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

Japan’s lower house tightens religious donation rules amid Unification church controversy

A person walks past the sign for the Unification Church in Tokyo, Japan.
A person walks past the sign for the Unification Church in Tokyo, Japan. Photograph: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

Japan’s lower house of parliament has passed a law that will make it a crime for religious and other organisations to “maliciously” secure donations from members – a move seen as an attempt by the ruling party to defuse the controversy over its ties to the Unification church.

The prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has seen his approval ratings plummet since widespread ties between his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the church were exposed in the wake of the assassination this summer of Japan’s former leader, Shinzo Abe.

The LDP has come under mounting pressure to address allegations that the group – whose members are colloquially known as Moonies – pressure followers into donating huge sums that have left them ruined financially.

The bill passed the lower house on Thursday with support from the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito and some opposition parties. The less powerful upper house is expected to pass the legislation before the current parliamentary session ends on Saturday, media reports said.

Tetsuya Yamagami, the only suspect in Abe’s 8 July shooting, has told investigators that he targeted the politician because of his connections to the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.

While not a member, Abe had sent a congratulatory video message to a meeting of a church affiliate last autumn in which he praised it for its commitment to traditional family values.

His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was instrumental in helping the church, founded in South Korea in 1954, establish a presence in Japan. Kishi, who served as prime minister in the late 1950s, viewed the group’s conservative founder, Sun Myung Moon, as a key ally in his campaign to rid Japan of communist influences and crush trade unions.

Abe’s death – and his alleged killer’s motives – triggered a wave of revelations of ties between the church and a large number of LDP politicians, as well as a smaller number of MPs from other parties.

MPs had spoken at church events in Japan and overseas, while followers had helped campaign for LDP candidates. Critics believe the party’s opposition to same-sex marriage and other progressive causes has been influenced by the church in Japan, where it claims to have between 50,000 and 70,000 followers.

Kishida’s attempts to distance his party from the church – officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification – have failed to improve his political fortunes, with recent polls showing his approval ratings at their lowest level since he took office last October.

Criticism of the church has centred on its use of “spiritual sales” to raise money. Followers are typically told that buying items such as vases and other ornaments – at vastly inflated prices – will relieve their families of bad “ancestral karma”.

Yamagami reportedly said his mother had destroyed their family after paying the church more than ¥100m (£600,000) about 20 years ago.

The new law prohibits all organisations – not just those of a religious nature – from using scare tactics and gaslighting, as well as making “unreasonable” spiritual claims, to secure donations, the Kyodo news agency said.

Members of groups found to have unfairly solicited donations could face a prison sentence of up to one year or a maximum fine of ¥1m (£6000), according to Kyodo. It will also allow donors’ spouses and children to cancel financial contributions on their behalf, it added.

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