The logo of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (FFWPU), known as the Unification Church, is seen at the entrance of its Japan branch headquarters in Tokyo on Oct 13 (Photo: AFP)

By AFP, Tokyo

Oct 14 2023

The Japanese government asked a court on Oct. 13 to strip official recognition from the Unification Church, the influential sect that has come under the microscope since the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

The request to dissolve the church’s religious corporation status carries a range of legal repercussions, including the loss of its tax-exempt status, though it will be able to continue its religious practices.

“The education minister requested a dissolution order” at the Tokyo District Court, government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno told reporters, adding the government would now “fully prepare” for any trials.

The move follows Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s orders last year for a probe into the church after it emerged that Abe’s alleged killer was motivated by resentment against the group.

The church has been accused of pressuring its followers into making hefty donations and its members have been blamed for child neglect.

Speaking at a separate press conference, Justice Minister Ryuji Koizumi said that “a significant number of people were still suffering from problems linked to the Unification Church.”

He added his ministry would work to help ease their “dire situation”.

Only two religious groups in Japan have ever received such an order, including the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo metro.

The case against the Unification Church is expected to be a lengthy one, with the church expected to fight back through the court system.

Education Minister Masahito Moriyama revealed plans to ask for the court order on Thursday at a meeting with a panel of religious experts.

Founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, the church, whose members are colloquially known as “Moonies”, rose to global prominence in the 1970s and ’80s.

Japan has since become a key financial hub for the church, which teaches Japanese believers they need to atone for their country’s wartime occupation of Korea.

‘Based on facts’

Kishida said separately that the government’s plan was based on facts and a careful review of the matter.

“Based on the law and in accordance with the objective facts, careful work was done and the Minister of Education made the decision,” he told reporters at his office.

Abe was gunned down in broad daylight last year while giving a campaign speech in the western Nara region.

The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, is said to have resented the sect over large donations his mother made that bankrupted his family.

He could face the death penalty if convicted.

Investigations after Abe’s death revealed close ties between the church and many conservative ruling lawmakers in Japan.

Four of Kishida’s ministers have since stepped down over allegations of financial irregularities or links to the church.

Loss of credibility

Hajime Tajika, a law professor at Kindai University, explained there would be both social and legal impacts should the religious corporation status be revoked.

The Unification Church would “lose credibility” as a religious group, he said, which could in turn lead members to leave the church.

Aside from losing their tax exemption, they would also be banned from owning property in the church’s name, he explained, though they could transfer titles to individuals before the dissolution order is finalized.

However, “not all problems will be solved just because the court issues a dissolution order”, he warned.

For instance, they could legally continue the controversial practice of selling high-priced religious items they tout as granting forgiveness from sins, so-called spiritual sales.

Only two religious groups in Japan have ever received such an order — one was the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo metro.

But as there is no Japanese law under which religious groups may be banned entirely, Aum’s two successor groups continue to operate and recruit members.

Tajika expects it will take “at least a year” until the order is finalized, as the Unification Church will likely take the case to a higher court.

On its website Thursday, the sect called the government’s decision “extremely regrettable”.

Excessive’ donations

Abe, Japan’s longest-serving leader, was not a member of the church but had addressed an affiliated group, as have other well-known speakers including Donald Trump.

The former prime minister died on July 8, 2022, after being shot with a homemade gun as he spoke to supporters near a train station in Nara.

Yamagami, who faces murder and weapons charges, was apprehended on the spot.

He reportedly targeted Abe over his ties to the sect, of which Yamagami’s mother was a follower.

The suspect’s uncle told local media his nephew sometimes called him for help when his mother left her children alone and without food while attending church.

She donated 100 million yen (then around $1 million) to the group before declaring bankruptcy, he added.

While the church has confirmed his mother’s membership, it has refused to reveal how much she donated over the years.

Known officially as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the sect has denied any wrongdoing and pledged to prevent “excessive” donations from members.

Founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, the church, whose members are colloquially known as “Moonies”, rose to global prominence in the 1970s and ’80s.

Japan has since become a key financial hub for the church, which teaches Japanese believers they need to atone for their country’s wartime occupation of Korea. – UCA News