Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered an investigation into the Unification Church on Monday amid a public outcry over the South Korean religious sect’s ties with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church has come under heavy scrutiny since the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 8.
Abe’s assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, said he killed Japan’s longest-serving prime minister for his support for the Unification Church. The 41-year-old assailant blames the church for his family’s financial ruin: his mother, a committed follower, had gone bankrupt after donating some 100 million yen ($672,000) to the sect.
The revelations prompted more relatives of members of the church to come forward accusing it of forcing ruinous donations, and media attention on the group’s links with the conservative LDP. An internal party survey later showed nearly half the LDP’s 379 national legislators had ties with the church, ranging from attending events organised by the group to receiving election support from its volunteers.
Kishida announced the probe in parliament on Monday with the allegations weighing on his support. Public backing for his cabinet plummeted to 35 percent in a Kyodo news agency poll — its lowest level since he took office last year.
The prime minister told legislators that he called for an investigation because of the “large” numbers of the church’s victims. “The government has taken seriously the fact that there are a large number of victims as well as poverty and broken families, and they haven’t been provided with adequate relief,” he said.
The investigation is being carried out by Japan’s ministry for education, culture, sports, science and technology.
Education Minister Keiko Nagaoka said she will begin the probe “immediately”.
The Unification Church, which has about 100,000 active followers in Japan, has denied any wrongdoing. Campaigners filed a complaint at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in September, claiming the church has become a victim of “a campaign of intolerance, discrimination and persecution” in Japan.
The complaint said Japanese media and lawyers have “twisted” the tragedy of Abe’s killing “into a bizarre narrative that makes the alleged assassin into a victim of the Unification Church and blames the church for the assassination”.
It added that church members have since suffered attacks, assaults and death threats.
With Monday’s probe, Japan’s Kyodo news agency said the Unification Church faces losing its status as a religious corporation, depriving it of tax benefits although it would still be allowed to operate in the country.
Kyodo said Kishida had been previously cautious about ordering a probe into the church’s activities, in part due to concerns of violating constitutional provisions for freedom of religion.
The NHK public broadcaster, meanwhile, said Kishida’s decision to launch an investigation was the first time the government had exercised its “right to ask questions” under the country’s Religious Corporations Act.
The provision allows the culture ministry and prefectural governments to question executives of religious corporations suspected of violating laws.
Only two religious groups in Japan have so far been ordered dissolved by courts.
One was the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out a deadly sarin gas attack in Tokyo’s subway system in 1995. The other was the Myokakuji temple group, whose priests were found guilty of defrauding followers by telling them they were possessed by evil spirits and charging them for exorcisms.