South Korea’s Unification Church said on Monday it was puzzled by reports that the man suspected of killing former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was motivated by anger at the group.
The head of the Japanese branch of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, often known as the Moonies, confirmed that the suspect’s mother Tetsuya Yamagami was a member of the church.
But branch president Tomihiro Tanaka declined to comment on suggestions that Yamagami’s mother’s large donations had put the family under severe financial strain, saying donations to the church by members were volunteers.
For decades, the close ties between the Moonies and powerful figures in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been a little-discussed open secret in Japanese politics.
But Abe’s death and the suspect’s alleged family problems with the group have put the relationship in the spotlight as the nation searches for answers to one of its worst incidents of political violence since World War II.
Tanaka told a news conference, to which only major Japanese media outlets were invited, that Yamagami’s mother had been a member of the church since about 1998 and had been attending its events until two months ago. The 41-year-old suspect was not affiliated with the church.
Local police said Yamagami told investigators he had a grudge against “a particular group” with whom he believed Abe had a close relationship. Police have not named the group, but a person familiar with the investigation said they were referring to the Unification Church.
Japanese media widely reported that Yamagami, a former member of the nation’s Maritime Self-Defense Force, said his mother had made large donations to the group, throwing his household’s finances into disarray. Yamagami’s mother could not be reached for comment.
Tanaka declined to comment on the mother’s donations, but said the church did not force people to donate against their will. He said that he believed that Yamagami’s mother went bankrupt in 2002.
“It is confusing and difficult for us to understand why resentment against the church would lead to the assassination of former Prime Minister Abe,” Tanaka said at the news conference, which was broadcast live.
He said that if questioned, the group would cooperate with the police to discover Yamagami’s precise motive.
Originally known as the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, the Unification Church was founded in 1954 in the South Korean port city of Busan.
Its founder, the excommunicated Presbyterian minister Moon Sun-myung, claimed to have been commissioned by God to complete the unfinished work of Jesus Christ on earth.
Widely derided as a cult, the Unification Church spread west in the late 1950s and aggressively expanded throughout the world in the 1990s. Its Japanese branch opened in 1959 and has 600,000 members.
Although not members, Abe and his late grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, also a former Japanese prime minister, were known publicly as supporters of the church.
Yamagami also reportedly believed that Kishi played a role in establishing the church in Japan. “It was Mr. Kishi who brought in the group that destroyed my family, so I targeted his grandson,” Japanese media reports quoted him as telling investigators. Local police officials declined to comment.
Jeffrey J Hall, an expert on nationalist activism at Kanda University of International Studies, said the Unification Church had been involved in conservative politics in Japan since the time of Abe’s grandfather.
“This group has been one of the pillars of LDP campaigns since that cold war era when the church was a trusted ally against communism,” Hall said. “They worked with the Kishi faction of the LDP, which later became the Abe faction.”
The church has denied providing financial donations to the PLD. But Hall said Japan’s strict political campaign laws that made connecting with voters difficult meant that non-monetary ties were also valuable.
“Having religious groups that can provide a very reliable pool of voters that will definitely turn out on Election Day, will definitely vote for your party, can provide volunteers for your campaign, is important,” he said.
In September last year, Abe appeared at an event hosted by the widow of Unification Church founder Moon. The event also featured former US President Donald Trump as the keynote speaker. “I am honored to have this opportunity to speak with my close friend, President Trump, who has also been a driving force for world peace,” Abe said in the five-minute speech.
The National Spiritual Selling Lawyers Network, which represents people forced to make donations or buy “spiritual goods” such as personal stamps and vases from religious groups, protested Abe’s appearance last year. The network alleged that the church “caused serious harm to many citizens in Japan, family breakdown and destruction of lives.”
According to the lawyers, the people they represent are seeking damages from the church totaling more than 123 billion yen ($894 million) over the last 30 years. In one case, a single family donated 2 billion yen to the group.
The then president of the Unification Church in Japan resigned in 2009 after some of its executives were accused of illegal door-to-door sales of spiritual goods. Hiroshi Yamaguchi, one of the lawyers representing the victims, said: “Moonies supporters are still given strict quotas for donations.”
Tanaka said the church had strengthened enforcement measures since the late 2000s and denied assigning donation fees to members. The group also said that it had not been involved in police cases since 2009.
Kimiaki Nishida, a cult psychology expert at Rissho University, said the Japanese establishment and media had long turned a blind eye to political ties to the Moonies. “This is not a religious group but a cult that is hungry for money. But nobody brought it up,” he said.