Abe Shinzō’s Assasination and the Unification Church in Japan

The former prime minister of Japan, Abe Shinzō, is dead. While campaigning for the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP),1 he was assassinated by Yamagami Tetsuya at Yamato-Saidaiji Station in Nara on July 8, 2022, at 11:30am. His death followed shortly in a hospital after Yamagami used a homemade gun to shoot him from behind.

Philippe Yuan via Unsplash.

According to the media, Yamagami’s motive was not Abe’s political orientation, but his connection to leaders of the Unification Church (UC).2 He held a grudge against the UC because his mother had supposedly gone bankrupt due to donating large sums of money to the organisation.3 Yamagami’s initial idea was to kill UC leader Hak Ja Han (widow of the founder Moon Sun Myung), but he abandoned the plan because he realised he couldn’t reach her. He then switched targets to Abe.4 Abe and his family, particularly his grandfather Kishi Nobosuke, are known to have entertained friendly relations with the UC.5 The assassination of Abe led to a renewed interest and criticism of this connection between religion, specifically the UC, and the government in Japan. 

While state and religion are officially separated by law in Japan since the end of World War II, many political controversies have developed around secular politicians officially visiting or supporting religious institutions such as the Yasukuni Shrine6 or the Unification Church, as it is the case for Abe. 

The Unification Church and the Yamagami family
Yamagami’s motive is allegedly connected to his and his mother’s involvement in the UC. Media reports quote their family, saying since his widowed mother7 joined the UC in the 1990s, she had donated more than ¥100 million yen (about 720.000€), her house (in which she still lived with her children) and a part of her land to the UC. Her donations did not end even after she had declared bankruptcy in 2002.8 Aside from this, Yamagami’s uncle said that Yamagami’s older brother committed suicide after not being able to afford the medical treatment for his lifelong batter against cancer anymore; this tragically affected Yamagami.9

The suspect also twittered about his hatred of the UC. While his account has now been suspended from twitter, he had posted that he was “willing to die to liberate every person involved in the Unification Church”,10 indicating that he knew about the consequences murder charges and assassinations can have in Japan, where the death penalty is still executed.

Yamagami had also regularly posted on a blog that was run by journalist Yonemoto Kazuhiro to discuss the problems of children whose parents had joined the UC. One day before the assassination, Yamagami supposedly sent a letter to Yonemoto under his blog synonym “まだたりない” (mada tarinai, “not enough”), which Yonemoto only found a few days after the murder and wouldn’t easily give to the police (it was seized later). In the letter, the suspect described his desire to kill the leaders of the UC. Abe was also mentioned as the one yielding the most influence in the real world. Yonemoto expressed that he would have liked to talk to Yamagami before he would go so far, since he said he understands the suffering and the difficulty of being raised as a child of UC believers.11

The Unification Church in Japan
The situation of the Yamagami family may be an extreme example. Nevertheless, the UC has repeatedly been criticised by the media and lawyers for their operations in Japan.12 What is the UC, how do they operate in Japan and what does Abe’s family and the LDP have to do with this?

The UC is considered a new religious movement.13 After its foundation by Reverend Moon Sun Myung (1920-2012) in Seoul, South Korea, in 1954, the first UC missionaries were sent to Japan and the West a few years later. Their beliefs are a reinterpretation of Christian ideas, expanded by Moon’s scriptures, the so-called “Divine principles”. A child of Christian converts, Moon said he was chosen by God to restore his Kingdom during Easter in 1936. Although he did not want to create a separate group at first, he ended up splitting from the established church.14 Amongst the spread of the group, a continuously criticised aspect of the group’s activity were the so-called “Blessings” during which hundreds of couples (often people who had met for the first time and sometimes do not share the same language) were (and still are) married under the supervision and blessing of Moon and his wife Han.15

According to cultural anthropologist Hyun Mee Kim, the UC in Japan often targets very young women for marriage blessings or middle-aged women.16 They usually recruit them on the street, through door-to-door recruitment, or by invitation through friends. The religious studies scholar, Yoshihide Sakurai, who interviewed former Japanese UC members in a critical study, states: “In the 1990s, the [Unification] church delved into and exploited the family problems of middle-aged or older women allegedly through various forms of fortune-telling, typically by name or family tree. They then aggressively solicited donations in exchange for clearing up bad karma.”17 Yamagami’s mother supposedly also ended up in the UC due to this strategy.

Political Protection from “Eve” country Japan through Abe and the LDP
Ever since the assassination, Japan does not only mourn the death of Abe, but it also dug deeper into the political relationship between Abe, the LDP and the UC. Major newspapers like the Asahi Shimbun have started to publish about the scandalous connection, finally disclosing how the UC and conservative LDP politicians worked together in secret. These reports criticise the connection harshly, discussing Abe and his fellows as supporters of a problematic relationship despite knowing the fallacies of the UC.

The UC has had strong ties to different parts of Abe’s family. It started with his grandfather, Kishi, who closely worked with far-right-wing politician and war-criminal Sasakawa Ryōichi. Sasakawa was an advisor to Moon and helped him establish the UC in post-war Japan. A little later, the headquarters of the UC were situated right next to Kishi’s house, and he and the UC officials maintained a close relationship. A few years later, the LDP had UC members work for their political campaigns. These members did not get any compensation for their service, but instead, the UC received political protection, enabling them to grow and gain influence in Japan. Despite their socially criticised missionary tactics and corrupt sales, the UC could operate without fearing the authorities’ prosecution.18

This connection was passed down to Kishi’s grandson, Abe. In 2021, Abe himself held a speech in favour of the organisation’s front group “Unification Peace Federation”, which was highly criticised by the media due to the UC’s controversial practices. The organisation continuously poses a social issue in Japan, and, according to Japan Press, “lawyers criticized Abe for paying his respects to Hak Ja Han, the present leader of the ex-Unification Church19 which has caused serious damage to families in Japan. They expressed concern that Abe’s appearance in the event could have serious negative impacts on Japanese society.”20 The reason for that is that Abe’s support of the UC communicates that the state may support the UC despite their wrongdoings.

Japan still is a key country for the UC. Media reports say that out of the 10 million global adherents, about 600.000 are located in Japan.21 Not only does the Japanese branch provide large sums of money to the UC organisation,22 but Moon also theologised Japan as the “fallen Eve” country, the sinful one, which needs to find salvation, in comparison to Korea, the “Adam” country.23 I was in Japan during Abe’s assassination and asked around for people’s opinions. Many did not know about Abe’s involvement with the UC, and some even sympathised with Yamagami for making the UC’s activities a public matter. 

It is possible that the so-called “cult-fear”24 from the 1990s returns to Japan through this incident. Especially after the 1995 sarin-gas attack in the Tōkyō subway by new religious movement Aum Shinrikyō (today called Aleph), new religions and religious groups as well as the concept of “religion” itself were widely criticised and often avoided by the Japanese public.25 Although religious groups earned a newfound respect after their support and help in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011,26 the disclosure of what the UC did under the guise of the LDP might revive the caution towards religions. What is certain, however, is that the assassination has led to an investigation of the relationship between political and religious agents, the LDP and the UC, and the LDP’s general situation due to its continuous political domination despite many controversies.

— Dunja Sharbat Dar

Literature

Barker, Eileen. 2018. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford: Blackwell’s.

Barker, Eileen. 2018. “The Unification Church: A Kaleidoscopic Introduction”. Society Register 2 (2): 19–62.

Kim, Hyun Mee. 2016. “Marriage as a Pilgrimage to the Fatherland: The Case of Japanese Women in the Unification Church”. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 22 (1): 16–34.

McLaughlin, Levi. 2012. “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyō Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions in Japan”. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39 (1): 51–75.

McLaughlin, Levi. 2013. “What Have Religious Groups Done After 3.11? Part 2: From Religious Mobilization to ‘Spiritual Care’”. Religion Compass 7 (8): 309–25.

Richard, Samuels J. (2001), “Kishi and Corruption: An Anatomy of the 1955 System”, Japan Policy Research Institute (December, Working Paper No. 83).

Sakurai, Yoshihide. 2010. “Geopolitical Mission Strategy: The Case of the Unification Church in Japan and Korea”. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 37 (2): 317–34.

  1. The LDP is the leading political party in Japan. []
  2.  “安倍晋三元首相死亡 奈良県で演説中に銃で撃たれる”. NHK (in Japanese). Tokyo, Japan. 8 July 2022. Rich, Motoko; Inoue, Makiko; Hida, Hikari; Ueno, Hisako (8 July 2022). “Shinzo Abe Is Assassinated With a Handmade Gun, Shocking a Nation”. The New York Times. 11 July 2022. Lies, Elaine (12 July 2022). “Japan bids sombre farewell to slain Shinzo Abe, its longest-serving premier”. Reuters. 12 July 2022. []
  3. Yamagami is quoted as follows in the Mainichi shinbun:「母親が団体にのめり込んで破産した。安倍氏が団体を国内で広めたと思い込んで恨んでいた」, which translates to the following: “My mother was absorbed into the group [the Moonies] and went bankrupt. I resented it that Abe spread the group in the country.”  銃撃容疑者「母親が宗教にのめり込み破産」 安倍氏に一方的恨みか. Mainichi shimbun. 9 July 2022. []
  4. 独自「火炎放射器を持って」供述で判明した旧統一教会襲撃計画 安倍元総理を狙った理由. TV asahi. 12 July 2022. []
  5.  For more on this, see e.g., “Japan defense minister had help from Unification Church in elections”. The Japan Times. 26 July 2022. Suzuki, Eito: “旧統一教会のフロント組織「勝共連合」会長が安倍元首相との‘ビデオ出演’交渉の裏話を激白”, Bungeishunjū (https://bunshun.jp/articles/-/56249?page=2, 30 July 2022). []
  6. At the politically problematic Yasukuni Shrine the spirits of Japanese soldiers and nationalists are venerated. This is heavily criticised by Japan’s neighbours China and Korea, for it ignores the pain of the Korean and Chinese people that were killed and oppressed by these soldiers during the 19th and 20th century. Many prime ministers and political agents frequent the shrine to pray for the soldiers on different occasions, seriously damaging the relationship with China and Korea. Abe had also visited Yasukuni Shrine while in office. []
  7. Yamagami’s father commited suicide when he was 4 years old. “山上徹也41歳はなぜテロリストになったのか?…” 進学校“同級生の証言「クラスで『団長』のあだ名がついた」”《写真あり》. 週刊文春 電子版. 13 July 2022. []
  8. “「疲労困ぱい立っていられない」山上容疑者”母の近況”を伯父明かす 献金額も…”, All-Nippon News Network, 15 July 2022. “Abe shooting suspect’s mother donated ¥100 million to Unification Church, uncle says”. The Japan Times. 15 July 2022. “Abe shooter’s mother continued religious donations even after bankruptcy”. Nikkei Asia. 16 July 2022. []
  9. See “「どうして兄ちゃん死んだんや」7年前の葬儀、涙を流していた山上容疑者” Yomiuri Shimbun. 14 July 2022. []
  10.  “Suspect willing to die to ‘liberate’ members of religious group”. The Asahi Shimbun. 6 August 2022. []
  11. “Letter touches on plan to kill Abe, who ‘wields the most influence’”. The Asahi Shimbun. 19 July 2022. []
  12. “自己破産させられた信者はたくさんいる. 2世の苦しみがどんなにつらいか. 霊感商法弁護団が会見”. Yahoo! News Japan. 12 July 2022. []
  13.  “New Religious Movements is an academic term that encompasses many groups and organisations that are often negatively labelled as sects or cults in popular discourse.” Religion Media Center: Fact Sheet on New Religious Movements. https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/factsheet-new-religious-movements/. []
  14. See for more Barker, Eileen. 2018. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? Oxford: Blackwell’s. []
  15. See Barker, Eileen. 2018. “The Unification Church: A Kaleidoscopic Introduction”. Society Register 2 (2): 19–62, here: p. 20-22. https://doi.org/10.14746/sr.2018.2.2.03. []
  16. See e.g., Kim, Hyun Mee. 2016. “Marriage as a Pilgrimage to the Fatherland: The Case of Japanese Women in the Unification Church”. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 22 (1): 16–34. []
  17.  Sakurai, Yoshihide. 2010. “Geopolitical Mission Strategy: The Case of the Unification Church in Japan and Korea”. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 37 (2): 317–34; here: 331. []
  18. See Richard, Samuels J. (2001), “Kishi and Corruption: An Anatomy of the 1955 System”, Japan Policy Research Institute (December, Working Paper No. 83). []
  19. The organisation is now called “Family Federation for World Peace and Unification”, but I will continue to use the terms Unification Church / UC for simplifying reasons. []
  20. “Killing of Shinzo Abe shines spotlight on politicians’ links with Moonies”, Financial Times, 11 July 2022. “Ex-PM Abe sends message of support to Moonies-related NGO”. japan-press.co.jp. 18 September 2021. []
  21. “Why the Unification Church has become a headache for Kishida”, Japan Times, 9 August 2022. []
  22. Fisher, Mark. “How Abe and Japan became vital to Moon’s Unification Church”. The Washington Post. 12 July 2022. []
  23.  Sakurai. 2010. “Geopolitical Mission Strategy”, 327. []
  24.  NRMs were globally cited as causing mass panics in the 1970s to 1990s, and many derogatory terms such as “cult” were used even in academia to describe these new groups. See for more: Religion Media Center: Fact Sheet on New Religious Movements. https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/factsheet-new-religious-movements/. []
  25. See McLaughlin, Levi. 2012. “Did Aum Change Everything? What Soka Gakkai Before, During, and After the Aum Shinrikyō Affair Tells Us About the Persistent ‘Otherness’ of New Religions in Japan”. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 39 (1): 51–75. []
  26.  See McLaughlin, Levi. 2013. “What Have Religious Groups Done After 3.11? Part 2: From Religious Mobilization to ‘Spiritual Care’”. Religion Compass 7 (8): 309–25. []

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