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How Abe’s killing exposes Japan’s thin line between church and state

In the spring of 1992, Japan’s senior intelligence officials made a fairly standard decision to deny entry to Reverend Moon Sun-myung, the late founder of South Korea’s Unification Church, on the grounds that he had previously served in US prison for tax evasion.

Shortly afterwards, though, the religious leader sailed through security checks to enter Tokyo with “a special permission” to meet lawmakers. Later that year, the justice ministry admitted that Shin Kanemaru, who at the time was the most powerful political figure in the governing Liberal Democratic party, had intervened on Moon’s behalf.

The close historic ties between the LDP and the Korean church, widely known but rarely discussed in public, are now firmly back in the spotlight after the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe last month.

Tetsuya Yamagami, the man suspected of killing Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, was reportedly seeking revenge against the church with which he believed Abe had a close relationship.

Although not a member himself, Yamagami alleged his household was financially ruined by the donations made by his mother. The Japanese branch of the church, today known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, has confirmed the mother’s membership and believed she went bankrupt in 2002, although it denied knowledge of her donations.

Abe’s death has once again brought scrutiny on the vast religious and business empire built by Moon, an excommunicated Presbyterian minister born in what is now North Korea, who died in 2012.

But it has also sparked an intense debate in Japan on the perceived influence of religious groups over senior politicians and their parties, with a range of figures within the LDP and other politicians coming under scrutiny for their ties to the Unification Church or “Moonies.”

Unification Church followers in Tokyo express their sympathies following the death of Moon Sun-myung, the church’s leader, in 2012 © Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images

The Japanese public has had a complicated relationship with religion since the war. The country is historically a mix of Buddhism and Shintoism, dotted with more than 150,000 temples and shrines that people visit regularly throughout the year.

And yet surveys suggest religion does not play a significant role in people’s lives, with 62 per cent of respondents saying they did not follow any religion in a poll conducted by state broadcaster NHK in 2018.

The modern relationship has been coloured by the deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult in 1995, which claimed inspiration from the teachings of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Since then, even using the word “religion” in public has become taboo. In the early phase of police investigations into Abe’s shooting, the mainstream domestic media initially dropped the word “religious” in describing the “particular group” that Yamagami told investigators he had a grudge against.

Once the church’s name was out in the open, the country’s biggest newspapers and TV programmes ferociously covered its activities in dozens of articles, interviewing disgruntled former followers and digging out footage of LDP members and other politicians attending events affiliated with the Moonies. On Sunday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called on politicians linked to the church to individually explain what ties they had.

But long before the Moonies opened their Japanese branch in 1959, religious groups have held an active voice in domestic politics dating back to the prewar period. “There has been an incredibly high-pitched moral panic about the presence of religion and politics,” says Levi McLaughlin, an expert on Japanese religious studies at North Carolina State University. “But the truth is, this is actually a standard part of political activity in Japan.” 

The way religious groups participate in Japan’s politics today is defined by the postwar constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion but prohibits religious organisations from receiving privileges from the state and exercising political influence. The government in turn is required not to carry out any religious activity.

Column chart of What is the religion you usually believe in? (%) showing Japan losing the faith

As a consequence, religious groups do not wield direct influence in politics by fielding their own candidates, but instead engage through political organisations affiliated with religious groups or by backing individual politicians who will promote their agenda.

But the prohibitions in the constitution has also made it difficult for local authorities to investigate and clamp down on controversial practices by religious groups due to fear of violating religious freedom, says Mitsuhiro Suganuma, a former senior official at the Public Security Intelligence Agency.

“Nobody was willing to investigate the Unification Church and the close ties with Japanese politicians because the constitution guarantees freedom of religion,” says Suganuma, who was working at the agency when Kanemaru interfered in Moon’s visit to Japan. “Religious organisations were untouchable for Japanese authorities.” 

But after the shock of Abe’s assassination, some in Japan are wondering if harder scrutiny and regulation should be on the cards.

The church and the state

The Unification Church has been a beacon of controversy since its founding in 1954. Moon, who believed himself to be the second coming of Christ, extended his influence to various corners of the world including the US, where he was known for his support of Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal.

A fervent opponent of communism, Moon established the church’s presence in Japan during the 1960s by cultivating ties with former prime minister (and Abe’s grandfather) Nobusuke Kishi, according to studies by academic scholars.

A family photo of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan, and his wife Ryoko with their grandsons Shinzo Abe and Hironobu Abe (on the lap of his grandfather) taken in the late 1950s
A family photo of Nobusuke Kishi, prime minister of Japan, and his wife Ryoko with their grandsons Shinzo and Hironobu Abe (on the lap of his grandfather) taken in the late 1950s © Intercontinentale/AFP/Getty Images

It was a mutually beneficial relationship — and one that was also practical: the church enjoyed protection from the LDP. For Kishi and the conservative ruling party, the church provided “a reliable ally against communism”, says Jeffrey J Hall, an expert on nationalist activism at Kanda University of International Studies.

The anticommunism campaign provided a concrete ideological basis for the early links in the 1960s, but the relationship evolved over the following decades. Today, says Yoshihide Sakurai, an expert on cult issues at Hokkaido University, “the LDP and the Unification Church are connected on an extremely pragmatic level and I don’t think there is any resonance in terms of ideology or religious belief”.

In fact, the LDP’s nationalist views on history did not align with Moon’s teachings where Korea is depicted as “the Adam nation” and Japan as “the Eve nation” that committed sins. “The Japanese way is not heaven’s way. When you go to the spirit world, you should speak Korean,” Moon said in a speech in 1997. “Korean is a step above Japanese.”

Abe was not a member of the church, but the relationship occasionally proved useful to him. When he pushed security bills through parliament in 2015, paving the way for reinterpreting Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow its military to fight abroad for the first time since 1945, Abe received fierce public pushback. Large protests were led by a group of young activists called the Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy, or the SEALDs, with the slogan “No to War, Defend the Constitution!”

Students in Tokyo hold placards to protest the Abe cabinet’s revisions to Japan’s security bills in 2016
Students in Tokyo protesting the Abe cabinet’s revisions to Japan’s security bills in 2016 © Alessandro Di Ciommo/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Behind the chaos, scholars say the church quietly moved to create a counterforce to the student group. In early 2016, four students at the University of Tokyo formed a group called Unite and carried out marches with nearly 200 members chanting “Yes for constitutional amendments!” and “Let’s join the Salvation Movement in support of the LDP and the Abe administration’s security policy!”

The students were backed by the International Federation for Victory Over Communism, a conservative political organisation formed in 1968 and founded upon Moon’s ideology. “The fact that such a group existed must have been convenient for the Abe administration to show that there were also rightwing student activists,” says Hotaka Tsukada, associate professor at the Joetsu University of Education.

When asked about their ties to the LDP, a representative for the student group since renamed as Shokyo Unite said they had no particular ties to any specific member of the LDP, including Abe. Some of its members belong to the International Federation, but the church said it was not involved in the student movement.

The church’s membership is not a significant voting bloc. Although it claims to have 600,000 followers and so-called “supporting members” in Japan, scholars say its actual membership has declined to around 100,000 in recent years. The church’s members instead provide material support to LDP politicians, such as providing volunteers and campaign vehicles during elections (the church denies providing “organisational support” to specific parties and candidates).

An employee distributes extra editions of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper which carried reports on Shinzo Abe’s assassination on July 8, 2022, in Tokyo
The close historic ties between the LDP and the Korean church are back in the spotlight after the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe last month © Eugene Hoshiko/AP

“The church has responded to the needs of politicians that want manpower, rather than money or votes,” says Eito Suzuki, a freelance journalist who has been investigating the church’s activities since 2002.

The politicians, including Abe, returned the favours by appearing and making speeches at events held by the church, making no obvious effort to hide the relationship. According to Suzuki’s research, more than 100 members of the LDP have connections with the Moonies.

Now, in the wake of Abe’s killing, these connections have come under closer scrutiny. Earlier this week, Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s brother and defence minister, confirmed that he had received volunteers and other electoral support from the church. “I think it is necessary to rally as many supporters as possible for a campaign,” Kishi said. Following public criticism, he said on Tuesday that he would reconsider the relationship.

Yoshiyuki Inoue, Abe’s former aide, also disclosed that the church supported his policy measures and recognised him as “a supporting member” but denied that he had received any donations from the group. Toshimitsu Motegi, the LDP’s secretary-general, stressed that there was no “organisational ties” between the party and the church.

Even if the relationship is not explicitly transactional, the legitimacy granted to the church by a major political party had economic benefits. Suganuma says the Moonies had a very clear mission to use donations from its Japanese members to finance Moon’s global ambitions, particularly in the US. 

Reverend Moon Sun-myung gestures dramatically as he speaks at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 1974
Reverend Moon Sun-myung gestures dramatically as he speaks at Madison Square Garden, New York, in September 1974 © Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

“One striking thing about the Unification Church is how it was involved with politicians and powerful rightwing figures from a very early stage since it acquired religious corporation status in Japan in 1964. That’s highly unusual,” Tsukada added.

According to an internal document obtained by Suzuki and viewed by the Financial Times, the church collected about ¥50bn ($365mn) in Japanese donations each year between 2009 and 2011, and sent the bulk of that amount to South Korea. Suzuki estimates that donations have likely fallen to about ¥20bn in recent years. The church said it did not make public its finances.

For church members, supporting LDP candidates in elections became an important, if not a mandatory, part of their activities to demonstrate faith.

When Masaki Nakamasa joined the church while he was studying at the University of Tokyo in 1981, he was told to ask his parents, siblings and relatives to join support groups of some hawkish LDP members.

“I made every single effort to show my faith, because [the church] told me we had to make sure the candidates we were supporting would pass the election to share our ideas to the wider world,” Nakamasa says. He left the church in 1992 and is now a philosophy professor at Kanazawa University.

Beyond the Moonies

The public soul-searching on what kind of role religion should have in politics is not limited to the activity of the Moonies. The spotlight has also fallen on LDP’s coalition partner Komeito, which draws almost all of its support from the Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist group with 12mn members worldwide.

As Buddhists, members of the religion were persecuted by Japan’s militarist government in the 1930s, and that history is one reason they became involved in politics from 1955.

Officially, Komeito and Soka Gakkai are independent and separate from each other, and the religion does not give organisational financial support to the party or its candidates.

Outgoing prime minister Shinzo Abe waves before leaving office on September 16, 2020, in Tokyo
Outgoing prime minister Shinzo Abe waves before leaving office on September 16, 2020, in Tokyo © Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Soka Gakkai does, however, endorse Komeito candidates in elections and both the Komeito and LDP have historically depended on its 7mn votes to remain mostly in power since they formed a coalition in 1999.

“No one can match Soka Gakkai in terms of just numbers of people who go out and gather votes,” McLaughlin, who has researched Soka Gakkai for years, says.

Komeito and other political organisations with links to religious groups have mostly declined to comment or maintained complete silence amid a media frenzy over religion and politics.

The question is whether all that attention will bring any change. With so much public attention on the case, some say LDP members and other politicians will find it difficult to seek support from the church in the future. Others believe there should be greater oversight of the relationship. “Politicians do not necessarily need to cut off their relationship with religion, but what they need is accountability and transparency,” says Tsukada.

Legislators will find it hard to overcome the strict constitutional limits to how the activities of religious groups are controlled, however, since regulation could be regarded as a violation of religious freedom.

A commuter is helped by medics in a Tokyo metro station after the sarin gas attack in 1995
After Aum’s sarin gas attack in 1995, the LDP-led coalition government rammed through parliament a revision to the law governing religious groups © Noboru Hashimoto/Corbis/Getty Images

“People call for regulatory controls but that will be opposed by all of Japan’s religious organisations,” says Sakurai, the cult expert. “So the mass media, civilian activists, lawyers and academics like myself need to fill the supervisory role.”

For now, the status quo is hanging together. “There’s a lot to lose on both sides. And it’s difficult to see how any structural shift will happen right now and who would undertake it and why,” says McLaughlin.

But the death of one of postwar Japan’s most influential leaders may change the calculus. When politics and religion have intersected violently before in Japan, action has followed; after Aum’s sarin gas attack in 1995, the LDP-led coalition government rammed a revision to the law governing religious groups through parliament.

The revision shifted the jurisdiction of religious groups from local governments to the education ministry, and required the groups to provide details on their financial affairs. According to McLaughlin, the amendment was “clearly aimed” at Komeito and it was one major reason for the party forming a coalition with LDP four years later.

The two incidents are very different: the Aum attack was carried out by a cult, whereas Abe’s alleged killer was inspired by hatred of the church. But if anything, this rare eruption of political violence has drawn an even stronger reaction from the public on religion’s role in current affairs. “This scrutiny promises to last a while and this is a level we have not seen in our generation,” McLaughlin says. “So who knows how it will go?”

Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Tokyo

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