Japan and the controversial Unification Church – The Diplomat

Since the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, public shock has turned to outrage, as deep-seated ties between Japan’s controversial Unification Church and Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been revealed.

Abe was shot dead during the upper house election campaign in late July by a man who resented the former prime minister’s ties to the Unification Church. The suspect, who is in police custody, claims his mother went bankrupt and his family fell apart after his mother borrowed money to donate to the religious group.

Local media critics called the Unification Church a “cult” and a “predator”. The group is known for urging believers to vote for certain politicians or volunteer in election campaigns. Because of the ideological overlap – the Unification Church is staunchly anti-communist – the LDP has often benefited from the efforts of the religious group.

Abe’s ties to the Unification Church have not been fully established. But he gave a speech online to an affiliate group last year. It is claimed that Abe’s grandfather, a former prime minister of Japan, allowed the Unification Church, which was founded in South Korea, to establish a base in Japan. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio said there were limits to investigating the full extent of Abe’s ties to the group.

Last month, Kishida moved to reshuffle his cabinet to “clean up” ties to the Unification Church, replacing it with more lawmakers who also have ties to the church. A recent survey found that half of LDP lawmakers have ties to the group in terms of political support or donations, or attendance at events. There are allegations that some LDP lawmakers failed to report their transactions, in which case the figure could be higher.

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Kishida ordered the LDP to sever ties with the Unification Church and publicly stated that he had no ties to the Church. He is also committed to helping former members who have been defrauded into donating large sums of money or persuaded to buy religious paraphernalia at exorbitant prices. Last month the government set up a hotline for former members of the church seeking advice on possible “illegal activities” by the group.

Kishida is struggling to regain his approval rating as he pushes to hold a state funeral for the slain former prime minister, at a cost of around $12million in taxpayers’ money. State funerals add fuel to the fire and further divide the public. Polls show that 53% of the population is uncomfortable with a state funeral. Local protesters argue that a state funeral is “undemocratic” and “unconstitutional” because not only would it force public mourning, it would also have no legal basis.

Before Kishida was elected prime minister in October last year, he was known as a moderate. He had also gained a reputation as a relatively dull but scandal-free politician with a reputation of his own. This worked to his advantage, as Abe was embroiled in a series of corruption and nepotism scandals throughout his political career.

But after only a year on the job, Kishida’s political career is faltering. In the aftermath of Abe’s assassination, Kishida’s public approval rating dropped drastically, from a peak of 63% in July to 36% on August 22.

On August 31, Kishida held a public press conference in which he apologized to the public for the LDP’s problematic relationship with the Unification Church “which caused problems”. He said he takes the public’s opposition to a state funeral very seriously, but continued to ask for the public’s cooperation, explaining that a state funeral is an “appropriate” send-off for Abe, account given his accomplishments as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.

More than 6,000 international dignitaries and business leaders are expected at the funeral, including US Vice President Kamala Harris, former US President Barack Obama, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to n to name a few. Kishida added that in light of the criticism, local municipalities will not be compelled to express their condolences and will not need to observe a minute’s silence.

As Kishida prepares to welcome foreign leaders, he puts his own leadership on the line for a state funeral.