FOCUS: Unification Church Has Deep, Long-Running Ties to LDP

Politics

The Liberal Democratic Party has come under heavy scrutiny for its members’ connections to the Unification Church, a shady religious organization with deep political ties. The relationship between the two groups started with Kishi Nobusuke a half-century earlier and continued under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who was assassinated by a gunman motivated by his family’s association with the church.

The religious group formerly known as the Unification Church has had ties to Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party for half a century, bound by a common thread of anticommunism.

Former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, one of the most prominent anticommunist and pro-US members of the LDP, led the way in forging ties with the group, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

The group used its anticommunist political arm, the International Federation for Victory over Communism, to cement its relationship with Kishi. The affiliation appears to have continued with Kishi’s grandson, former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who was killed by a gunman motivated by Abe’s alleged links to the Unification Church.

Early Connections

According to the book Nihon tōitsu undōshi (The History of the Unification Movement in Japan), by Unification Church–affiliated publisher Kōgensha, the religious group, founded by Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954, started proselytizing in Japan around 1959. It was certified as a religious organization in Japan in 1964, with Kuboki Osami, a former member of the lay Buddhist organization Risshō Kōsei Kai, serving as its first chairman. By 1967, the organization’s activities, particularly its recruitment of university students, drew the attention of the media, which began describing it in such unflattering terms as a “fundamentalist movement that makes parents weep.”

When the Unification Church founded the International Federation for Victory over Communism in 1968, Sasakawa Ryōichi, a prominent right-wing figure and head of the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation (now the Nippon Foundation), served as its honorary chairman. Around 1970, Kishi and other LDP leaders with close ties to Sasakawa began visiting the church’s headquarters and attending meetings held by the organization.

In 1964, the Unification Church moved its headquarters to Nanpeidaichō in Shibuya, occupying the building Kishi used as his official residence while prime minister, which was adjacent to his private estate. Kishi paid a visit to the organization when it relocated its headquarters again in 1973, at which time Sasakawa expressed to the former prime minister his sympathy for the group and appealed to him to support its efforts. The visit made a positive impression on Kishi, who spoke warmly of the organization, including describing Kuboki’s zeal as “encouraging.”

Unification Church founder Moon met with Kishi’s protégé Fukuda Takeo, the finance minister who would go on to serve as prime minister, when he visited Japan in 1974. Fukuda praised Moon, declaring that “a great leader has arisen in Asia.” Kuboki would later write that it was Kishi’s support that “enabled the International Federation for Victory over Communism to make great strides.”

The Kōgensha book makes almost no mention of the Unification Church’s ties to LDP Diet members from the late 1980s onward. This is likely the result of an uptick in negative media coverage of the group. Around this time, reports began surfacing of the organization’s dubious activities, such as bilking followers of money through so-called spiritual sales and staging mass weddings, including one in 1992 involving a popular Japanese singer that shocked the public.

Abe’s Wellspring of Power

The ties between the Unification Church and the LDP remained strong, however. One LDP official describes how people claiming to be from the International Federation for Victory over Communism would show up in droves at election offices from the 1990s into the 2000s. Speaking at a press conference in July 2022, attorney Watanabe Hiroshi of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales pointed out that the Unification Church has expanded its political connections beyond just the LDP. “The number of followers of the group who have taken positions as secretaries to Diet members, including with opposition legislators, stretches into triple digits,” he explained. He stressed that this was a change from when the group first looked into the issue some 20 years ago. “At that time, the LDP made up the majority.”

According to political sources in Abe’s home prefecture of Yamaguchi, the former prime minister inherited his connections to the Unification Church from Kishi, his grandfather, via his father Abe Shintarō. The lawyers network raised issue with Abe’s connection to the church after he left office in 2021, objecting to a congratulatory message and video he sent to the group in 2006 while chief cabinet secretary under Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō.

According to the source in Yamaguchi, Abe managed the votes of Unification Church members. “Without a doubt, he derived a large part of his political strength from the organization.” For instance, during the July upper house election, Abe is believed to have funneled followers’ votes to Inoue Yoshiyuki, who served as his executive secretary during his first stint as prime minister. After he was elected, Inoue admitted that he was an informal member of the group.

Speaking to the press on August 2, LDP Secretary-General Motegi Toshimitsu firmly denied that the party had any connection to the Unification Church. However, this goes against statements by sources within the LDP that members of the International Federation for Victory over Communism have held positions at the party’s headquarters.

Public outcry over the LDP’s ties to the Unification Church forced Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to reshuffle his cabinet and party leadership ahead of schedule. This has had little effect in quelling the turmoil surrounding the issue, though, as connections to the group among a parade of new figures, including ministers, senior vice ministers, and parliamentary secretaries, have come to light.

The opposition has been quick to take advantage of the scandal. Mabuchi Sumio, Diet affairs leader for the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, called for an early Diet session to get to the bottom of the issue, saying that “it’s not something that can be cleared up outside of chambers.” The matter will remain at center stage so long as the LDP struggles to bring to light its murky ties to the Unification Church.

Former Prime Ministers Abe Shinzō, left, and Kishi Nobusuke. (© Jiji)
Former Prime Ministers Abe Shinzō, left, and Kishi Nobusuke. (© Jiji)

(Originally published in Japanese on Jiji.com on August 18, 2022. Additional translation by Nippon.com.)

[Copyright The Jiji Press, Ltd.]

religion Jiji Press Abe Shinzō politics