Japan’s government on Friday asked a court to order the dissolution of the Unification Church branch in Japan following the assassination of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in July 2022.
The government’s move comes after a months-long probe into the church, formally known in Japan as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
The investigation followed claims by the suspected shooter, Tetsuya Yamagami, that he fatally shot Abe because he believed the leader was associated with the church, which Yamagami blamed for bankrupting his family through the excessive donations of his mother, a member.
Earlier in January, Japanese prosecutors indicted Yamagami on murder and firearm charges.
The government’s investigation concluded that the group’s practices – including fund-raising activities that allegedly pressured followers to make exorbitant donations – violated the 1951 Religious Corporations Act.
That law allows Japanese courts to order the dissolution of a religious group if it has committed an act “clearly found to harm public welfare substantially.”
The Tokyo District Court will now make a judgment based on the evidence submitted by the government, according to Japan’s public broadcaster NHK.
This is the third time the Japanese government has sought a dissolution order for a religious group accused of violating the act.
It also sought to dissolve the Aum Shinrikyo cult, after some of its members carried out a deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which left dozens dead and thousands injured, and Myokaku-ji Temple, whose priests defrauded people by charging them for exorcisms. The courts ruled with the government on both orders.
The Unification Church in Japan has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, pledging reform and labeling the news coverage against it as “biased” and “fake.”
On Thursday, it issued a statement, saying it was “very regrettable” that the government was seeking the dissolution order, particularly as it had been “working on reforming the church” since 2009. It added that it would make legal counterarguments against the order in court.
If disbanded, the Unification Church, founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954, would lose its status as a religious corporation in Japan and be deprived of tax benefits. However, it could still operate as a corporate entity.
Experts argue that an order to disband the group completely could take years to process and could even risk pushing the entity’s activities underground.
Why this order?
The Unification Church became known worldwide for mass weddings, in which thousands of couples get married simultaneously, with some brides and grooms meeting their betrothed for the first time on their wedding day.
Public scrutiny of the church in Japan increased after Abe was fatally shot during an election campaign speech last July.
Abe’s alleged assailant told police that his family had been ruined because of the huge donations his mother made to a religious group, which he alleged had close ties to the late former prime minister, according to NHK.
A spokesperson for the Unification Church confirmed to reporters in Tokyo that the suspect’s mother was a member, Reuters reported, but said neither Abe nor the suspected killer were members.
Following Abe’s death local media carried a series of reports claiming various other lawmakers of the country’s ruling party had links to the church, prompting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to order an investigation.
Kishida told reporters Thursday that ruling party lawmakers had cut ties with the religious group, amid concerns that the Unification Church had been trying to wield political influence.
Since last November, Japan’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs has questioned and sought to obtain documents from the Unification Church while also collecting testimonies from around 170 people who say they were pressured into making massive donations known in Japan as “spiritual sales.”