Shinzo Abe was not his assassin’s preferred target.
Investigators say Tetsuya Yamagami, who fatally shot Japan’s longest-serving prime minister on July 8, had initially wanted to kill the leader of the Unification Church — a South-Korean religious sect that the 41-year-old blames 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 2012 death of its founder — her husband Sun Myung Moon — had stopped coming to Japan following pandemic-related border closures.
In a letter Yamagami sent to a blogger a day before shooting Abe with a handmade gun, he wrote that it was “impossible” to kill Hak Ja Han Moon. And although Abe was “not my original enemy”, the 67-year-old politician was “one of the most influential sympathisers” 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 brazen killing in the city of Nara, as Abe was delivering a campaign speech, shocked Japan, a nation where political violence and gun crimes are extremely rare. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida quickly declared that he would hold a state funeral for Abe while the Japanese public handed his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) a sweeping victory in an upper house election held just days after the assassination.
But the grief quickly gave way to anger amid growing media scrutiny of the church’s extensive ties with Abe and the LDP, and alleged abuses, including claims of forced donations. Kishida has, meanwhile, seen his approval ratings plunge from 63 percent at the time of Abe’s assassination to about 29 percent in mid-September, raising questions over the prime minister’s political future.
“The Unification Church is not so much regarded as a religious organisation, but rather as a predatory cult in Japan,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at the Sophia University in Tokyo. The LDP has “outraged” the Japanese people just as if “ties with a notorious criminal organisation had been revealed,” said Nakano.
Church or cult?
Officially known as Family Federation for World Peace and Reunification and disparagingly 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 advocated conservative family-oriented beliefs. Famously, he oversaw mass weddings at which he had matched thousands of couples, sometimes by pairing photographs of people who had never met before.
Experts say the church’s right-wing beliefs helped it expand overseas during the Cold War.
Moon became good friends with Nobusuke Kishi, who served as Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and was Abe’s grandfather. It was Kishi who helped found the church’s political arm, the International Federation for Victory Over Communism in Japan in 1968, according to Japanese media. After gaining a foothold in Japan, the church treated its followers there like an “economic army”, a former senior member told the Reuters news agency, raising money by collecting donations and selling “spiritual goods” such as expensive ginseng tea or miniature stone pagodas.
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, a large part of which came from a life insurance payment from his father’s death by suicide. The donations bankrupted the family and Yamagami, described by his uncle as “extremely smart” and “hardworking”, had to abandon plans to go to college.
A group of lawyers representing victims of the church’s “spiritual sales” in Japan said the religious group has been linked to some 30,000 complaints involving losses of 123.7 billion yen ($856m) since 1987 and that the church has used the funds raised in Japan to build and seed a multi-billion dollar business empire spanning the globe.
According to Britain’s Financial Times, Moon founded a conglomerate called Tongil Group in South Korea in 1963, and its affiliates now operate ski and golf resorts, a defence company, a chemicals group, a car parts business 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 True World Foods seafood wholesaler and a vast property portfolio, it said.
Despite the complaints over its fundraising practices in Japan, the church continued to find favour among LDP politicians, with whom it shared conservative values, including opposition to LGBTQ rights.
Investigators say it was a video message that Abe had sent last year to an event hosted by a Unification Church-affiliated group, the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), and attended by Hak Ja Han Moon that prompted his killer to consider switching his targets. In the message to the UPF, Abe had praised Hak Ja Han Moon and thanked the group for its “focus and emphasis on family values”.
Japanese media, meanwhile, have alleged that the church, which now has about 100,000 active followers in Japan, has directed its members to help elect LDP candidates. A former follower told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper that she had volunteered in campaigns to help elect Abe ally Koichi Haguida in order 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 nexus of right-wing politicians and a right-wing Church that both oppose gender rights, LGBTQ rights and want to turn back the hands of history on social developments involving the family have sparked anger,” said Jeffrey Kingston, professor of history and Asian studies at Temple University in Japan. “Their conservative dogma does not enjoy public support.”
‘No shocking links’
In a bid to address the growing outcry, Kishida reshuffled his cabinet, ordered LDP legislators to sever ties with the church and announced a new programme to help those experiencing trouble with the group. This includes offering legal aid for those who are seeking the return of their donations.
The LDP also carried out an internal survey that found nearly half of its 379 national legislators had ties to the church. It said some 96 of the legislators reported attending events organised by the church or its affiliates while 29 said they had accepted donations from the group. A further 17 said they had received election support from church followers who volunteered in their campaigns.
Kingston said a thorough investigation of the allegations of the church’s activities in Japan was necessary.
“Its extensive and longstanding political role has been kept obscure until the assassination,” he said. “It is in the public interest to thoroughly vet the organisation and its role in politics and whether it is in compliance with regulations covering religious organisations.”
The church has denied supporting any particular political party and said it does not give political guidance to its members. It did say, however, that its political arm, the UPF, has courted Japanese legislators and most of them were from the LDP because of shared values.
A spokesman for UPF, Kajikuri Masayoshi, also told NHK he did not understand the furore over ties between the two groups. “Our relationship is just normal. In most cases, they sent congratulatory telegrams or did interviews with our magazines. I think there were no legal or ethical problems,” he said in late August.
With Japan holding a state funeral for Abe on Tuesday, some analysts said they expect the outcry to blow over.
Masaki Nakamasa, professor of philosophy at Kanazawa University, said he believed the links between the Unification Church and the LDP were “not so strong”.
Attending church meetings in order to gain election volunteers does not make the legislators believers, said Nakamasa, who was formerly a member of the church. “In the media, it has been said that the Unification Church has been influencing the policies of the LDP, but I think that’s putting the cart before the horse,” he said, stressing: “It is not the Unification Church that has turned [the LDP legislators] conservative.”
Besides, Nakamasa said, it would be “really hard to turn conservative Japanese politicians into devoted Moonies”.
“After the memorial service for Abe, the media and the net opinion will lose interest, because there are no real shocking links between Abe and the Unification Church,” he added.