal party matters.

He said he believed it was natural for church members with conservative views about gender and family to approach politicians, although the ones he met never made any demands regarding policy. He said he also attended their meetings and study groups.

While it’s unclear whether such relationships have influenced LDP policy, some of the Unification Church’s priorities, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and banning married couples from having separate surnames, chime with those of the conservative wing of the party. By contrast, polls show the public at large favoring change on both fronts.

Yoshihide Sakurai, a professor specializing in religion at Hokkaido University, said he didn’t think church members sought to directly affect policy. Rather, they likely sought to establish relationships with politicians to shield the organization from social backlash and criticism when needed, he said.

Hiroshi Watanabe, a member of the Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, said the church also “shows off its influence over top Japanese politicians, and that plays a major role in motivating the believers.”

His group issued an open letter to Abe last year, urging him and other lawmakers to keep their distance from the Unification Church. He said the church traditionally treated Japan as a source of funding, with members often told that they must atone for their country’s misdeeds during the 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, who has himself spoken at events organized by Unification Church-linked groups, said the LDP’s bonds with the group originated in efforts to support South Korea against the then-communist bloc decades ago.

Moon was known to be vehemently anti-Communist, and earned the backing of Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister, according to media reports. The church’s influence declined along with the importance of the ideological divide, but many of Japan’s hereditary conservative politicians -- including Abe -- kept up ties initiated by their fathers and grandfathers, Watanabe said.

“It’s a remnant of the Cold War,” he said. In general, “religious groups are not allies, but it can be difficult if they become your enemies. LDP lawmakers maintain a minimal relationship -- not too close and not too distant.”

The office of former Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba, one of the LDP lawmakers with reported links to the church, said he had given a speech at an event while unaware the hosts were associated with the church.

Defense Minister Kishi, brother of the late Abe, acknowledged that he had a relationship with church members, telling a news conference on Tuesday that some had helped to make telephone calls during past elections.

“With an election, you need to gather as many supporters as you can,” he said.

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