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

Japan’s PM orders Unification church investigation as scandal engulfs party

Fumio Kishida
Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, ordered an investigation into the Unification church, whose members are known as Moonies. Photograph: Rodrigo Reyes Marin/AP

Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has ordered an investigation into the Unification church as he attempts to revive his political fortunes amid a scandal linking his party to the religious group.

Kishida had initially been reluctant to increase scrutiny of the church – whose members are colloquially known as Moonies – but on Monday his education minister, Keiko Nagaoka, said the probe would begin “immediately”. Depending on the outcome, the church could lose its tax-exempt status, media reports said.

The church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, has been under the spotlight since the 8 July assassination of the former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

The suspect in the killing, Tetsuya Yamagami, has said he targeted Abe because he believed the politician was a supporter of the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.

Media reports said Yamagami’s mother had donated large sums of money to the organisation two decades ago. Abe, a conservative whose grandfather and postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi had helped the Unification church establish a presence in Japan, sent a congratulatory video message to an event held by an affiliate in 2021.

The political fallout from Abe’s death has put Kishida on the defensive amid a slew of revelations linking the church to hundreds of MPs in his ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP). A party investigation that was intended to draw a line under the scandal had the opposite effect when it revealed that about half of the LDP’s lawmakers had associated with the organisation.

The controversy has sent Kishida’s cabinet’s approval ratings plummeting, with voters apparently unconvinced by his calls for LDP lawmakers to cut their ties to the church.

The Unification 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.

In recent months, former members have publicly criticised the church’s recruitment and fundraising methods – revelations that have increased the pressure on Kishida.

The investigation is expected to examine whether the church has harmed public welfare or committed acts that contravene its status as a religious group. It could be ordered to dissolve under the religious corporations law – a move that would deprive it of its status as a tax-exempt religious organisation. It would, though, be able to continue as a religious entity.

Only two religious organisations have received similar orders in Japan, including the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult, whose members carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people.

Kishida, who also faced criticism for approving a state funeral for Abe despite widespread public opposition, was initially reluctant to investigate the church, fearing accusations that he was trampling on religious freedoms.

However, his poor approval ratings and a growing body of evidence about the church’s methods appear to have forced his hand. The consumer affairs agency reportedly received 1,400 complaints about the church’s “spiritual sales” in the year from last April.

A poll by the Kyodo news agency earlier this month put support for Kishida’s cabinet at 35%, the lowest level since he became prime minister in October 2021.

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