TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s government said Thursday it would ask a court to revoke the legal status of the Unification Church after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s assassination raised questions about the group’s fundraising and recruitment tactics.
Education Minister Masahito Moriyama said the ministry proposed seeking the revocation after interviewing more than 170 people allegedly harmed by the fundraising tactics and other problems. The church failed to respond to dozens of questions during the seven inquiries, he said.
If its legal status is stripped, the church would lose its tax exemption privilege as a religious organization but can still operate.
Decades of cozy ties between the South Korea-based church and Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party were revealed in the investigation of Abe’s 2022 assassination and have triggered public outrage. The man accused of shooting Abe at a campaign event allegedly told police he was motivated by the former prime minister’s links to the church, which had bankrupted his family due to his mother’s excessive donations.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the government’s decision was made carefully based on facts and was not political, denying speculation it was intended to shore up dwindling public support.
The Japan branch of the church, which officially calls itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, condemned the decision.
“It is our deepest regret that the Japanese government made the serious decision based on distorted information provided by a leftist lawyers’ group formed for the purpose of destroying our organization,” the church said in a statement. “It will be a stain in Japan’s Constitutional history.”
The Unification Church founded by Sun Myung Moon obtained legal status as a religious organization in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement supported by Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.
The church has faced hundreds of civil lawsuits and acknowledged excessive donations but says the problem has been mitigated for more than a decade. It also has pledged further reforms.
For decades, the church has tried to steer its followers’ decision-making in ways that were not always in their best interest, using manipulative tactics, making them buy expensive goods and donate beyond their financial ability, also affecting the lives of their families, Moriyama said.
The systematic fundraising tactics caused fear and confusion and seriously deviated from the law on religious groups, in which the purpose of the churches’ legal status is to give people peace of mind, he said.
“The activities are wrongful conducts under the Civil Code and their damages are immense,” Moriyama said.
The Agency for Cultural Affairs found 32 cases of civil lawsuits acknowledging damages totaling 2.2 billion yen ($14.7 million) for 169 people, while the amount of settlements reached in or outside court totaled 20.4 billion yen ($137 million) and involved 1,550 people, Moriyama said.
Moriyama said the ministry will submit its request with the Tokyo District Court as early as Friday for a revocation order. The process involves hearings from both sides and would take a while.
Japan has in place hurdles for restraining religious activities due to lessons from the prewar and wartime oppression of freedom of religion and thought.
Since the 1970s, the church has been accused of devious business and recruitment tactics, including brainwashing members into making huge donations to Moon and ruining their finances. Experts say Japanese followers are asked to pay for sins committed by their ancestors during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, and that the majority of the church’s worldwide funding comes from Japan.
If the court grants the order, the Unification Church would be the first to lose its legal status under a civil code violation.
Two earlier cases involved criminal charges — the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which carried out a sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, and the Myokakuji group, whose executives were convicted of fraud.