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Japan: Unification Church scandals haunt Kishida government

Julian Ryall Tokyo
October 28, 2022

DW spoke with a woman who said she was victimized by the South Korea-based church. She wants Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's government to take action and curb the religious organization's vast political influence.

Japanese PM Fumio Kishida stands at microphones wearing glasses
Kishida's popularity plummeted amid revelations of lawmakers' links to the Unification ChurchImage: Issei Kato/REUTERS

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida this week addressed several controversies surrounding the South Korea-based Unification Church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Kishida ordered an investigation opened into reports that the church's practices are coercive.

He also accepted the resignation of a Cabinet minister with links to the organization, and promised to personally meet with families bankrupted by relatives' donations to the group. 

With these moves, the Japanese leader is attempting to draw a line under a scandal that has dominated the headlines since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was assassinated in July by the son of a church follower.

Critics who say Kishida should do more are in no mood to let the matter drop.

Why is Kishida facing criticsm?

"The prime minister's responses  have been too slow, and the fact that the Diet [Japan's legislature] is having to repeatedly address the impact of the church on politics has been a huge waste of public money," said Sayuri Ogawa, who became an outspoken critic of the church following her own family's experiences with it.

"Those funds should have gone to the people who have lost everything to the church. If Kishida keeps his promise and speaks with the victims, then I will tell him he needs to listen to us and revoke the Unification Church's status as a religious corporation," she told DW.

"And then he has to implement a bill to financially support the victims, with a clear statement of when it will start."

Ogawa, who uses a pseudonym out of concern for the security of her husband and young child, has been targeted by the church since she first began speaking out in the media.

Church officials attempted to halt a press conference including statements by Ogawa on October 7.

Fax messages were sent to the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan, claiming that Ogawa suffered from "psychological illnesses" and her symptoms were getting worse.

Another said she would tell "many lies" and the event should be halted immediately.

"The fax that was addressed to me at the press conference threatened to sue me if I lied or made any more statements about the church," said Ogawa, who is now in her late 20s.

"But I am confident that many people who saw this news conference will understand which side is evil," Ogawa said.

Assaulted and savings spent  

Ogawa said her parents had encouraged her to join the church and, as a teenager, she had been an enthusiastic member. 

She even traveled to South Korea to take part in one of the mass weddings that are a feature of the religious movement, which was founded in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon.

Once there, Ogawa said she was sexually assaulted by a senior member of the church on the pretext that an "evil spirit had taken control of her soul."

When she returned home, she discovered that her parents had donated her savings, about 2 million yen (€13,565, $13,510), to the church.

Ogawa believes that her parents have donated around 10 million yen in total over the past four decades and, even now, they regularly contact her in an effort to convince her to rejoin the church, she said

Her story has uncanny echoes of that of Tetsuya Yamagami, who has told investigators that he shot and killed former Prime Minister Abe with a homemade gun in July in protest because of his failure to stop the Unification Church from forcing followers to donate their life savings. 

Yamagami, who is undergoing assessment to see if he is mentally competent to stand trial, said his mother had bankrupted the family after giving the church 100 million yen.

Over 30,000 complaints  

The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which represents people who claim they have been pressured to make huge donations to the church, said there have been more than 30,000 complaints against the organization, but the government had refused to address the problem until Abe's killing put it in the spotlight.

"As lawyers, we have witnessed the distress, anguish and economic suffering of too many former members, current members' families and 'second-generation' ex-members of the Unification Church, and we have long been deeply concerned with this dire reality," the organization said in a statement.     

It accused church followers of "deceiving" targeted individuals, of inciting fear through alarming tales of "karma and fate," and triggering a sense of guilt through psychological pressure.

The Unification Church — labeled a dangerous cult by some critics — has been quick to dismiss claims that it has acted in an inappropriate way towards its followers.

Abe funeral turns political for PM Kishida

"Followers give thanks for God's blessings and offer donations voluntarily based on their faith," it said in a statement.

"Former followers who claim to have been forced to donate by the church also should have offered donations voluntarily based on their faith; however, after they left the church, they simply lied about the fact that the church forced them to donate," the church added.

The church also denies being directly involved in Japanese politics, although it admits that "groups affiliated with the church have relationships with politicians as part of their political activities."

That sort of splitting hairs has not gone down well with the public, and there has been a fierce backlash against the church, which claims that members have received death threats — and against the politicians accused of permitting the organization to infiltrate the national decision-making process.

Links to the church  

So far, 179 of the 379 lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have admitted links to the church, including 23 of the 54 vice ministers and parliamentary secretaries in the Kishida cabinet.

And, as the revelations snowballed, Kishida's popularity plummeted. The prime minister had the backing of more than 60% of the electorate just a year ago; today, that has sunk below the 30% threshold that is widely seen as the crisis level in Japanese politics.

Yukihisa Fujita, a former member of the Constitutional Democratic Party, said he believed that the prime minister would survive, but Kishida has been weakened by the scandal, and his administration will always be remembered for the party's links to the church.  

"None of this would have come into the open without the killing of Abe earlier in the year, and it is alarming to think that, had that not happened, then we would probably not know the scale of the church's influence on politics here," he said.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

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