After the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, his life and legacy were widely celebrated abroad but mired in controversy at home.
Internationally, Abe is best known as the Father of the Quad, an active and key strategic partner balancing China in the Indo-Pacific region during his tenure in power. However, his killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, said he had no problem with Abe’s politics or his international involvement. Instead, he claimed his motivation was Abe’s association with a cult-like religious movement called the Unification Church, an organization he blamed for destroying his family.
It was Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party’s association with the Unification Church that clouded his state funeral and opened a wider conversation in Japan about the harm the Unification Church has inflicted on its members through its exploitative practices and connections and influence on Japanese politics.
Hightower says the Unification Church found fertile ground in Japan because it could play on Japanese culpability for its occupation of Korea and imperial war crimes, offering a path of salvation.
Abe’s assassination was shocking, not only because political violence is relatively rare in Japan, but because knowledge of the Unification Church and its association with Japanese politics has not been openly disclosed. discussed and relatively unknown outside of a handful of experts, anti-cult activists and affected communities.
To help understand this movement, I turned to Sarah Hightower, an independent researcher of cults and extremist movements, with particular emphasis on their manifestations in Japan. Hightower told me about the emergence of the Unification Church during the Cold War, its beliefs, and its association with Abe and the LDP.
The Unification Church was founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in Korea in 1954 and, as Hightower explains, it is a “messianic and utopian sect” with Christian overtones that combines the politics of after the war with appeals to family values centered on a charismatic cult. figure. Although it started in South Korea, it has adherents around the world and has grown particularly in Japan and linked to right-wing conservative political movements and figures.
Hightower says the Unification Church found fertile ground in Japan because it could play on Japanese culpability for its occupation of Korea and imperial war crimes, offering a path of salvation not only to its adherents , but a way to wash away the sins of the ancestors. He also appealed to conservative family values and concerns about Japan’s declining population.
But in doing so, the Unification Church and its adherents, also known as the “Moonies”, often exploited believers, including forcing their followers to donate, thus acting not so much as a religious movement as like a predatory cult.
In his assessment of the church, Hightower references Takashi Yamaguchi of the Japan Society for Cult Prevention and Recovery, who says “Japan acted like a sort of ATM for what the Korean operation was doing.” The Unification Church is accused of using these donations to sow a multi-billion dollar fortune international business empire which enriches his leadership.
Although the church’s political influence remains murky, Abe’s assassination has prompted greater scrutiny from the Japanese public and has galvanized the efforts of anti-cult organizations and activists.
But the church is not just a fringe sectarian movement. He cultivated ties with the political class and became a vehicle for anti-communist efforts. And that’s where his association with Abe began. Hightower explains that during the Cold War, the church was so successful that the Korean Central Intelligence Agency decided to use it to fight the specter of communism. As she puts it, “The Unification Church could use this wave of anti-Communist sentiment to make inroads into groups and other religious organizations and political organizations.” This allowed the church to raise funds, proselytize and increase its influence.
Abe was not a member of the Unification Church and in fact was not Yamagami’s favorite target for assassination, whose initial target was current Unification Church leader Hak Ja. Han Moon, former Reverend Moon’s wife. So why did Yamagami associate Abe with the Unification Church, which he blamed for ruining his family?
Although Abe was not a member, Abe’s family, beginning with his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, had formed a political partnership with the Unification Church based on anti-Communist and anti-Chinese sentiments. Hightower says “that working relationship lasted throughout the decades” as Abe and the LDP continued to use the Unification Church to mobilize volunteers and voters into a support and voting bloc of foreground.
While it is clear that the LDP benefited politically from such support, it is less clear what benefits the Unification Church derived from its political connections. Or if the Unification Church was able to exert a significant influence on the LDP, and by extension on Japanese governance? This is, according to Hightower, the “million dollar question” that the Japanese company is currently facing.
If you have a large global organization worth billions of dollars scratching your back and you’ve been scratching its back for decades, I don’t think it’s out of the question to ask what influence did it have? … We don’t really have an answer yet.
This is part of the wider awareness in Japanese society of the Unification Church’s role in the country, as evidenced by the controversy and protest surrounding Abe’s state funeral. An internal LDP investigation is reported finding that about half of the 379 parliamentarians had a connection with the church.
And while the focus has been on the church’s ties to Japanese politics, Hightower notes that the Unification Church has cultivated ties with right-wing parties and figures around the world, including the Republican Party in the United States, from the Nixon era. But she also points out that the church also claims former Democratic President Barack Obama among founder Moon’s well wishes. The Unification Church has had incredible success in having high profile personalities and world leaders attend and speak at their conferences and events.
Although the church’s political influence remains murky, Abe’s assassination has prompted greater scrutiny from the Japanese public and galvanized the efforts of anti-cult organizations and activists, drawing much-needed attention. on the survivors of movements and sects such as the Unification Church and others.
Hightower’s passionate advocacy for the victims of cults and extremist movements is matched by his knowledge of the movements themselves. She cautions against focusing on the sensationalism of Abe’s assassination or the plot around the political influences of the Unification Church without integrating or understanding the perspectives of the victims.