TOKYO — Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was an unlikely target, and his July 8 assassination was a strange and shocking fate for the country’s longest-serving prime minister and a world-renowned diplomat.
The assassination has focused public attention on the religious movement that was apparently the target of the alleged killer’s hatred — and its decades-long relationship with Japan’s leaders and the ruling party.
The main target was reportedly Hak Ja Han Moon, the president of the Unity Church and the widow of its founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Self-proclaimed Messiah and the “true father” of his followers, Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954.
Japanese media have It has been reported The suspected killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, told police he had a long-standing grudge against the church because his mother had donated more than $700,000 to the church, bankrupting the family.
He apparently had plans to target church members, including the president, but changed his focus to Abe after seeing a video message Abe gave at a church-related virtual event last September.
Abe did not belong to the church. But like other Japanese politicians, he has appeared at church-related events, including one last September where former US President Donald Trump spoke.
Re-examining the role of the church in Japan
The church immediately distanced itself from this assassination. Tomihiro Tanaka, head of its Japan branch, officially known as The Family Federation for World Peace and Unitysaid Press conference that Yamagami was not a member of the church, but his mother was.
“Regarding the motive of Yamagami’s suspected crime and the donation issue reported by the media, we would like to refrain from discussing it because the case is under investigation by the police,” Tanaka said.
On Wednesday, Yamagami’s mother told investigators she was sorry for causing trouble for the church. “Unification Church is everything to him. It’s life itself. He doesn’t think anything about his son,” another relative said. He was reported to have said.
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The Unification Church has long-standing ties to Japanese politics
Abe’s ties to the church go back generations, including his father Shintaro Abe and his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi.
At the end of World War II, it was his grandfather Was imprisoned As a suspected war criminal in prison, Kishi contacted other right-wing nationalists, including businessman and politician Ryuichi Sasakawa.
When Reverend Moon established an anti-communist group in South Korea in 1968, he appointed Sasakawa as the honorary head of the Japan branch – headquartered on land next to Kishi’s residence.
Ahn Young Joon/AP
“They founded the Federation of Victory over Communism and Kishi supported it,” he says Hiromi Shimada, Religion expert at Tokyo Women’s Christian University. And this situation laid the foundation for Abe’s assassination.
Shimada says the church has long provided volunteers to help Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party at election time. He says that while LDP politicians have failed to fully shield the church from lawsuits or criticism, they have turned a blind eye to allegations against it.
Japanese Defense Minister Nobu Kishi – who is Abe’s brother – He said this week Members of the Unity Church had volunteered in their previous election campaigns. And the head of the Japanese agency investigating security lapses in Abe’s assassination told reporters that he chaired the executive committee of a church-related event in 2018.
The church has faced a series of lawsuits and bad publicity
Despite the current explosion of public attention, the Unification Church, like other new religions, has lost influence since its rise in popularity during Japan’s period of rapid economic growth in the 1960s.
“It was the time of urbanization that created many new believers,” explains Shimada. Now that period is over. The believers have become old and many believers do not join it.
He says the church’s anti-communist mission lost relevance with the end of the Cold War. A series of lawsuits against the church also reduced its popularity.
Former church members say they were deceived
A former member of the church, who goes by the pseudonym Fumiaki Tada, claims the church tricked him into joining as a student, as he says the church targets its critics. He says their agents have been hiding their true identity for months and says they brainwashed him and then bilked him out of his money.
“They instill fear in you and tell you that you are full of sin and depravity, that you will eventually go to hell and that your family will suffer the same fate,” he says.
In addition to the sins of Adam and Eve, church members are taught about the sins of Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945, Tada says.
But the church also offered followers a way to salvation.
“We were told we had to compensate with money,” says Tada. So for the church headquarters in South Korea, the Japan branch is their wallet.
Tada later became an ecclesiastical official in the city of Sendai. He says the church’s headquarters in South Korea sent out fundraising quotas for branches, sub-branches and individual followers to meet. Followers who couldn’t meet quotas were often told to borrow money to help the church, he says.
Tada says that her family eventually forced her to leave the church. His successful lawsuit against the church helped him come to terms with his ordeal and share his experiences with other plaintiffs.
But it’s an opportunity he says Abe’s suspected killer never had.
“He was a religious child and he had no one to talk to,” says Tada. “That’s one of the reasons why he committed the crime and I’m sorry for that.”
Chi Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.