The Unification Church in Japan

The Abe Assassination and Political Power: Journalist Arita Yoshifu on Religion and Politics

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The July 2022 assassination of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō focused attention on the Unification Church. The alleged killer’s mother, a church follower, had given her family’s riches to the organization, inspiring her son to take up arms against a politician he saw as having supported the group. A journalist and former politician who has long followed the church’s dealings looks at the issues involved.

To the west of the National Diet building in central Tokyo stand three 12-story buildings that house offices for members from both houses of the Diet. Arita Yoshifu’s former office in the Members’ Building of the House of Councillors commands a view of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Nagatachō headquarters. Arita still remembers the scene from his window one rainy day after the July 8, 2022, assassination of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō.

“A long line of mourners formed behind tables that had been placed outside LDP headquarters for people to put flowers on. Some of the mourners were children who had been brought by their mothers. Even Abe would never have dreamt that he would be assassinated in broad daylight over the LDP’s involvement with the Unification Church. He met with great misfortune,” says Arita.

Members of the public pay their respects to former Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo on July 15, 2022. (© Jiji)
Members of the public pay their respects to former Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo on July 15, 2022. (© Jiji)

A Family Destroyed by the Church

“I felt conflicted,” continues Arita. “As a journalist, I spent many years covering issues of religion, in the course of which I reported on the Unification Church’s ‘spiritual sales’—sales of trinkets claimed to have supernatural powers, along with demands for excessive donations. After being elected to the House of Councillors in 2010, I used Diet question time to draw attention to the plight of victims of the church. However, the government failed to take fundamental action.”

Arita Yoshifu. (© Mikata Kyū)
Arita Yoshifu. (© Mikata Kyū)

Yamagami Tetsuya, who has been charged with the murder of the former prime minister in addition to several other crimes, was born into a wealthy family. However, after Tetsuya’s father died, his mother became a devoted follower of the Unification Church, and Tetsuya’s life was turned upside down. One by one, his mother sold off the family’s assets, eventually even selling the family home. She donated more than ¥100 million to the church in all. The financial strain of the donations caused her to declare bankruptcy in 2002. The family faced severe financial hardship, and Tetsuya resigned himself to the fact that he would not go to university.

Tetsuya’ elder brother had a medical condition. In 2005, having taken out a life insurance policy that made his brother the beneficiary, Tetsuya tried to kill himself, in an effort to help with his brother’s medical bills. While Tetsuya’s suicide attempt was unsuccessful, the brother Tetsuya tried to save by giving his life would himself commit suicide in 2015.

“The Yamagamis were very unfortunate,” explains Arita. “I tour the country talking about the Unification Church, and when I talk about Tetsuya’s story, people start crying. That is probably the reason why so many parcels of food and money have arrived from all over the country addressed to him, despite his commission of a heinous crime,” he goes on.

Attacked for Reporting the Truth

Arita has been covering the Unification Church since the late 1980s. His reporting subsequently led the Asahi Journal tabloid to mount a campaign to shut down the church’s “spiritual sales” of goods claimed to hold miraculous efficacy.

“The church originally raised money by selling flowers, handkerchiefs, and socks, but that never generated significant revenue, so they shifted to miracle-working trinkets in the late 1970s,” explains Arita.

The objects claimed to have supernatural powers included urns, miniature pagodas, seals, pendants, and rings. The church sold these knick-knacks for dozens of times more than they were worth. When Ariyoshi’s articles were published, his exposés made him a target for attacks.

“I received numerous phone calls with nobody speaking on the other end, and I was frequently followed. One day, a man came up to me on the subway steps, punched me, and said ‘remember my face.’ I received threatening letters in which razor blades had been concealed in such a way as to cut the person opening them,” he reveals.

When Arita began reporting on the church, the postwar Japanese economy was booming thanks to the asset bubble. However, the burst of the bubble in the early 1990s and the ensuing recession brought about a host of social problems. It was in this climate of worry that TV commentators started to focus on the Unification Church.

The wedding of pop singer Sakurada Junko in a 1992 church-sponsored mass wedding in Seoul was reported repeatedly in celebrity news, both in magazines and on TV. In 1993, a story about a former rhythmic gymnastics athlete who escaped from the church also generated significant interest.

“From 1992 through 1994, I wrote over 100 articles on the church. TV stations and newspapers only ever treated the issue as celebrity gossip, however. There was very little coverage of the social issues created by the sale of supernatural knick-knacks,” says Arita.

Aum Attack Sucks Oxygen from UC Coverage

However, despite the attention drawn by the Unification Church at one time, the public in Japan lost interest over time, most markedly after 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyō cult carried out a sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway, killing 14 and injuring 6,300. The ensuing wall-to-wall Aum coverage ensured a total lack of interest in the Unification Church, and Aum came to dominate the job requests received by Arita.

“I would try and sell the tabloids stories about UC, only to have the editor tell me my story would not capture the public interest in the way that Aum would,” he says.

It was around this point that the church is believed to have gradually built relationships with politicians. A survey published by the LDP in September 2022 found that 179 of the party’s 379 Diet members, or nearly half, had some relationship with the Unification Church. It was also reported that in the 2021 House of Representatives election and 2021 House of Councillors Election, a Unification Church friendship organization signed agreements with LDP candidates regarding policy. The agreements required the candidates to commit to constitutional reform, increased national security, support for the disciplining of children, and a cautious stance on LGBT issues and same-sex marriage. The church asked candidates to sign endorsement agreements in which they explicitly declared their support for these policies.

Arita describes the history of the relationship between the LDP and the former Unification Church as follows:

“The Unification Church was established in South Korea in 1954. In 1958, Korean followers who had entered Japan illegally began proselytizing in Japan. The church also began proselytizing in the United States that same year. In 1968, the International Federation for Victory over Communism was established in South Korea and Japan. The church used the slogan ‘victory over communism’ when approaching politicians, because doing so in the capacity of a religious organization would have triggered suspicion. It was through the Federation that Abe Shinzō’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, strengthened his relationship with UC.”

Church’s Close Ties to Abe Family

Abe Shinzō’s relationship with the Unification Church goes all the way back to his grandfather. Arita says that a former minister in an LDP cabinet once told him that it was Abe who handled the relationship between the Unification Church and the Liberal Democrats. The church valued Abe, too. In September 2021, Abe recorded a five-minute video message that was shown at a gathering in Seoul of the Universal Peace Federation, a group linked to the church. It is said that this video made Yamagami Tetsuya decide to attack the former prime minister. In the video, Abe makes the following comment:

“I want to express my respects to UPF founder Han Hak Ja and the rest of you for working with the UPF to resolve conflicts around the world, in particular with regard to the reunification of the Korean peninsula.”

Han is the widow of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon and the current head of the organization, now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. For the organization, Abe remained an important ally, even after he had stood down as prime minister, because of the influence he wielded in the LDP.

But Arita finds one aspect of the relationship between Abe and the church curious.

“When Abe was LDP secretary general in 2003 and 2004, I asked him whether the Unification Church tried to get close to him and he said they did, frequently. When I asked if he met with church representatives, he said he tried not to. At that time, LDP politicians were still keeping their distance from the church. There was therefore a time when the LDP did not send congratulatory messages to be read at UC functions. But as concern about the church’s spiritual sales waned, Abe came to fraternize with church officials, even to the extent of recording a video message for their event,” he says.

Arita’s Aum Shinrikyō coverage led him to build relationships with senior police officers. A comment made by one of those officers stays with him today:

“Once the Aum investigation wound up, we were all fired up and ready to get our teeth into the Unification Church.”

No developments were forthcoming, however. About 10 years later, Arita asked the police officer why they hadn’t gone after the church. His response was simple: “politics.”

Children of Followers Still Waiting for Justice

In December 2022, the Diet passed a bill aiming to provide relief to victims of the former Unification Church. Attention is now focused on whether the bill will cause the organization to be stripped of its status as a religious organization. But some say that not enough is being done.

“If the church loses its religious standing, it will lose its preferential tax status as well. The private organization that is the former Unification Church will remain, however. In an age when you can send money across borders using a cellphone, it will be difficult to stop people from donating to the church. The church will claim it is the victim of religious persecution and mount a united defense.”

Arita stood in the by-election for the Yamaguchi Prefecture seat that was called after Abe’s death, but was unsuccessful. He is currently being sued for defamation by the former Unification Church over comments he made on television. In a gathering held in May 2023 to support his legal fight, he made the following comment:

“I take the attitude that it’s an honor to be sued. I will fight to the very end, as long as I’m alive.”

(Originally published in Japanese. Reporting and text by Mikata Kyū, Nishioka Yukifumi, and Power News. Banner photo: Arita Yoshifu makes a speech on Unification Church issues on November 3, 2022. © Mikata Kyū.)

religion LDP Abe Shinzō politics Unification Church