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

Shinzo Abe shooting: who are the ‘Moonies’ and why are they in the spotlight?

The Unification church in Seoul, South Korea
The Unification church in Seoul, South Korea. The Moonies’ strong anti-communist stance helped build ties with politicians in Asia, including Shinzo Abe’s grandfather. Photograph: Lee Jae-Won/AFLO/REX/Shutterstock

The apparent motive given by the man accused of assassinating Shinzo Abe has cast a spotlight on the Unification church and its ties to politicians.

Tetsuya Yamagami has confessed to killing the former Japanese prime minister during a campaign speech on Friday. He blamed the global religious movement – whose members are often referred to as Moonies – for bankrupting his family, and believed that Abe had championed its activities in Japan.

The Japan branch of the church has confirmed that Yamagami’s mother is a member, but declined to comment on the suspect’s claims that she had made a “huge donation” more than 20 years ago that left the family struggling financially.

The branch’s president, Tomihiro Tanaka, told a press conference that Yamagami’s mother became a follower in the late 1990s, adding that the family had suffered financial ruin around 2002.

Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese branch of the Unification church, at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday.
Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese branch of the Unification church, at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday. Photograph: KYODO/Reuters

The organisation’s official name is the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, although it is better known as the Unification church. It was founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, whose strident anti-communism would lead him to build ties with conservative politicians around the world, including in Japan.

Moon, who died in 2012, said he had had a vision aged 15 in which he was told by Jesus to complete his unfulfilled mission to restore humanity to a state of “sinless” purity.

The church’s early adherents were effective recruiters, and membership soared from an initial group of 100 missionaries to around 10,000 in a few years.

Often described as a cult motivated by financial gain, the church became known for conducting mass weddings in huge sports stadiums – involving thousands of couples who were meeting for the first time – and at one time claimed to have about 3 million followers worldwide.

But global membership of the church, whose teachings comprise new interpretations of the Bible, has fallen sharply to several hundred thousand from its 1980s peak, according to some experts.

Its connection to Japan is inseparable from the instability of the postwar years, when conservative politicians sought to build alliances that they believed would prevent the country from embracing communism.

They included Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who reportedly set up an organisation with ties to the church. It was Kishi’s decision to court Moon and his followers in Japan that reportedly drove Yamagami to target his grandson.

Yamagami reportedly told investigators that he had fired a shot from a homemade gun at a Unification church facility near his home the day before he targeted Abe. The Asahi Shimbun quoted residents as saying they had heard a loud bang in the early hours of 7 July.

The Japan chapter was founded in 1959 – the penultimate year of Kishi’s three-year term as prime minister – as the church sent missionaries to Japan and the US to forge links with influential politicians and business leaders.

Last September Abe delivered a congratulatory address via video link at an event organised by an affiliate, the Universal Peace Federation. Donald Trump is among other conservative politicians who have publicly associated themselves with the church.

Abe had been criticised for speaking at events organised by church affiliates. Last year lawyers representing people who say they lost money because of the church filed a letter of protest after he delivered the video message. They also protested when Abe sent a telegram to a mass wedding in 2006.

Moon, who moved to the US in the early 1970s, had longstanding ties to Japan, having studied engineering at a high school in Tokyo. He was indicted on tax evasion charges in the US in 1981 and served 11 months in prison.

In 2008, Moon passed control of the church to his youngest son, Hyung Jin Moon, who later formed a breakaway organisation, the Sanctuary church, after falling out with his mother, Hak Ja Han. She now controls the Unification church.

The police have not publicly identified the group Yamagami blamed for his family’s financial troubles, and most Japanese media organisations refrained from naming it until Monday’s press conference.

With Agence France-Presse

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