Nov 13, 2023

Japan is not putting the Unification Church out of business

Politicians have yet to put protections in place for vulnerable members of society


Nikkei Asia

Yoshihide Sakurai

November 14, 2023

Yoshihide Sakurai is a professor in the sociology department of Hokkaido University and author of the book "Unification Church: Sex, Money and Resentment."

After months of scrutiny following the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government last month asked a court to issue a dissolution order to the local arm of the controversial Unification Church.

In explaining the move, Culture Minister Masahito Moriyama cited official findings that the church had "caused a large number of people substantial property damage and emotional suffering" through coerced donations.

The term "dissolution order" has caused a great deal of misunderstanding.

Some media have indicated that the Unification Church will be disbanded in Japan and its religious activities prohibited. The church itself has slammed the government's request as "a serious development not only for freedom of belief but also for human rights."

In fact, the main impact of dissolution would just be that the church would lose its tax-exempt status in Japan. It would be able to continue its activities as a voluntary religious organization.

The Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, is a South Korea-based entity, with nearly 100 affiliated corporations, political organizations and civic groups. If one of these affiliates disappears, this will not hurt the group as a whole. Nor would a Japanese administrative order directly affect the church's headquarters in South Korea.

It could take several years for dissolution to happen, given the various court procedures to be followed. But one expected immediate effect is that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Unification Church will cease electoral cooperation.

For years, LDP politicians could count on the help of volunteers and organized votes from the Unification Church if they reciprocated by sending congratulatory speeches and telegrams for church events.

Abe's killing in July 2022 prompted an investigation of ties between the church and the LDP. The mother of Tetsuya Yamagami, the alleged killer, was a church member who went bankrupt due to her excessive donations. Yamagami vented his resentment against the church on Abe, a frequent speaker at church events.

A dissolution order will not undo the harms the church has caused in Japan. Thirty-two court judgments have found the church liable for damages and approximately 1,550 people have reached settlements with the church. The compensation involved has reached 20.4 billion yen ($135 million).

But lawyers and consumer centers recorded more than $800 million in claims against the church between 1987 and 2021, so there may be more court claims to come. Many former believers are also in need of spiritual rehabilitation, but Japan has few specialists who can help.

Around 6,000 Japanese female believers sent to South Korea are still there with their Korean husbands, though some have left the faith. Half of them cannot return home due to their husbands' jobs, their children's schooling or the lack of available support in Japan.

Second-generation believers like Yamagami need support too. They were forced by their parents to observe the church's code of virginity until marriage and to participate in mass weddings. Many have ended up taking care of aging parents who used up their retirement savings on donations to the church.

The government recently issued guidelines that classify forcing children into religious activities as child abuse. But there is not yet much welfare support for such children.

Japanese politicians have failed to adopt any real measures to help the victims of nontraditional religions or cults or to prevent further damage.

The Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition party, has talked of offering legislation modeled on France's anti-sect law, but has failed to submit such a bill due to doubts raised by other parties about distinguishing cults from legitimate religions and determining whether followers are under mind control. The party has instead offered a bill that would freeze Unification Church assets in Japan to prevent their transfer to South Korea until victim compensation is paid, but it appears unlikely to pass.

The ruling coalition, comprised of the LDP and Komeito, is reluctant to introduce stronger legislation to avoid the appearance of suppressing religious freedom. Komeito itself is an affiliate of the Soka Gakkai, the largest of a number of Japanese religious movements started in the 20th century.

Indeed, although a strict separation of church and state is prescribed in Japan's constitution, politicians often receive patronage and electoral support from both traditional and new religions. Revelations about the depth of covert cooperation between the Unification Church and the LDP in the wake of Abe's killing have stirred public anger.

Japanese society is naive in terms of religion. As much as 70% of the population identifies as nonreligious. Buddhism and Shintoism remain customary religious cultures.

Due to a lack of religious literacy, Japanese people are often unable to deal with religious issues on their own and thus easily recruited to controversial religions.

The Unification Church is a case in point. In Japan, the church has sought to extract larger donations than elsewhere and has pushed female believers to marry Korean men. This approach stems from the historical grudge that late founder Sun Myung Moon held toward Japan over its colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945. Church officials told naive Japanese followers that they could atone for the sins of their ancestors through donations.

The church still has tens of thousands of believers in Japan. Less than 10% have sought damages. The rest continue to endure hardship and faithfully follow instructions from the church's South Korean headquarters. They will likely keep on proselytizing and may continue illegal fundraising.

Without better religious literacy and historical knowledge, Japanese will have to keep on relying on administrative punishments and lawsuits for protection. The Unification Church case has showed that self-proclaimed conservative politicians are neither willing to protect the national interest nor the safety of their people. Self-education will have to be the answer for now.


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