Japan minister vows to seek court order to disband Unification Church

The Japanese culture minister on Thursday expressed his intention to seek a court order to dissolve the Unification Church after a months-long probe into the controversial religious group over alleged malicious practices including soliciting financially ruinous donations from members.

The government of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is gearing up to initiate dissolution proceedings, with a request expected to be filed as soon as Friday, after collecting opinions at a meeting of a religious organization council within the Cultural Affairs Agency, attended by culture minister Masahito Moriyama.

The Tokyo District Court is likely to make a final judgment based on the evidence submitted by the government about the group, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

If dissolved, the Unification Church, founded in South Korea by staunch anti-communist Sun Myung Moon in 1954, would lose its status as a religious corporation and be deprived of tax benefits, although it could still operate as an entity in Japan.

The organization, which stirred controversy decades ago in Japan, came under fresh scrutiny after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fatally shot during an election campaign speech in July 2022 over his perceived links to the group.

Abe was targeted by the alleged killer Tetsuya Yamagami, whose mother’s large donations to the Unification Church severely impacted his family. He claimed he targeted Abe partly because Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped bring the church to Japan in the 1960s.

A series of revelations about ties between lawmakers of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, led by Kishida, and the Unification Church badly damaged the government’s reputation.

With approval ratings for his Cabinet remaining sluggish, Kishida, who took office in October 2021, apparently aims to regain public trust by taking a firm stance against the group, often labeled as a cult by critics, observers said.

Under Japan’s legal system, relevant authorities are allowed to ask courts to order a dissolution in cases where a religious corporation “commits an act which is clearly found to harm public welfare substantially.”

If the government can prove that malicious and illegal acts occurred repeatedly at an organizational level, it can seek the group’s dissolution.

Since last November, the Cultural Affairs Agency has exercised its right to question the organization and obtain documents from it seven times, while also collecting statements from victims who were pressured into making huge donations.

The Unification Church has claimed that engaging in activities that violate Japan’s civil law should not be considered grounds for ordering its dissolution and that the government’s questioning of the group is illegal.

Some long-time members of the Unification Church said they have collected over 53,000 petitions urging the government not to pursue a court order and sent them to Kishida and Moriyama, while gathering more than 27,000 signatures online.

So far, only two religious organizations have received a dissolution order from a Japanese court because of legal violations. One was the AUM Shinrikyo cult, which carried out the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system as well as a number of other serious crimes.

Given that it took around four months for the dissolution order to AUM to be issued following the filing of the request, the Unification Church’s case is also expected to take considerable time.

In the 1980s, the Unification Church became notorious in Japan for spiritual sales, in which followers were pressured to buy jars and other items for exorbitant prices via the use of threats, such as invoking “ancestral karma” as a catalyst for misfortune.

Moreover, the group drew attention for holding mass wedding ceremonies, with some Japanese celebrities participating in one held in Seoul in 1992. But since then, there had been few media reports about the group until the assassination of Abe.

The renewed focus on the Unification Church has highlighted the difficulties encountered by “second-generation” family members of its followers, who have experienced financial and other hardships due to their parents’ devotion to the religion.

Last December, Japan’s parliament enacted a law to prohibit organizations from maliciously soliciting donations.

By Ch Fahad Khan Janda