Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.09.16

Unification Church and the LDP: A scandal or a witch hunt?

Political parties and their associations with religious groups are raising concern

the japan times on September 2, 2022

A month after the shocking assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the nation’s domestic politics seems to be entering into another labyrinth.

Critics have demanded that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party completely cut ties with the Unification Church and its affiliates, while some LDP supporters are quietly calling the ongoing power struggle a kind of 21st-century “witch hunt.”

In response on Wednesday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that he will make it a matter of policy for LDP members in parliament to sever ties with the church, officially now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, and instructed the party to investigate any connections its politicians may have with the religious group.

While critics consider the Unification Church an antisocial religious cult that political parties must stay away from, some pundits claim that it is realistically impossible for politicians to ask their supporters’ religious affiliation and reject them depending on the answer.

The Japanese media has unanimously criticized the Unification Church as being an “antisocial organization.” An Asahi Shimbun editorial from July 22, for example, said: “Since the 1980s, there has been heightened criticism of psychic sales and joint wedding ceremonies” by the group and its followers in Japan.

“In more than 30 legal cases brought by former believers,” the editorial continued, “the judges found the cult to be at fault. Many have been found guilty of violating the Specified Commercial Transactions Law, which prohibits soliciting people by concealing their true identities and for selling expensive jars, seals and other items to make people lose their judgment.”

In its Aug. 3 editorial, the Asahi also argued: “Politicians, who are supposed to protect people’s lives, should not endorse the activities of a cult that has become a social problem for its psychic sales methods and high donations” and “The LDP, which bears a particularly heavy responsibility, should investigate the situation and take this opportunity to make a clear break with the cult.”

But things aren’t so simple. First, such critics do not specifically identify what current actions by the Unification Church are problematic and what kind of relationship political parties should be prohibited from having with such an organization. In short, the criteria for determining whether a particular person is inappropriate remains unclear.

This could explain why some supporters of the LDP are using the term “witch hunt.” Any politician, from either the ruling and opposition parties who had relations with the church, whether it be sending a congratulatory telegram, paying a participation fee or giving a speech at a rally, is likely to be roundly denounced unless he or she can prove there is “completely no connection” with said religious group.

The term “antisocial organization” in Japan usually refers to an organized crime group and its affiliates, not religious organizations. The 2007 “Guidelines for Prevention of Damage Caused by Antisocial Forces to Businesses” only defines “antisocial forces” as “groups or individuals who pursue economic benefits by using violence, force and fraudulent methods.” No religious organization has ever been designated as such.

Some critics argue that the Unification Church is recognized as an antisocial cult in the West, but that in Japan there are no legal criteria or regulations for determining what constitutes a “cult.” Critics have called for enacting a “cult control law” in Japan, following France’s example. However, it is not so easy to do since the French anti-cult law itself is considered controversial, even in France.

That said, the Japanese government and ruling parties have been rather slow in addressing this issue thus far. Few concrete moves toward implementing regulations have been made by the LDP, whose contacts with the church have been coming to light over time, or by Komeito, the junior partner in the ruling bloc, whose parent organization is Soka Gakkai, another religious organization.

It was only on Aug. 18 when the government held the first internal meeting to discuss the damage caused by malicious business practices and other problems related to the Unification Church. The Agency for Cultural Affairs, however, which has the authority to issue dissolution orders under the Religious Institutions Law, did not participate in the meeting.

What is happening in Tokyo now seems to have ended up becoming a battle with no way out. There is even fear that this line of political discourse may eventually open a Pandora’s box because the issue is so sensitive that it could lead to an endless debate on “politics and religion,” which could eventually undermine the country’s democracy.

This concern is not an illusion. Political parties need systematic and organized support from various entities, including social movement groups, labor unions, professional associations, human rights movements and even religious groups. That said, unfortunately, no religious groups are infallible anywhere in the world.

If new religious groups with no record of wrongdoing are prevented from participating in politics and their political activities banned, such groups could “go underground” where they might become fanatical and eventually form real cults.

Another concern is that of discrimination against foreigners in Japan. It is well known that the Unification Church originated on the Korean Peninsula, the birthplace of its founder. And Japan also has a special place in its doctrine, with Korea being “the Adam nation,” destined to dominate the world and Japan “the Eve nation,” partnered with, but subordinate to Korea for what the church says are its alleged sins. That very notion upsets many Japanese.

Although foreigners are prohibited from making political donations, they are allowed to conduct political activities in Japan. What is most concerning is that dissatisfaction with the Unification Church could eventually lead to discrimination against foreigners — Koreans in particular. This would only cause Japan’s democracy to become more inward looking.