TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida ordered an investigation Monday into the Unification Church in an apparent move to calm the public outrage over his governing party’s cozy ties with the controversial group, which were revealed in the wake of Shinzo Abe’s assassination.
Former Prime Minister Abe was shot to death during an outdoor campaign speech in July. The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he killed Abe because of his apparent link to a religious group he hated. A letter and social media postings attributed to Yamagami said his mother’s large donations to the church bankrupted his family and ruined his life.
Kishida said a government hotline set up to receive complaints and inquiries related to the church has resulted in more than 1,700 cases that have been handled by police and legal experts.
“Many victims face financial difficulty and their families were destroyed, but the government has not been able to provide adequate support and I take it seriously,” Kishida said. He also pledged to do more to support the alleged victims, including a possible revision to the consumer contract law to prevent future problems.
The Unification Church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, obtained a religious organization status in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement supported by Abe’s grandfather and former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Since the 1980s, the church has faced accusations of devious business and recruitment tactics, including brainwashing members into turning over huge portions of their salaries to Moon.
The group acknowledged there have been cases of “excessive” donations. It says issues have been mitigated since it adopted stricter compliance in 2009, and recently pledged further reforms.
A government panel submitted a report earlier Monday that found many financial problems and lawsuits stemming from the church’s methods. The report called for an investigation while considering revoking the group’s legal status, though officials are seen as reluctant to go that far.
Kishida told a parliamentary committee meeting Monday that he has instructed Education and Culture Minister Keiko Nagaoka, who is primarily in charge of overseeing religious groups, to prepare for an investigation into the church under the Religious Corporations Act.
The police investigation of Abe’s killing led to revelations of widespread ties between the South Korea-based church and members of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, including Abe, over their shared interests in conservative causes. The case also shed light on the suffering of adherents’ children, some of whom have come out and said they were forced to join the church and were left in poverty or neglected because of their parents’ devotion.
Many critics consider the church to be a cult because of problems with followers and their families over their financial and mental hardships.
An LDP survey in September found nearly half of its lawmakers had ties to the church, including Cabinet ministers. Kishida has pledged to cut all such ties, but many Japanese want a further explanation of how the church may have influenced party policies.
Kishida has come under fire and his government’s support ratings have nosedived over his handling of the church controversy and for holding a state funeral for Abe, one of Japan’s most divisive leaders who is now seen as a key link to the governing party’s church ties.
Nagaoka, the culture minister, said she will set up a panel of legal and religious experts next week to discuss a rare investigation into a religious group.
Members of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, who watch the church, submitted a request last week to the culture and justice ministries and the top prosecutor to issue a disbandment order to the church.
A group of about 40 individuals and organizations, including anti-cult activists and so-called second-generation followers, started a petition drive seeking to revoke the church’s legal status as a religious organization. The petition collected nearly 25,000 signatures within hours of the launch.
The church has acknowledged that Yamagami’s mother donated more than 100 million yen ($700,000), including life insurance and real estate, to the group. It said it later returned about half at the request of the suspect’s uncle.