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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Justin McCurry in Tokyo and agencies

Japan begins inquiry into Unification church in wake of Shinzo Abe killing

Wellwishers gather at a state funeral for late former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September.
Well-wishers in Japan gather at a state funeral for late former prime minister Shinzo Abe in September. An investigation into the Unification church has begun. Photograph: Keizo Mori/UPI/REX/Shutterstock

Japan’s government has launched an investigation into the Unification church, five months after the former prime minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead, allegedly by a man with a longstanding grudge against the group.

The probe, announced on Tuesday, will focus on the church’s finances and organisation, and could see it stripped of its legal status, media reports said.

Revelations of longstanding ties between members of the ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP) and the church – whose members are colloquially known as Moonies – have been greeted with dismay by the public and sent the prime minister Fumio Kishida’s poll ratings into freefall.

The education minister, Keiko Nagaoka, said the church, which is officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, would be given until 9 December to respond to investigators’ questions, including those related to its controversial fundraising activities.

It will then be left to a court to decide whether to remove the church’s legal status and with it the tax exemptions that registered religious organisations enjoy in Japan. Reports said that it would be able to continue as a religious entity in that scenario.

Tetsuya Yamagami, who is accused of killing Abe while he was making an election speech in early July, has said he targeted the politician because he believed he was a supporter of the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.

Yamagami, who is undergoing a psychological evaluation that is expected to last until early next year, told police that his mother had donated large sums of the money to the church two decades ago.

Abe, whose grandfather, postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the Unification church establish a presence in Japan, sent a congratulatory video message to an event held by an affiliate of the church in 2021.

The church, a deeply conservative organisation founded by the Rev Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954, has been accused of pressuring members in Japan to pay exorbitant sums for “spiritual” items that will purportedly relieve them of bad ancestral karma. The church, which is denounced as a cult by its critics, has denied any wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, Nagaoka noted that the church had been ordered to pay damages of at least 1.4bn yen ($9.8m) in 22 civil lawsuits. She said the group needed to be investigated as it is “suspected of wielding great influence and inflicting widespread damage”.

Few expected Yamagami’s reported motive for killing Abe to have such dramatic political repercussions. However revelations that LDP politicians have appeared at Unification church events and accepted members’ help during election campaigns have rocked Kishida’s party, sending his approval ratings to the lowest level since he took office late last year.

In August, a party investigation revealed that about half of the LDP’s lawmakers had associated with the organisation.

Kishida’s approval rating has stayed at 27.7% for a third straight month, according to a poll by the Jiji news agency conducted in mid-November. The poll showed that 43.5% of respondents did not support the government.

Most voters also opposed Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe in September.

His problems have been compounded by the recent resignations of three cabinet ministers. The justice minister, Yasuhiro Hanashi, quit last week after joking that he only made the news when he signed execution orders, while the economic revitalisation minister, Daishiro Yamagiwa, resigned last month over his links to the Unification church.

At the weekend, Minoru Terada, the internal affairs minister, resigned in connection to political funding scandals after media reports that Kishida was about to sack him.

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