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Scrutiny falls on Unification Church after Shinzo Abe's assassination

The church, founded by self-professed messiah Sun Myung Moon, is distancing itself from media reports that the suspect's mother made a hefty donation to the group.
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A messianic religious movement known for conducting mass weddings and courting prominent U.S. conservatives has found itself at the center of the speculation surrounding the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, also known as the Unification Church, condemned Abe’s killing at a news conference Monday and sought to distance itself from media reports that the suspect’s mother made a hefty donation to the group before she went bankrupt.

Japanese media, citing police sources, reported that a suspect, identified as Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, confessed to the attack and told investigators he held a grudge against a group that he said was connected with Abe, but the violence itself was not politically motivated. Abe, who had been Japan’s longest-serving prime minister until he resigned in 2020, was gunned down Friday at an outdoor campaign rally with what authorities believe was a homemade firearm.

The timing — two days before a parliamentary election — had led many to theorize about the gunman’s motive.

Image: Unification Church Holds Mass Wedding In South Korea
Thousands of couples attend a mass wedding held by the Unification Church in Gapyeong-gun, South Korea, on Aug. 27, 2018.Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images file

But the implied association with the Unification Church, whose history with Abe goes back more than half a century to his grandfather, is stirring up larger questions and concerns about the group’s practices and political ties.

Tomihiro Tanaka, the president of the church’s branch in Japan, said that Yamagami’s mother is a church member who would attend functions about once a month but that the church had no record of its asking her for a large donation. Tanaka declined to comment further because of the police investigation.

“We will fully cooperate with the police investigation if they request us to do so,” Tanaka told reporters.

He added that neither Yamagami nor Abe had been church members. Police have yet to publicly identify the group to which Yamagami’s mother belonged, and it is unclear whether she was also involved in other religious organizations.

Still, scholars of Japanese politics and religion say the Unification Church and groups like it may face a reckoning in the country among officials who want to examine their financial structures and how they function.

“There’s going to be a lot of conversations about deeper oversight into the kind of things that will lead to political violence, like the building of homemade guns, but also allegations of predatory practices,” said Sheila Smith, a Japanese foreign policy and politics expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.

Levi McLaughlin, an associate professor of Asian religions at North Carolina State University, said that a stigma remains attached to organized religion in Japan and that some Japanese may already be leery about the Unification Church because it was founded in South Korea by a self-professed messiah, Sun Myung Moon, who died in 2012 at age 92.

“Such a group might be seen as a nefarious influence characterized as preying upon the weaknesses of those who are already struggling,” McLaughlin said. “But the truth is its adherents are also intelligent and have a sophisticated series of reasons for why they join this and feel like they must forge this type of community.”

Image: Sun Myung Moon
The Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his wife officiate at a Family Federation for World Peace and Unification blessing at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 13, 1998. Jeff Christensen / Getty Images file

Abe’s late grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, the Japanese prime minister from 1957 to 1960, had been friendly with Moon, whose church opened its branch in Japan in 1959. The exact number of followers in Japan is unclear; the church claims about 600,000 members there and 10 million globally.

The Unification Church, which was built on anti-communism ideals, propped up conservative values, putting a focus on the creation of multicultural families over secular lifestyles that allowed for premarital sex, divorce and homosexuality. Moon officiated large-scale weddings, once marrying more than 2,000 couples at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1982. Moon, who moved to the U.S. in 1972, became a player in Washington, D.C., where he supported Republican presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and founded his own newspaper, The Washington Times.

Moon was not without his own controversy. Critics accused him of running the group as a cult and moneymaking operation that generated millions of dollars annually. In 1982, he was convicted of tax evasion, for which he served 13 months in federal prison. He and his followers claimed he was the victim of religious persecution. After his death, he faced accusations that he had engaged in adultery.

A schism is also reported to have formed within the Unification Church after his death. Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han, remains the church’s leader and is regarded as the movement’s “True Mother.” Two of their 13 children, sons Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon and Kook Jin “Justin” Moon, started the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary, also known as Rod of Iron Ministries, in Pennsylvania.

The offshoot church, which promotes gun ownership, gained attention in 2018 when news reports showed images of worshippers wearing crowns and carrying unloaded AR-15 rifles as couples renewed or exchanged wedding vows — just days after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Image: World Peace and Unification Sanctuary
Worshippers at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary hold weapons at a service in New Foundland, Pa., on Feb. 28, 2018.Don Emmert / AFP via Getty Images file

In Japan, conservative politicians like Abe have cultivated ties with groups like the Unification Church because of the influence they can hold, and it is not uncommon for them to appear at their events.

In September, former President Donald Trump spoke at a virtual “Rally of Hope” hosted by the Universal Peace Federation, which Moon and his wife founded in 2005 to help promote their goal of “one family under God.” Abe, a conservative politician who sought to expand Japan’s military power, also addressed the forum, calling for “solidarity between countries sharing freedom and democracy” in the Pacific region, The Washington Times reported.

Japanese media, citing a source close to the investigation, reported Tuesday that Yamagami told police that he had seen the video message of Abe at the Universal Peace Federation event and that that was why he thought Abe was connected to the church.

Local media also reported that investigators said Yamagami had test-fired his homemade weapon the day before the assassination by shooting at a Unification Church facility in Nara, the city where Abe was killed.

As investigators continue to probe the gunman’s motivations and the nation mourned Abe during his funeral Tuesday, there are concerns about a “spillover effect” from the killing.

Some online users sought to blame Korea for Abe’s death, said McLaughlin, the author of “Komeito: Politics and Religion in Japan.” The South Korean Consulate in Fukuoka warned Koreans living in Japan that they could be the targets of hate crimes.

“This is going to rile up anti-Korean sentiment because it’s a Korean-based church,” McLaughlin said. “The conspiracy theories are already being talked about similar to QAnon — the killer is Korean and it’s a conspiracy by Korea.”

McLaughlin added that marginalized people in Japan who belong to religious groups like the Unification Church, like women, immigrants and the economically disenfranchised, may “bear the brunt of any bigotry.”

“Blowback will fall onto the shoulders of people like the suspect’s mother,” he said, adding, “The irony is the murder of Japan’s most powerful person will have a direct impact on Japan’s least powerful people.”

A wider discussion about class and economic insecurity that permeated the recent campaign cycle in Japan will also continue, political experts say, given the suspect’s background. Yamagami had been unemployed since May after he left his job at a factory, where co-workers described him as “mild-mannered” and said he would eat lunch alone in his car, the Kyodo news agency reported. Japanese police said they found several homemade weapons in a raid on his home after Abe’s killing.

While the extent of his online activities is unclear, the fact that Yamagami appeared isolated and concerned about his family’s financial ruin “is emblematic of a lot of ways that the Japanese have been grappling with these issues of self-isolation and the growing divide between the haves and have nots,” Smith said.

Smith said she believes further scrutiny will be put on groups like the Unification Church. “Abe’s death set off more than anyone could have imagined,” she said.