Media watch: Politicians’ association with the Unification Church shouldn’t be surprising

Shinzo Abe offering a pre-recorded message for an event affiliated with the Unification Church

A week or so before the recent Upper House election, my partner, M, received a call from a neighbor who asked her to vote for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. M said she had already voted by pre-election ballot for another party. Then the neighbor invited her to a seminar about “making your family stronger.” M expressed little interest, though the neighbor kept explaining the benefits of the seminar and other details. M repeated she wasn’t interested, but afterwards she did some research based on what the neighbor had revealed about where the seminar was taking place and realized that it was being held by the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, which is more commonly known as the Unification Church. 

At this point there seems little we don’t know about the grudge that Tetsuya Yamagami, the man arrested for killing former prime minister Shinzo Abe during a campaign stop in Nara on July 8, held for many years against the Unification Church. Though some people still describe Abe as a martyr, the murder appears to have been motivated by purely personal enmity rather than anything political or ideological. Yamagami said the church had cheated his mother out of ¥100 million in the past, thus bankrupting his family, and Abe was one of the most prominent Japanese figures he associated with the church, though the former prime minister was not a member himself. Apparently, Yamagami didn’t always have Abe in his sights, though he’d been planning to do something against the church for a while. The Upper House election campaign made Abe more accessible and Yamagami took his shot—literally. At first, the media was more interested in how Yamagami built his primitive shotgun, since it’s almost impossible to own a firearm in Japan, but eventually they grew tired of the topic and concentrated instead on the church angle, which has turned out to be a bottomless source of tabloidy gossip and intelligence.

The most compelling information is the church’s relationship with major politicians, in particular those who belong to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. From all appearances this relationship is mutual and self-serving. The church gets a certain veneer of respectability while the politicians get a guaranteed block of supporters, as evidenced by my neighbor’s overtures. Naturally, some commentators have found the relationship unseemly, since the church has been portrayed over the years as a cult that exploits its members for money and orders them to do things against their better interests and sometimes even against their will. Consequently, its connections to politicians seems suspicious and not necessarily logical. For one thing, the church’s origins are Korean, and if you read about the history of the organization, which dates back to the 1950s, much of its activities in Japan were carried out as a means of exacting some kind of retribution against Japan for its colonization of the Korean peninsula. In addition, the Unification Church, as a church, identifies as Christian, and some people in Japan have wondered why it has such a tight relationship with organizations like the conservative lobbying group Nihon Kaigi, which is identified with state Shintoism. The fact that Yamagami targeted Abe as a symbol of the church is the biggest mystery and one that both the LDP and the church have been quick to discount. Moreover, a perusal of Yamagami’s now-deleted Twitter account reveals that his own ideology wasn’t really that different from Abe’s, which brings up even more questions.

But one thing shouldn’t be surprising, and that is that the LDP and the church can see beyond their obvious dissonances and find common ground. As the current name of the church shows, its pillar is the family, which is defined in the most conventional terms and follows closely the LDP’s own philosophy with regard to what it calls traditional family values that it says are unique to Japan. The church’s Japanese chapter, established in 1959, is determined to prevent the adoption of an elective surname system since it characterizes separate surnames for spouses as a feature of communism, the destruction of which is the church’s main global mission. The LDP doesn’t go so far as to identify separate surnames as part of a communist conspiracy, but it definitely finds separate surnames incompatible with its vision of what Japan should be. In its materials, the church has said that Japan’s family system “must not be destroyed by a radical minority,” which misrepresents a movement that simply wants to make separate surnames a choice. It’s pretty clear that only a small fraction of Japanese couples would likely elect to use separate surnames, but that isn’t the point for the church or, for that matter, the LDP. The point is control. (Also confusing is the church’s justification for separate surnames in Korea based on “blood ties,” a position that requires a better explanation but seems to be based on the idea that wives are only necessary for maternal duty. For further explication of this matter see one of our previous posts.)

An article that appeared on the website Money Voice on May 16, 2021, explained the relationship between the church and the LDP. At the time, Yoshihide Suga was prime minister and Money Voice identified 9 cabinet members as having connections with the church. In the various Abe cabinets that preceded Suga, there were 11 members with ties to the church, a number that increased to 15 if you count all members of the Abe administration. Money Voice points out that Seiwa-kai, the largest LDP faction and the one Abe headed, supported policies that are almost identical to positions held by the church, namely, abolishing so-called gender-free policies and “radical” sex education in schools; preventing the implementation of elective separate surnames for married couples; Constitutional revision and full implementation of the security law, including establishment of the National Security Council formed by Abe in 2013 to coordinate national security; promoting collective self-defense; including the Japanese defense industry in the country’s economic growth strategy; and promoting the militarization of space. The church also advocates for the repeal of the Basic Law for Gender Equality, which it believes undermines family values, and the abolishment of the three non-nuclear principles that are supposed to keep nuclear weapons off of Japanese soil. These last two policies are not necessarily advocated by Seiwa-kai, at least not openly. But Money Voice also says almost all these policies align closely with those of Nihon Kaigi and Shinto Seiji Renmei, a politically influential religious group that calls for a return to the prewar values it says defines Japan. 

Money Voice’s main point in this particular article is that the church’s political goal is the destruction of the Japanese Communist Party, chiefly through extending its influence to labor unions, university student organizations, and voters in general. The success of this campaign can be seen in how other opposition parties have demonstrated a reluctance to work with the JCP to achieve common aims. Rengo, the confederation of Japanese labor unions, has traditionally supported the main opposition party, but at the time the Money Voice article appeared it was balking at throwing its support behind the current opposition leader, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, because of its plan to join with JCP to secure more opposition seats in the Diet. Of course, this feeling of revulsion toward the JCP, based almost exclusively on its name rather than its policies or positions (the JCP has not for many years advocated for world revolution and has even made peace with the Emperor System), fits the outlook of the Seiwa-kai and the ruling coalition in general. After all, the JCP is still officially considered a dangerous organization by the police. 

Politically, the church and the LDP have almost identical interests, so any surface differences regarding religious dogma on the part of the church that translates into authoritarian practices and even nominally anti-Japanese sentiment can be cynically overlooked by ruling politicians and their fellow travelers because it’s good for their election prospects and bottom lines, even if it might be bad for their brand.

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