September 2022 | Japan media watch

The Unification Church-LDP scandal has given some news outlets the collywobbles

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

In the immediate aftermath of the killing of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on July 8, most news about the incident centered on the suspect and his unusual murder weapon. As it became clear that the suspect had allegedly targeted Abe over a grudge toward the religious organization once known as the Unification Church and now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more news outlets started looking into Abe's connections to the church, as well as those of other members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, of which Abe was a leader. 

The name of the church was initially not revealed in almost any of the mainstream media reports about Abe's relationship. Stories tended to use vague terms like "a certain organization." That's because almost all the information about the murder received by reporters was from the police and no one was sure of the veracity of the suspect's statements.

Since the church itself had not yet commented on these stories, news outlets did not state its name due to fear of potential lawsuits, even though they knew the identity of the organization, which was already being mentioned extensively on social media. 

On July 11, representatives of the church gave a press conference confirming the suspect's claims that his mother had once been a member, and reporters started using the church's name in their stories. However, according to two columns he wrote for Gendai Digital, journalist Yoichiro Tateiwa, who runs the fact-checking website In Fact, says that NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, had apparently already received written confirmation from the church about its relationship with the suspect, but had decided not to reveal the name of the church until after the press conference. The first time NHK mentioned the Unification Church was during the July 11 installment of its evening in-depth news program, Closeup Gendai. When Tateiwa asked his NHK sources why they waited even though they basically had confirmation, none of them had an answer. 

Once a correspondent for NHK, Tateiwa wrote that he wasn't surprised. There seemed to be an unexpressed feeling among NHK staff that if they started talking about the church before the official press conference then it might adversely affect their situation in the company. Tateiwa says that this is a fundamental problem at NHK: Final judgement as to what gets aired and what doesn't isn't completely clear. Though all news programs have editors-in-chief, above them are several layers of authority with accumulating levels of responsibility, and program editors and producers may be afraid of doing something that might displease them. According to the Broadcast Law, the final responsibility within NHK sits at the top, with the chairman, in this case Akinobu Maeda, who is by profession a bureaucrat and not a journalist. 

Tateiwa mentions the confusion at NHK over how to approach the church's relationship to the Abe killing. After the press conference, the mainstream media became more aggressive in covering the church connection, and not only with regards to Abe. However, NHK was still being cautious, and in many reports continued to refer to the church in veiled terms. Moreover, according to a different Gendai article, although NHK regularly covers Diet deliberations as they happen, for some reason they did not schedule coverage of an August 5 session where the church would be discussed in the Diet for the first time since the upper house election. This led to a hashtag trend on social media wherein members of the public, which are forced to pay annual fees to NHK regardless of whether they watch it, said they would withhold payments because of NHK's lax reporting. Supporters of the hashtag trend accused the public broadcaster of deferring to the government, which has to approve NHK's budget. In response, on August 8 – one month to the day after the shooting – NHK headquarters' news division notified all outlets nationwide to cover the church in depth, in particular any associations it had with local governments. As a result, NHK revealed that the mayor of Gifu in central Japan had used a church facility for some of his work and 16 members of the political party Ishin no Kai in Osaka had appeared at a church event, with seven having once been paying members (they have since reportedly rescinded their membership).

But the uncertainty persisted. A source within NHK told Gendai how “confused” the newsroom was. For a month NHK had not covered the church story closely, and now suddenly they had to dig deep. It was as if “we had to catch up to the commercial TV stations”, the source said. Obviously, the public would notice and accuse NHK of being lax, which is essentially what happened. Other media noticed too. In an Asahi Shimbun column that appeared August 13, documentary filmmaker Arata Oshima praised the full-length documentaries about World War II that NHK always airs this time of the year, while contrasting their integrity with the mediocre performance of NHK's regular news coverage as exemplified by the stories about the Unification Church’s connections to the LDP.

Implicit in Oshima's commentary is the idea that commercial stations were outperforming NHK in terms of church coverage, but that really shouldn't have been surprising. Due to the sensational nature of Abe's murder and the scandalous reputation that the church has always had in Japan, it wasn't difficult for most stations to make a lot of the story; or, at least, more of it than they would have made of conventional stories that involve lawmakers.

The notoriety of the case brought renewed attention to the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, whose July 12 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan received widespread coverage as they discussed the Unification Church's means of raising funds by taking advantage of members' fears about the afterlife. The lawyers said that the church makes the bulk of its revenue in Japan, even though it is headquartered in South Korea and has a substantial presence in the U.S.

Thus, commercial TV stations reported on the extent and nature of the long-standing connection between the church and the LDP. The notable exception was TV Asahi, which may surprise some people because of the Asahi brand. But TV Asahi is a distinct media entity from the nominally liberal-identified Asahi Shimbun newspaper, even if both outlets come under the same corporate umbrella. 

TV Asahi's lack of rigor in covering the Unification Church’s connection to the LDP was explored in an August 5 post on media criticism website Litera. Like Gendai, Litera outlined how all media had deliberately not mentioned the Unification Church in its early coverage of the Abe killing, and then after the July 11 press conference, NHK and Fuji TV, which has always handled LDP-centered stories gingerly, continued to demonstrate caution. These two outlets, according to Litera, best represent how broadcast news defers to authority. 

But TV Asahi's own deference seemed to surprise Litera. The network's two daily news programs, "Morning Show" and "Hodo Station," had given only cursory coverage to the church-LDP story while shows like TBS's "News 23" and Yomiuri TV's "Joho Live Miyaneya," went fairly deep. 

The change seemed to happen after July 18, when journalist Yoshifu Arita, an expert on cults who was instrumental in exposing Aum Shinrikyo even before its deadly 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo, appeared on "Morning Show" and spoke at length about the Unification Church's activities. During this appearance, Arita related his now-famous story about how, following the Aum debacle, the police had pledged to crack down on the church's perceived wrongdoing as a kind of penance for having overlooked Aum. But when Arita checked with the progress of this campaign 10 years later, he was told by a police source that they gave up after being subjected to "political pressure". Arita was scheduled to appear the next day on "Morning Show" to talk further on the topic but the appearance was canceled by TV Asahi. 

TV Asahi subsequently avoided the topic. Moreover, it removed previous related materials from its website and YouTube. Litera cited anonymous sources within TV Asahi who said that, following Arita's appearance, producers received directives to abandon such coverage without further explanation. Litera believes the directives came from TV Asahi Holdings President Hiroshi Shinozuka, who assumed the top position in June. When he was head of the news division, Shinozuka was known to be quite close to the chairman of TV Asahi, Hiroshi Hayakawa, an equally fast friend of Shinzo Abe's. Sources within TV Asahi told Litera that during the second Abe administration, whenever the cabinet wanted positive coverage of something, they contacted the TV Asahi news division, which obliged their requests in order to please Hayakawa. 

The church's connections to the LDP is old news. Media outlets have known for years that Abe, in particular, was an important ally. Obviously, his death made the press look more closely at this mutually beneficial relationship. Because of Abe's powerful hold over the media, that relationship may have been addressed delicately while he was alive, even if Abe was open about it, but given that the church has strong opinions about national policy, it's a relationship that needs to be talked about.


Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for The Number 1 Shimbun.