The Unification Church and Its Japanese Victims: The Need for “Religious Literacy”

Society Politics Culture

The shooting death of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō last July raised new questions about the Unification Church’s links with Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, while reviving old concerns about its fund-raising practices. Religious scholar Sakurai Yoshihide offers insight into the growth of the Korean-based movement in Japan, where religious devotion is a rarity.

Sakurai Yoshihide

Professor, Hokkaidō University. Conducts research on the sociology of religion with a focus on cults and new religions. Provides counseling services for students involved in cults and their parents. Author of Rei to kane: Supirichuaru bijinesu no kōzō (Spirit and Money—Anatomy of a Spiritual Business), Higashi Ajia shūkyō no katachi: Hikaku shūkyō shakaigaku e no shōtai (The Shape of East Asian Religion: An Introduction to Comparative Sociology of Religion), and other works.

What Is the Unification Church?

The Unification Church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, has come under sharp scrutiny in Japan since the man arrested in connection with the July shooting death of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō told investigators he was motivated by rancor against the UC and the belief that Abe had close ties to the movement. The incident ignited a firestorm over the organization’s allegedly fraudulent and coercive fund-raising methods, as well as its links with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The Unification Church was established by Sun Myung Moon in 1954 in Seoul.(*1) Loosely tied to Judeo-Christian tradition, it preaches that humankind fell from grace as a result of Eve’s fornication, and that Moon himself was the second Messiah, sent to purify humankind through his “blessing ceremonies” (see below). Controversy has long swirled around the religion, known for its mass weddings and high-pressure fund-raising activities, leading many to brand it a cult. Nonetheless, it boasts between 50,000 and 70,000 believers in Japan, according to Sakurai. That is more than twice the number of followers in South Korea and a huge chunk of the UC’s global membership, estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000.

In 1964, the Unification Church in Japan secured the legal status of a religious corporation, entitling it to preferential tax treatment. In 1968, it established a separate political arm, the anticommunist International Federation for Victory Over Communism. Experts say that the movement’s controversial ties with LDP politicians can be traced back to this anticommunist crusade. According to Sakurai, an ongoing behind-the-scenes campaign to influence government policy is a basic feature of the UC as a religious movement.

“They don’t do it out in the open,” Sakurai stresses, comparing the UC’s strategy with that of the Aum Shinrikyō cult responsible for the deadly 1995 sarin attacks on Tokyo’s subway system. “Aum Shinrikyō harbored delusions about taking political control of Japan. They believed they could attract more and more followers and eventually field candidates who would win elections. The Unification Church is more realistic. They know they couldn’t win with their own candidates, but by leveraging the power of bloc voting, they figure they can gain the ear of enough politicians to exert an influence over the country as a whole.”

The UC is also known for its lobbying and other political activities in the United States. The Washington Times, a conservative US newspaper, is owned by a UC-affiliated organization.

Japanese Attitudes Toward Religion

On the whole, the Japanese people do not consider themselves very religious. The Nationwide Survey on the Japanese National Character, conducted by the Institute of Statistical Mathematics every five years, asks respondents if they have any personal religious faith. Since the first survey in 1953, more than half of respondents have answered no, and in the latest survey (in 2018), a full 74% responded in the negative.

The animism of the native Shintō religion laid the foundations for a rather diffuse, unfocused, and flexible spirituality. When Buddhism entered Japan in the sixth century, it initially came into conflict with native Shintō beliefs and practices. But by the Nara period (710–94), the two religions were not merely coexisting but fusing in a form of syncretism, shinbutsu shūgō, that treated the Shintō kami as incarnations of various Buddhist deities.

“Buddhism has been evolving continuously since it arrived in Japan,” says Sakurai. “Since the Meiji era [1868–1912], Japanese Buddhism has diverged from the norm [in other countries] in that monks marry and have families instead of entering monasteries, and the leadership of temples is hereditary. The next stage in evolution was the rise of shinshūkyō, new religions rooted in lay Buddhism” that appeared from the mid-nineteenth century on.

At the same time, Christianity has exerted a strong influence on Japanese attitudes toward religion in the modern era. “Today the Japanese have an image of religious faith as something with a clear object of worship, an organized church to which one belongs, and communal rituals and ceremonies,” says Sakurai. “From the Japanese standpoint, being on the rolls of a temple or shrine doesn’t count as having religion. That’s why most Japanese people don’t consider themselves religious, even though they engage in religious activities like praying at shrines or temples on the New Year, visiting ancestral graves, and holding Buddhist memorial services for the dead.”

Despite this general lack of religious fervor, many new religions and cults have found fertile soil in Japan. How can we explain this seeming paradox?

Searching for Community

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the most rapid expansion of new religions in Japan, says Sakurai. It was the period of rapid economic growth, when millions were migrating from rural communities to the cities to find work. Far from their homes and families, many were hungry for a sense of community.

“The Buddhism-based new religions of that time targeted workers in small factories and shops and offered them a sense of belonging. They were also adept at building their organizations,” says Sakurai. By far the fastest growing of these new religions was Sōka Gakkai, a lay movement rooted in Nichiren Buddhism. “During those years, Sōka Gakkai recruited somewhere between six and seven million members. It held regional gatherings once a month, and the members contacted each other frequently and looked after one another. The organization filled the function of a surrogate family or village.”

The Unification Church had a similar appeal, although its initial expansion took place primarily on university campuses, where the radical leftwing movements of the 1960s left a large number of students alienated. In the 1960s and 1970s, the organization spread under the guise of the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles. In the 1980s, amid a booming economy, it stepped up and expanded its recruitment and fund-raising efforts—and ran into serious trouble.

Uproar over “Spiritual Sales”

Probably the biggest source of the movement’s notoriety in Japan is its fund-raising methods, particularly the “spiritual sales” (reikan shōhō) that caused a public furor in the 1980s. Members would go door-to-door offering Korean goods like ginseng and marble vessels, often using predatory sales tactics. Vulnerable people became convinced that their troubles were tied to generations of ancestors suffering in hell and were persuaded to buy exorbitantly priced goods (such as seals and urns) and services (such as divination and “ancestral counseling” that claimed to identify problems rooted in one’s family past) in order to reverse that karma. As a result of such practices, the UC was subject to numerous legal claims and was widely vilified in the press.

“From the late 1980s on, the Unification Church was obliged to modify its approach and recruit new members without revealing its true identity. It drew people in through services like palmistry and fortune telling—targeting middle-aged and older individuals as well as younger people—and then invited them to seminars and other events. It also shifted its fund-raising focus from ‘spiritual sales’ to extracting large donations from members.”

The mother of Yamagami Tetsuya, the shooter apprehended at the scene of former Prime Minister Abe’s assassination, apparently paid the UC a total of more than ¥100 million, including her husband’s life insurance. Yamagami claims her donations bankrupted and destroyed the family.

In September 2022, Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency released a report on complaints concerning the UC lodged with consumer affairs centers around the country. According to the report, in the 2020–21 fiscal year, members paid the organization approximately ¥2.7 million on average. A dedicated consumer hotline set up by the government in September has received a flood of calls, a large portion of which concern money solicited for the purpose of “ancestor liberation.” In some cases payments ranging from around ¥100,000 to several million yen continued over a period of a decade.

According to the Divine Principle of Sun Myung Moon, humankind fell from grace when Eve fornicated with the fallen angel Lucifer, who later became Satan. As a result of this perversion of God’s love, all of Adam’s descendants inherited a contaminated bloodline and were alienated from God. Eventually God sent Jesus as the Messiah to redeem humankind, but God’s plan to cleanse humanity’s sinful bloodline by having Jesus marry and start a family did not come to fruition. As Plan B, God sent the Messiah Sun Myung Moon, who embodied the Second Coming. Mass weddings are part of the plan. The idea is that when two believers, selected and matched by the Messiah, are united as man and wife with the Messiah’s blessing, their children are born free of sin.

But there is more to the doctrine than that. According to Moon’s dogma, Japan is the “Eve nation” and is responsible for the fall of Korea, the “Adam nation.” As a result, it is just and proper for Japan to serve Korea. Of the Japanese women who have been married in a UC blessing ceremony, an estimated 7,000 now live in South Korea.

“The purpose of the Unification Church in Japan,” asserts Sakurai, “is to raise money to send to South Korea.” (Millions have also been raised in the United States through UC-affiliated business enterprises like the fish wholesaler True World Foods, which supplies sushi restaurants around the country.)

The Need for Religious Literacy

How has such an organization managed to secure the loyalty and devotion of so many believers in Japan?

“A major reason,” says Sakurai, “is that the Japanese lack a prior knowledge of religion. As a consequence, they find nothing particularly strange about the doctrines of mass marriage or of Moon as the Messiah. They even accept the teaching that their ancestors are all suffering in hell and can only be saved by their own ‘good works’ in the form of financial donations. No one schooled in mainstream Christianity or traditional Japanese ancestor worship would buy into that.”

A contributing factor may be the absence of any opportunity to learn about religion in Japanese schools. The Constitution, drafted with an awareness of the damage done by State Shintō, mandates the separation of religion and government and thus prohibits religious education in public schools. But Sakurai believes it should still be possible to provide a general, nonsectarian introduction to religion.

“As an aspect of cultural literacy, we should begin cultivating a basic knowledge of religion in elementary school, including instruction about the diversity of the world’s major faiths,” he says. “This would foster the development of basic standards in our society, a kind of conventional wisdom regarding religion, and people would be naturally suspicious of teachings that diverge too far from those norms. Without religious literacy, people are basically defenseless against the fantastic claims of proselytizers.”

Sakurai, a professor at Hokkaidō University in Sapporo, has years of experience counseling students ensnared in cults, as well as their parents. But he acknowledges that there is a limit to what counseling can accomplish. “In Sapporo there are two dōjō operated by a cult called Aleph, which took over from the defunct Aum Shinrikyō. I know university students who joined and were still members when they graduated. Aleph follows the teachings of Asahara Shōkō [the executed leader of Aum Shinrikyō], and it continues to recruit students nationwide. The Aum threat isn’t over.”

According to Sakurai, social media has become a major vehicle for such religious proselytizing. “They begin with online chats, with the identity of the group concealed. If the target looks promising, they’ll create an opportunity to meet in person—in a cafe, for example—and then invite him or her to participate in some event or study group, gradually drawing the target in. During the pandemic, a lot of students were lonely because they couldn’t make friends, and they responded to such invitations without a second thought.”

What the Government Can Do

But isn’t religious proselytizing and fund raising protected by the Constitution, with its guarantee of freedom of religion?

“There are inherent limitations on religious liberty,” Sakurai insists. “You’re free to believe whatever you want. But you can’t infringe on others’ freedom in the process. It’s not permissible to conceal your true identity when recruiting followers or to deprive people of their power of independent judgment by fueling unfounded fears.”

But why the furor over lawmakers’ connections with the Unification Church? Although the Constitution states that “no religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority,” it does not ban the involvement of religious organizations in politics or elections. Sōka Gakkai (historically affiliated with the Kōmeitō party) is famous for mobilizing its followers at election time, and it is just one of many Japanese religious groups involved in politics.

“Where the Unification Church is concerned, the problem is that politicians concealed their ties with the group,” explains Sakurai. “To publicly reveal that they were getting organizational support from a group that continued to harm the public through fraudulent ‘spiritual sales’ and excessive donation demands would be tantamount to admitting that they placed their own interests over the good of the country and its people.”

How, then, should the authorities deal with the Unification Church now that the threat has come to light?

“The most realistic approach would be to seek an order of dissolution under article 81, paragraph 1, of the Religious Corporations Act. The government should set the process in motion by putting the issue to the Religious Corporation Council, which includes legal and religious scholars as well as representatives from religious groups, and releasing its conclusions to the public.”

Article 81 states that the Agency for Cultural Affairs, public prosecutors, or other competent authorities can request a court order revoking a corporation’s legal status “when the religious corporation commits an act which is clearly found to harm public welfare substantially.” The provision has been enforced only twice: in 1995, when Aum Shinrikyō was ordered dissolved, and in 2002, when the Myōkakuji temple group had its status revoked over fraudulent practices similar to the UC’s “spiritual sales.”

Up until recently, government officials have expressed doubts as to whether the procedure would apply to the UC, given that none of the organization’s officers have been arrested or charged in connection with any crime. But with public outrage mounting by the day, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio announced on October 17 that his government would launch an investigation under the Religious Corporations Act. This could open the way for a dissolution order.

“It’s a very simple and effective means of rectifying the relationship between religion and politics,” says Sakurai. “If the government requests a dissolution order, the organization has no choice but to release internal information if it wants to defend itself, and that means disclosure of the organization’s operations. But even without that, very few politicians are going to want to maintain ties with a group whose behavior led to a request for dissolution. Ordinary people will be more cautious as well, so there are major benefits to this process.”

That said, a dissolution order simply revokes a religious organization’s legal status; it does not guarantee an end to the group’s activities.

“Affiliated organizations, such as the Universal Peace Federation and the Women’s Federation for World Peace Japan, will continue to exist,” Sakurai acknowledges. “The movement will doubtless reorganize itself and continue its activities. There’s a limit to what legal regulation can accomplish. That’s why we need to foster religious literacy and give people the tools to defend themselves.”

(Originally written in Japanese by Kimie Itakura of Banner photo: Japanese women and other followers of the Unification Church in South Korea demonstrate in Seoul on August 18, 2022, protesting the “persecution” of believers in Japan. © AFP/Jiji.)

(*1) ^ At the time of its founding, the organization’s official name was the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity. In the 1990s, beset with legal challenges, the movement sought to rebrand itself as the Federation for Family Unity. In Japan, it succeeded in having its official name changed in 2015. There are also numerous business, civic, and nongovernmental organizations affiliated with the Unification Church.—Ed.

religion Buddhism Christianity Aum Shinrikyō Shinto