Tue. Nov 29th, 2022

The Japanese government has launched an investigation into the Unification Church, five months after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead, allegedly by a man with a long-standing grudge against the group.

The investigation, announced Tuesday, will focus on the church’s finances and organization and could strip it of its legal status, according to media reports.

Revelations of long-standing ties between members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the church – whose members are colloquially known as Moonies – have been met with public dismay and sent Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s ratings into freefall.

Education Minister Keiko Nagaoka said the church, which is officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, will have until Dec. 9 to answer questions from investigators, including those related to its controversial fundraising activities.

It will then be left to the court to decide whether to revoke the church’s legal status, and thus the tax exemptions that registered religious organizations enjoy in Japan. Reports state that in that scenario it will be able to continue as a religious entity.

Tetsuya Yamagami, who is accused of killing Abe while he was giving a campaign speech in early July, said he targeted the politician because he believed he was a supporter of the church, which he blamed for bankrupting his family.

Yamagami, who is undergoing a psychological evaluation that is expected to last until early next year, told police that his mother donated large sums of money to the church two decades ago.

Abe, whose grandfather, postwar prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the Unification Church establish a presence in Japan, sent a congratulatory video message at an event held by the church’s 2021 branch.

The church, a deeply conservative organization founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954, has been accused of pressuring members in Japan to pay exorbitant sums for “spiritual” items that will supposedly rid them of bad ancestral karma. The church, which critics denounce as a cult, has denied any wrongdoing.

Earlier this month, Nagaoka noted that the church had been ordered to pay at least 1.4 billion yen ($9.8 million) in damages in 22 civil lawsuits. She said the group should be investigated because it is “suspected of having a large influence and causing widespread harm.”

Few expected that Yamagami’s motive for killing Abe would have such dramatic political consequences. However, revelations that LDP politicians appeared at Unification Church events and accepted help from members during election campaigns rocked Kishida’s party, sending his approval ratings to their lowest level since he took office late last year.

In August, a party investigation revealed that about half of the LDP’s MPs were affiliated with the organization.

Kishida’s approval rating remained at 27.7% for the third month in a row, according to a survey conducted by news agency Jiji in mid-November. The survey showed that 43.5 percent of respondents do not support the government.

Most voters also opposed Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe in September.

His problems have been exacerbated by the recent resignations of three cabinet ministers. The justice minister, Yasuhiro Hanashi, resigned last week after joking that he only made the news when he signed the execution orders, while the economic revitalization minister, Daishiro Yamagiwa, resigned last month over his ties to the Unification Church.

Over the weekend, Minoru Terada, the interior minister, resigned amid political funding scandals following media reports that Kishida was preparing to fire him.