On July 14, 2022, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced plans to hold a state funeral for his predecessor Shinzo Abe, who was gunned down while campaigning for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on 8 July. In the weeks that followed, this funeral plan grew unpopular.
A surge of revelations flooded broadcast and social media about Abe and his family’s generations-long connections with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification — a South Korea-based religion formerly known as the Unification Church (UC).
Public sympathy has seemingly swung in favor of Abe’s accused assailant, Tetsuya Yamagami, who killed the former prime minister as an act of revenge against church leaders who reportedly pressured his family into bankruptcy by convincing his mother to make ruinous donations.
Japanese media has been dominated by updates about politicians’ links to the Unification Church. They have unveiled the success of the church in appealing to conservative lawmakers by providing votes and logistical support as it advances anti-leftist, misogynist, and homophobic ideals.
This notorious group has enjoyed decades of political protection against efforts to combat it by critics. Distaste for Abe and his fellow politicians’ links to the Unification Church has propelled a moral panic about controversial religious organizations in Japan, bringing to mind the media-driven alarm that followed the sarin gas attacks by the cult movement Aum Shinrikyo in 1995.
The dominant sentiment in Japanese media has not been sadness about Abe’s shocking assassination. A majority of the Japanese public opposes the state funeral — a sentiment reflected even in a poll reported in the conservative newspaper, Sankei shinbun, one of Abe’s staunchest defenders. Over 80% of those polled at the end of July 2022 felt that the ruling LDP had not satisfactorily accounted for its links to the Unification Church.
LDP Secretary Toshimitsu Motegi announced on September 8, 2022 that 179 — nearly half — of the party’s lawmakers in the National Diet reported ties with the Unification Church. Their connections range from sustained support for the church and its affiliated organizations to one-off interactions.
Even members of Komeito — the LDP’s Diet-level ally since the 1990s and a party founded by Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist group bitterly opposed to the Unification Church — attended events held by their ostensible rival. The stigma surrounding the Unification Church is now so extreme that a politician’s cursory appearance at a church event inspires a dedicated news article that may be retweeted thousands of times.
The Japanese government now faces a religion dilemma. It is a problem that made Kishida’s state funeral plan a debacle and dragged his cabinet’s approval rating below 30% from a pre-funeral level of 64%.
In Japan, anxiety about religion in the public sphere is particularly acute. When faced with questions along the lines of “do you have religious faith?” as few as 20% of respondents will answer positively, earning the country a reputation for being highly non-religious. So it is striking to note the seemingly disproportionate influence of religions and religion-affiliated organizations on Japanese electoral politics, largely via the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito.
For years, scholars and critics have focused on the close relationships between LDP lawmakers and the Association of Shinto Shrines, Nippon Kaigi (Japan Conference), an unincorporated lobby group comprising clergy and lay activists from a host of Buddhist, Christian, Shinto and other religious groups, and opinion-makers who prioritise religious commitments. The ruling coalition has mostly retained more than two-thirds of the seats in the Lower and Upper Houses of Japan’s Diet thanks in large part to electoral support provided by Komeito — the “Clean Government Party.”
Komeito is powered by its founding religion, Soka Gakkai, whose adherents routinely invite criticism for treating electioneering on behalf of Komeito and the LDP as a component of their regular practice. They have provided an average of approximately 20,000 votes in every national-level electoral district where they mobilize their members. Were it not for the intense engagement of religious organizations, Japanese politics would look entirely different.
It is not surprising that the Unification Church makes up a portion of Japan’s religious and political ecosystem. The Unification Church, despite only mobilizing around 10–20% of the 600,000 followers it claims to have in Japan, stands out for the scale and intensity of its exploitative practices.
Since 1987, Japan’s National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, a lobby group dedicated to representing former Unification Church members and the families of those still within the church, has recovered approximately 123.7 billion yen (around US$900 million) in close to 35,000 legal claims. Testimonials from former members broadcast by the Network include accounts of outrageous monetary demands and the travails of Japanese women paired with abusive men in the church’s mass weddings.
Observers, especially those on the left, have been angered by the influence the Unification Church has exerted on policymaking in the realm of gender politics. Anthropologist Tomomi Yamaguchi has uncovered successful attempts by the church to initiate measures against prefecture-level efforts to ensure gender equality and its opposition to municipal governments that recognize same-sex unions.
Outrage about the ties between politicians and the Unification Church promise to drag down Kishida even after the state funeral for Abe. Even if the LDP is able to excise its connections with the church, religious engagement will remain a staple of Japan’s political life, no matter the animosity it triggers.
Levi McLaughlin is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University. He is author of Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan.
The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.
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