By MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press
TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Monday ordered an investigation into the Unification Church in an apparent attempt to quell public outrage over his ruling party’s intimate ties to the controversial group, which were revealed following the assassination of Shinzo Abe.
Former Prime Minister Abe was shot dead during an outdoor campaign speech in July. The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he killed Abe because of his apparent connection to a religious group he hated. A letter and social media posts attributed to Yamagami said her mother’s large donations to the church had bankrupted her family and ruined her life.
Kishida said a government hotline set up to receive church-related complaints and inquiries has resulted in more than 1,700 cases which have been handled by police and legal experts.
“Many victims are facing financial hardship and their families have been destroyed, but the government has been unable to provide adequate support and I take it seriously,” Kishida said. He also pledged to do more to support alleged victims, including a possible review of consumer contract law to prevent future problems.
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The Unification Church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, was granted religious organization status in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement backed by Abe’s grandfather and elder Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Since the 1980s, the church has been accused of underhanded business and recruiting tactics, including brainwashing members into paying huge portions of their salaries to Moon.
The group acknowledged that there had been cases of “excessive” donations. He says the problems have eased since he passed stricter compliance in 2009 and recently promised further reforms.
A government panel submitted a report earlier Monday that revealed numerous financial problems and lawsuits stemming from the church’s methods. The report called for an investigation while considering revoking the group’s legal status, though officials are seen as reluctant to go that far.
Kishida told a parliamentary committee meeting on Monday that he had instructed Education and Culture Minister Keiko Nagaoka, primarily responsible for overseeing religious groups, to prepare an investigation into the church in under the Religious Societies Act.
The police investigation into Abe’s murder has led to revelations about widespread links between the South Korea-based church and members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, including Abe, over their shared interests in conservative causes . The case also brought to light the suffering of adherents’ children, some of whom have come out and said they were forced to join the church and left in poverty or neglect due to the devotion of their parents.
Many critics consider the church a cult due to problems with worshipers and their families due to their financial and mental hardships.
An LDP survey in September found nearly half of its lawmakers had ties to the church, including cabinet ministers. Kishida has pledged to sever all those ties, but many Japanese want an additional explanation for how the church may have influenced party policies.
Kishida has been criticized and his government’s support ratings have plunged for his handling of the church controversy and for holding a state funeral for Abe, one of Japan’s most controversial leaders, who is now seen as a key link to the ruling party’s ecclesiastical ties.
Nagaoka, the culture minister, said she would set up a group of legal and religious experts next week to discuss a rare investigation into a religious group.
Members of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Selling, which monitors the church, submitted a request last week to the Ministries of Culture and Justice and the Attorney General to issue a dissolution order to the church.
The church has acknowledged Yamagami’s mother donated more than 100 million yen ($700,000), including life insurance and real estate, to the group. He said he later returned about half at the request of the suspect’s uncle.
Experts say Japanese worshipers are being asked to pay for their ancestral sins committed during their colonial rule of the Korean peninsula, and that 70% of the church’s funding comes from Japan.
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