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Japan seeks to revoke the Unification Church's legal status after Abe killing

The logo of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, widely known as the Unification Church, is seen at the entrance of its Japan branch headquarters in Tokyo. The Japanese government has asked a court to remove the church's legal status.
Kazuhiro Nogi
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AFP via Getty Images
The logo of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, widely known as the Unification Church, is seen at the entrance of its Japan branch headquarters in Tokyo. The Japanese government has asked a court to remove the church's legal status.

SEOUL — Japan's government has asked a court to revoke the legal status of the Japanese branch of the Unification Church.

It's a rare move by a government whose ruling party has long had ties with both the church and other religious groups. It might not have happened if not for the bizarre murder of Japan's ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last year.

Japan's Education Minister announced the government's long-expected decision Thursday following an official investigation.

Education Minister Masahito Moriyama said the probe had found that the Japanese branch of the church has "long restricted many of its members' ability to freely make decisions, and forced them to make donations and purchase goods, while they were not in a condition to make sound decisions."

The Unification Church, known officially as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, was founded in 1954 in South Korea by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah and staunch anti-communist.

The church has faced a raft of lawsuits from plaintiffs in Japan, who claim the groups duped and defrauded them, in some cases convincing them that the path to spiritual salvation depended on donating to the church.

The donations helped make Japan what the church says is its largest source of income.

The church is only the third of Japan's roughly 180,000 registered religious groups that the government has targeted.

While the other two, including the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which staged a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, involved criminal charges, the Unification Church faces civil charges, stemming from its failure to answer the government's questions.

The government was prompted to move against the church after an alleged assailant with a homemade firearm gunned down Abe as he campaigned on the street in July of 2022. The killing was shocking in a nation where gun crime is very rare.

People pray outside Yamato-Saidaiji Station, where former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot, on his first death anniversary of his death in Nara city on July 8.
STR / JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images
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JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images
People pray outside Yamato-Saidaiji Station, where former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot, on his first death anniversary of his death in Nara city on July 8.

Abe's alleged assassin claimed that his mother's donations to the church had bankrupted his family. He was angry at Abe's deep ties to the church.

Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has long counted on the church to mobilize its followers and help the party at election time.

"Always below the surface in Japan, there's a great deal of anxiety about the relationship between religion and government, and laying those relationships bare in the aftermath of that murder raised people's ire to a very large extent," says Levi McLaughlin, an expert on religion in Japan at North Carolina State University.

Of course, the church is hardly the only interest group to forge ties with Japanese politicians, McLaughlin points out.

And "politicians avail themselves of help from all kinds of organizations, including religions," he adds. "And so in that regard, their relationships with the church weren't unusual at all."

The government's decision "sets a worrying precedent for a lot of other religions that tend to be viewed with skepticism or fear in Japan," McLaughlin argues.

Members of Komeito, the LDP's partner in the ruling coalition, for example, may fear that they're the government's next possible target, McLaughlin adds. Komeito was founded by members of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist religious movement, which has drawn criticism for, among other things, its aggressive proselytizing.

The Unification Church, meanwhile, slammed the government's decision as a "stain on Japan's constitutional history." A dissolution ruling against it would strip the church of legal status and tax breaks, but allow it to continue to operate in Japan.

The church's influence in Japan has declined since the heyday of post-war religious movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of its adherents are elderly, poor and female, and the church's increasing financial burdens, McLaughlin warns, could end up on them.

In that case, the "legal dissolution of the church will end up actually causing a lot of difficulties," he says, "for the very kinds of people that the government and other advocates claim to be rescuing."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report in Tokyo.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.