After its links to governing party lawmakers sparked public outrage, Japan initiated an investigation into the Unification Church, potentially jeopardising the group’s status in a country on which it relies heavily for adherents and financial support.
What is the Unification Church, and what does it have in store for Japan?
WHAT IS IT?
Formally called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the organization better known as the Unification Church was founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, an anti-communist and self-declared messiah.
Japan was one of the first destinations in its international expansion and it remains the fourth-largest congregation with some 600,000 adherents out of the church’s 10 million globally. The church says Japan is its largest source of income, although a spokesman said only about 100,000 members are active while many second-generation members have drifted away.
WHY IS THE JAPANESE PUBLIC SO ANGRY?
Many Japanese see the church as a cult, with its mass weddings and solicitation of donations, although the church says it no longer engages in what it acknowledged were excessive practices in the past, including aggressive door-to-door sales.
The suspect in former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s murder in July said the church persuaded his mother to part with around 100 million yen, according to his social media posts and news reports. A lawyers’ group in Japan said the church had collected nearly $1 billion from followers since 1987, and generated some 35,000 compensation claims.
The suspect blamed the church for his family’s financial ruin, and blamed Abe for promoting the church. Abe’s assassination revealed to the public the ties the church had formed with politicians, as it aimed to bolster its reputation and attract followers.
The LDP has denied any organizational relations with the church, and has since made it a policy to prohibit its members from retaining ties to the church. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida purged ministers with ties to the church from his cabinet in August, while another minister who subsequently disclosed ties resigned in late October.
HOW IS THE CHURCH RESPONDING?
The Unification Church has held several news conferences to explain its position.
In early October, the church said it would adopt reforms including recording any donation exceeding 30% of a follower’s monthly income, as well as whether the follower had the consent of family members.
On Oct 20, senior church official Hideyuki Teshigawara told a briefing that the group would “deal sincerely” with any government investigation, and showed a seven-minute video of a church member refuting her ex-husband’s claims that the church was responsible for the family’s ruin.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN TO THE CHURCH?
Depending on the findings of the probe, the church could lose its legal status as a religious organization, and its tax benefits. The government would first make a request to the courts, while a final determination would likely take months and could be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.
Shiori Kanno, a lawyer on the Consumer Affairs Agency panel looking into the church’s sales practices, said being stripped of its status as a religious organization would not limit the church from continuing its activities or its members from meeting.
The doomsday cult group Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out the deadly Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995, was the first religious group in Japan that was forced to disband. Many former members formed another group that remains active today.