The Japanese government has launched an investigation into the Unification Church five months after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead, allegedly by a man with a longstanding grudge against the group.
The investigation, announced Tuesday, will focus on the church’s finances and organization, and could lead to the stripping of its legal status, media reports said.
Revelations of long-standing ties between members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the church — whose members are popularly known as Moonies — have been greeted with dismay by the public and sent Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s polls in a free fall.
Education Minister Keiko Nagaoka said the church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, has until Dec. 9 to respond to questions from researchers, including those related to its controversial fundraising activities.
It will then be left to a court to decide whether to remove the legal status of the church and, with it, the tax exemptions enjoyed by registered religious organizations in Japan. Reports said it could pass as a religious entity in that scenario.
Tetsuya Yamagami, who is accused of killing Abe while giving an election speech in early July, has said he targeted the politician because he believed he was a supporter of the church, which he accused of bankrupting his family .
Yamagami, who is undergoing a psychological evaluation expected to last until early next year, told police his mother donated large sums of money to the church two decades ago.
Abe, whose grandfather, post-war Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped the Unification Church establish a presence in Japan, sent a congratulatory video message to an event held in 2021 by a branch of the church.
The church, a deeply conservative organization founded in South Korea by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 1954, has been accused of pressuring members in Japan to pay exorbitant amounts for “spiritual” items that will supposedly rid them of evil ancestral karma. The church, labeled a cult by its critics, has denied any allegations.
Earlier this month, Nagaoka noted that the church had been ordered to pay damages of at least 1.4 billion yen ($9.8 million) in 22 civil lawsuits. She said the group should be investigated because it is “suspected of exerting significant influence and causing widespread damage”.
Few expected Yamagami’s reported motive for Abe’s murder to have such dramatic political ramifications. However, revelations that LDP politicians have appeared at Unification church events and accepted members’ help during election campaigns have rocked Kishida’s party, sending his approval ratings to the lowest level since he took office late last year.
In August, a party survey found that about half of the LDP’s legislators had ties to the organization.
Kishida’s approval rating has remained at 27.7% for the third consecutive month, according to a poll by the Jiji news agency in mid-November. The poll found that 43.5% of respondents did not support the government.
Most voters also opposed Kishida’s decision to hold a state funeral for Abe in September.
His problems have been exacerbated by the recent resignation of three cabinet ministers. Justice minister Yasuhiro Hanashi resigned last week after joking that he only made the news when he signed execution orders, while economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa resigned last month over his ties to the Unification Church.
Over the weekend, Minoru Terada, the interior minister, resigned over political funding scandals following media reports that Kishida was close to firing him.