The death of ex-prime minister Abe: The Unification Church is a deliberate business, says a Japanologist iRADIO

More than a month has passed since the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The controversial politician, known for his nationalist rhetoric, was in close contact with the Unification Church, according to Japanese media. Believing that the ex-prime minister sympathizes with a religious cult, Tetsuja Yamagami shot him at a July 8 meeting with a homemade weapon. About the connection of religion and politics with the Japaneseologist, translator and writer Anna Křivánková.



Prague
20:19 September 4, 2022

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a commemorative event to mark the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II | Photo: Kim Kyung-Hoon | Source: Reuters

What is the Unification Church and how many followers does it have?
It is a religious movement founded after the Second World War by the Korean Reverend Son-myong Moon, which is based on Christianity. He founded the church deeply influenced by his personal experiences, firstly by his missionary work in North Korea, where he became an anti-communist, and then by his own religious experiences.

He often spoke of Jesus appearing to him. This inspired him to start his own church. The members believe in the second coming of Christ, whom they have to help by their behavior. That’s the outer, peaceful version. According to what we hear mainly from former members, this is a very well-thought-out business.


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The sect states that there are between five and seven million of them worldwide, but the number of members is probably much lower, around three million. There aren’t many of them in Japan, I’d say around a few hundred thousand. Most of them will be in Korea, the United States, then a few in Europe. We have about a hundred people.

The church was founded in 1954 by Korean Son-myong Mun. He acquired a huge fortune only after it was founded. How did he do it?
Membership is subject to contributions. The assassin Yamagami was born into a relatively wealthy family, but soon his father died and his mother joined the church out of grief, where she spent all the family fortune. This complicated the future of her children.

Donations and contributions are strictly enforced by the church, they are pretty disgusting practices. There are also kidnappings, torture… The enormous bitterness that the assassin felt can be understood. Contributions are important, but above all, it is a huge business. They sell holy items, oracles. They take advantage of the fact that the spiritual connection with the ancestors is extremely important to the Japanese.

In addition, the church operates in the background of a large number of businesses from restaurants and pharmaceutical companies to waste processing. The Church provided Mun with enormous wealth. I don’t think he ever cared about anything else.

Can membership be cancelled?
Many former members of the Japanese branch of the church have spoken of some kind of financial redemption. They paid off a large sum, often out of fear of violence or scandal. The sect did not give them peace anyway.

Why are Japanese people who traditionally practice Buddhism joining the Christian sect?
Japan has a rather complicated relationship with religion. For centuries there has been a coexistence of Shintoism and Buddhism, two very different religions. Most Japanese today would tell you that they don’t subscribe to anything. They follow customs, it is of course very important for them culturally, but it is definitely not a real religious fervor.

There are very few Christians in Japan. They got there when the sect spread from Korea in the 1950s. The anti-communist idea of ​​the church was important, and in the 1960s it was also attractive in America and perhaps also in Czechoslovakia. It always came to influence through some conservative politician who supported anti-communism, Christianity and family values.

A month after the assassination, Japanese media reported that the Unification Church has close ties to many government entities, including Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Do we have direct evidence of this?
We definitely have. The one who paved the way for the sect was Abe’s grandfather and former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi. Japan suffers from political factions, especially in traditional parties such as the LDP.

Contacts and voter base are passed down to the second generation, and because the Japanese are conservative as a society, they like to elect representatives from the same family.

In high Japanese politics, many Japanese have an ancestor who was a member of parliament, minister or prime minister. That is why Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s brother, also resigned due to the scandal.

Japanologist Anna Křivánková | Photo: Archive of Anna Křivánková

How did the sect influence Japanese politics? It is said that its members held high-ranking positions, obtained finance, information, protection, helped with election campaigns…
They certainly helped Abe’s LDP party with election campaigns, but to what extent we can only debate. They didn’t help them so much in terms of funding, more in terms of promotion. Members of the church addressed people on the street, helped at election rallies, provided security.

Abe was helped when people protested against him because of his attempt to change the Japanese constitution. The Church founded or engaged already existing associations and loudly supported it. It thus created an artificial counterbalance against the protesters.

When there were elections, the church ordered the members to vote for a certain candidate. But this is not a very big electoral potential, because there are few members.

Did the public know about it?
It wasn’t a secret, but I don’t think anyone cared. It wasn’t talked about much. That’s a big feature of Japanese politics and society: a lot of things aren’t secrets, but they just don’t like to talk about it because it’s uncomfortable. This also applies to Japan’s past.

Are people mad at Abe?
Those who supported him before largely support him now. Shinzo Abe was a very important personality and a classic representative of traditional politics. He was very capable and charismatic. He had big plans, especially for the economy. At the same time, he also took many unpopular steps.


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Were there other scandals accompanying the ex-prime minister’s life?
He was often criticized for his connections to ultra-nationalist movements, to the radical right. For example, to an association seeking to publish new history textbooks. Japan has a problem with describing its wartime past and downplays some war crimes. This made him unpopular with certain groups of people, such as student movements.

Abe was reportedly not the only world politician involved with the Unification Church. Do we know of anyone else?
The American branch of the Unification Church publicly stood by President Nixon after the Watergate affair. Then they just got along with the Republican Party. They also supported Donald Trump, who publicly praised them for how great they were. Personally, I think Trump has no idea what they actually are.

You wrote on Twitter that you are most interested in the extent to which this will lead to an internal transformation of the LDP. What problems does the party face?
It is a classic political party that is not immune to corruption and cronyism. A lot of ministers and MPs have been found to have ties to the Unification Church, which is logical. The church needs protection, it is often investigated by the police.

In return, they offered publicity to the political party, as a reward many MPs employed people from the sect as assistants. This resulted in not only job opportunities, but also valuable information.

They may also have been influencing the agenda in some way, but until concrete evidence emerges we can only speculate to what extent. It is generally believed that the relationship between the LDP and the sect has almost no religious component, but is really just a pragmatic business.

How did Abe’s death affect the LDP?
A huge scandal was revealed. The first reports regarding the assassination were profiled in the “some poor guy gone crazy” style. He made a weapon at home, attacked a politician who is not even the prime minister anymore.

Many people were skeptical about the motive for the assassination, the very first reports did not even mention any religious association. It only started later when it was no longer possible to hide it. Yamagami himself spoke about it, his family also confirmed it.

Abe was a controversial figure, but the assassination caused widespread outrage, and if the scandal hadn’t been uncovered, he would have been on the verge of martyrdom. Of course, the reputation of the party is also damaged. Prime Minister Kishida had great support until recently, which has now dropped by 20 percent to just 36.


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Is this the end of a certain era of Japanese politics?
To some extent, more transparency will be needed. It’s nice that this is being investigated and not swept under the rug. Japan doesn’t really indulge in similar cases, but the media didn’t let it go, which made me very happy. The LDP is trying to break all ties and cover up as much as possible.

What punishment awaits Yamagami?
He can get the death penalty or life imprisonment. We’ll see if any psychiatric evaluation plays a role in this. The evaluation is expected to take several months.

Where is the case moving and what conclusions can it bring us?
Now the media really exposes a lot, every day something new emerges. It is currently awaiting the collection of evidence and a state funeral, which most Japanese do not consider appropriate.

There hasn’t been a trial yet, as far as I know. The case is still developing, it spilled over into the broader issue of the connection between religion and politics. And we’ll see.

Žaneta Levíčková

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