Japan probes Unification Church after backlash over ties to ruling parties

TOKYO, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Japan on Tuesday launched an investigation into the Unification Church that could jeopardize its legal status after the July assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed its close ties to the ruling party and sparked a public backlash.

For the Unification Church, which was founded in South Korea in 1954 and relies on its Japanese followers as its main source of income, the probe could deal a severe financial blow, affecting its tax exemptions and even its assets.

The stakes are also high for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government, with an approval rating of just 30% and keen to quell furor over Unification Church links that forced the resignation of its economic revitalization minister last month.

“For Kishida it is clear that this is a big burden for him. It will definitely be associated with the Unification Church theme,” said Levi McLaughlin, an associate professor at North Carolina State University who studies religion in Japan.

The government has given the Unification Church until December 9 to answer a first series of questions about its finances and organization, Culture Minister Keiko Nagaoka said at a news conference.

After gathering evidence, the ministry will decide whether to seek a court order to overturn the Unification Church’s standing to sue, which could take several months and be followed by a lengthy legal battle.

The Unification Church expects to receive the first government questions on Wednesday and will cooperate in the investigation, a spokesman for the group in Japan said.

A senior church official at its South Korean headquarters added, “Japan is a democratic country that guarantees religious freedom, so we are closely monitoring the situation.”

Shiori Kanno, an attorney on a Consumer Protection Agency panel investigating the church’s practice of selling ginseng drinks, marble sculptures and other items to raise money from devotees, said she expects the case to go all the way to the Supreme Court, when the government ends trying to legally dissolve the church.

“The church would lose tax exemptions like those on donations from members,” she said. “It’s getting harder to borrow money.”

However, she added that losing its status as a religious organization would not prevent the church from continuing its activities or its members from meeting.


When Tetsuya Yamagami was arrested in July for the killing of former Prime Minister Abe, he blamed the religious organization for impoverishing his family and said Abe, who has appeared at events sponsored by Unification Church groups, had encouraged them.

The Unification Church, known worldwide for its mass weddings, says it has stopped soliciting donations that cause financial hardship for its followers and curtailed aggressive doorstep selling of church property after convictions linked to such practices a decade ago led to – leaders in Japan to step down.

However, with the spotlight on church activities, Kishida came under pressure to address public anger, fueled by revelations that more than half of all lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had ties to the church.

The uproar has continued despite a cabinet reshuffle on August 10 that purged some senior figures with ties to the church. At the end of October, Economic Revitalization Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa resigned after announcing that he, too, has ties to the church.

Kishida will be particularly interested in getting the issue over with ahead of a series of local elections next April, when his party faces voters at the national level for the first time since winning the upper house election in July, immediately following Abe’s death becomes.

Reporting by Tim Kelly, Kaori Kaneko and Ju-min Park; Edited by Chang-Ran Kim, Kenneth Maxwell and Edmund Klamann

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