The assassination of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on 8 July 2022 in Nara was an act committed by the 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami who held Abe responsible for his family’s financial ruin because his mother donated over 100 million yen to the Unification Church (UC), leading the family into penury.
While Abe’s death sent shockwaves throughout the world, this also revealed a darker side of Japanese politics as many lawmakers of the ruling party, the Liberal Democratic Party, are not only members but also patrons of the UC. This malaise has spread so deep that it has affected the lives of many common men as politicians patronise the UC and use the donation money on projects that go against the interests of the citizens and the nation.
Yamagami did not try to escape and was easily apprehended. As more details about the UC started to emerge, some Japanese expressed understanding, even sympathy, for the assassin. They too felt the pangs of recognition linked to their own suffering during three decades of economic malaise and social turmoil. Social media messages pleaded for care packages to be sent to Yamagami’s detention centre to cheer him up. More than 7,000 people signed a petition requesting prosecutorial leniency for Yamagami, who differed with Abe’s divisive politics and his ties with the UC.
Reports have also emerged suggesting that thousands of other children of Church adherents have faced abuse and neglect. As more information about the UC comes to light, it transpires that there has existed a strong bond between the LDP and the UC for almost half a century. Formally called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, it was founded by Sun Myung Moon in Seoul in 1954, the year after the ceasefire that ended hostilities in the Korean War.
Moon was a self-declared messiah who claimed to have about 600,000 followers in Japan and maintains branches in various countries. It is reported that the Church received more than 10 billion yen in donations from its followers which went to support projects in Japan and outside of Japan.
Since then, the LDP and the UC have developed an extensive and deep relationship. Among LDP’s top leaders, Nobusuke Kishi, Prime Minister between 1957 and 1960, and Shintaro Abe, a former foreign minister and Abe Shinzo’s father, remained involved with the UC. While Kishi was the grandfather of Abe Shinzo, Shintaro was the son-in-law of Kishi.
Sun Myung Moon, left, the Unification Church’s founder, shaking hands with former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi. The political background in which the LDP leaders were drawn towards the UC, dubbed now as a cult, was because in the wake of the Korean War fought mainly on ideological grounds, the UC espoused anti-communism and thus sympathised with a right-leaning LDP faction known as Seiwa Kai. Yamagami’s allegation stemmed from the fact that Shintaro Abe led this faction during the late 1980s and then it was briefly led by Abe Shinzo before he was shot dead.
Interestingly, though Moon founded the UC in 1954, it started its propaganda efforts in Japan four years later and soon got the status of a religious corporation in July 1964. In Japan, its first Chairman was Osami Kuboki, who was the secretary for the chair of Rissho Kosei Kai, a Buddhist group.
Among the principles that found cause for common bonds was the UC’s beliefs in putting importance on traditional family values and sexual purity. The organisation is strongly anti-communist. This idea sprang from the Korean War.
In 1968, an associated organization of the Church called Kokusai Shokyo Rengo, or the International Federation for Victory over Communism was founded in South Korea and Japan. Its aim was to promote the “Shokyo” (beating communism) movement. Its honorary chair in Japan was Ryoichi Sasakawa, chair of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation. Sasakawa had been a right-wing politician before World War II and was close to Kishi. Both became close as both were detained as Class-A war criminals after the war because they supported the Shokyo movement.
The fact that both frequently attended events of the Church and organisations connected to it meant that the LDP-Church nexus dates back decades. Why Japan chose such a political culture, and its top leadership allowed a cult to intrude in the State’s functioning defies logic.
Though the founder Moon died in 2012, his philosophy continues to influence politics in Japan and his followers were called ‘Moonies’.Its negative impact in society led to Abe’s untimely departure. During his lifetime Moon successfully launched a sustained campaign to recruit followers in Japan. The trend continued even after his departure. Some 179 of 379 LDP lawmakers were found to have ties with the UC.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida woke up to cleanse this malaise after Abe’s death and reshuffled his Cabinet and dropped some of the ministers having links with the UC. Even Abe’s younger brother Nobuo Kishi was dropped as Defence Minister. Kishida also constituted a panel to investigate LDP’s links with the UC. All these efforts are half-measures. As a result, the approval rating for Kishida plummeted to 35 per cent, the lowest since his launch a year earlier.
Kishida continues to grapple with discontent among the Japanese public and his party’s links with the UC. By deciding to hold a state funeral for Abe, Kishida did not help his cause either as 61.9 per cent of people disapproved of his decision. Opposition parties urged Kishida to replace economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who repeatedly gave fallacious explanations about his relationship with the religious group. Yamagiwa admitted to having attended events hosted by the Church and its affiliated groups.
An opinion poll revealed that 62.7 per cent wanted Yamagiwa should step down as minister. As more details are tumbling out of the cupboard, more people are feeling concerned that the LDP lawmakers’ links with the group proves that the group has sought always to exert greater political influence in Japan. Even the lower house speaker, Hiroyuki Hosoda, has come under scrutiny as he too admitted to having attended several meetings with the organisation. (To be Concluded)
(The writer is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)