July 2023

The Unification Church scandal has put the Japanese right in an uncomfortable position

Artwork: Julio Shiiki - Images: Wikipedia

The slaying of Shinzo Abe one year ago unexpectedly brought about one of the worst crises in the scandal-drenched history of the Unification Church. 

Tetsuya Yamagami, who is alleged to have shot Abe dead in front of a station in Nara Prefecture on July 8, told police his family had been bled dry by his mother’s huge donations to the cult, founded in South Korea by Moon Sun Myung in 1958. In Yamagami’s mind, Abe’s embrace of the Unification Church made him partly responsible, and therefore a legitimate target. Public reaction in Japan whipsawed from grief at the tragic death of their former prime minister to sympathy with his assassin, and anger over longstanding ties between the Moonies – as they are often called – and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

The Japanese media pounced on what anti-cult lawyer Takashi Yamaguchi calls “the plundering of Japan by the Unification Church”.

According to spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul, Japan – a former colonial power that ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945 – has twice the number of Moonies as the cult’s home country: 300,000 compared to between 150,000 and 200,000 in South Korea. Japan has provided the lion’s share of its global income since the 1970s.

In 1984, the Washington Post was told by two renegades from the Unification Church in Japan that from 1975 to 1984 it had transferred at least $800 million to the U.S. In 1987, the Asahi Shimbun reported 15,000 complaints since 1980 concerning ¥317 billion in “spiritual sales” by the church. Gullible and superstitious Japanese were being peddled marble vases, ivory seals, and miniature pagodas credited with miraculous powers, or ginseng tea, at enormously inflated prices. 

The former editor of the cult’s Japanese newspaper, Sekai Nippo, blew the whistle on sales quotas given to Japanese cult followers to support the money-losing Washington Times. Fired on Moon’s orders, he was beaten up by toughs from the Moonie-affiliated anti-communist group Kokusai Shokyo Rengo, and then repeatedly stabbed outside his home while preparing an article critical of Moon for Bungei Shunju.

The Unification Church has often been accused of hiding behind a multitude of front groups, often with titles that offer little clue as to their origins. A global list of companies owned, operated or controlled by the Moonies runs to 60 pages, with thousands of names.

In Japan, concealment and deception have frequently been employed in recruiting and fund-raising. Moon’s boldest subterfuge was establishing a Buddhist cult called Tenchi Seikyo (true teachings of heaven and earth). The leader was a secret member of the Unification Church and ensured that Tenchi Seikyo made “very large contributions to Moon”, researcher Thomas H. Pearce was told by one of its officers.

A campaign against spiritual sales forced the Unification Church to switch to donations. A former cult official told the Mainichi Shimbun that in the two decades before he quit, the Japanese branch had an annual fund-raising target of around ¥30 billion. 

Yamagami’s mother was among those pressured to be generous. Upon joining the Unification Church in 1991, she turned over ¥50 million received from her late husband’s life insurance policy. After her own father died in 1998, she sold a house that she had inherited and gave more than ¥40 million out of the proceeds to the cult. In 2002, she was declared bankrupt but continued with donations. Yamagami’s paternal uncle said he used to receive telephone calls from the three children complaining of having nothing to eat. He finally halted financial support because their mother was just handing over his money to the Unification Church. When Yamagami tried to commit suicide in 2005, she opted to stay in South Korea on a church mission.

Japanese fundraising was often linked to grandiose projects of Moon, such as a 1,200-hectare “peace park” at his birthplace in what is now North Korea, or car factories in the North and China. 

The aborted construction of an undersea tunnel connecting Japan and South Korea is perhaps the closest to outright fraud. Boring of a test tunnel started in 1986 in rural Saga. Tunnelling had to stop after the survey shaft reached 540 metres inside a mountain, as it had reached the boundary of land acquired by the Unification Church.

“We never considered the tunnel project when we were formulating plans to develop Japan’s land,” Tetsuo Saito, minister of land, infrastructure, transport, and tourism, said. “I believe the vision for the tunnel is quite absurd.”

Why did previous LDP governments not intervene to halt construction? The cynical answer is that this would have plugged a geyser of Japanese money gushing into the Unification Church. When test-tunnelling halted, the total cost was said to have reached ¥6.75 billion, but the Asahi quoted the cult as stating in 2014 that “the church and its followers had together donated more than ¥10 billion for the project”. What happened to the missing billions?

Much has been made of ideological affinity between the late Moon and the rightwing of the LDP, brothers-in-arms for decades in the Cold War struggle against communism. 

Indeed, this is all part of the Unification Church origin story. How, for instance, Kim Jong Pil, the founding head of the notorious Korean Central Intelligence Agency, “organised” a small religious cult started by a man already tarnished by scandal, allegedly for deflowering virgins of Ewha Womans University in a sex ritual. How Pak Bo Hi, a Korean intelligence colonel, became Moon’s right-hand man, and how the Unification Church manufactured armaments for the South Korean military, and indoctrinated South Korean civil servants in anti-communism at a special training camp outside Seoul. 

A different way of looking at the relationship is more akin to how organised crime used to operate in America. The Unification Church helped Japanese politicians get out of the vote at election time, and in return enjoyed protection that allowed them to continue wringing money from Japanese victims.

What makes this so explosive is the Korea-Japan relationship. Japan is usually cast in the role of colonial oppressor, but in the case of the Unification Church, it is Japanese who have been the primary victims. This puts the Japanese right in a quandary. How does one reconcile Abe’s hard line against apologising for the wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, or upholding Japan’s claim to the disputed Takeshima/Dokdo chain of islets, with his warm feelings towards a group that views Koreans as a master race designed to rule the world? After all, it was Abe’s maternal grandfather and political mentor, Nobusuke Kishi, who welcomed Moon to Japan and allowed the church to base its headquarters next door to his house in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

What of the spiritual home and global headquarters of the Unification Church? Abe’s death and the subsequent furore in Japan found only a dull echo in South Korea, with no debate or soul-searching about a Korean religion bilking Japanese. Neither has there been any probing of a symbiotic relationship with the South Korea state, which has allowed the Unification Church to weather innumerable scandals while basking in privilege at home: hosting mass weddings; owning a ski resort and a soccer team; a travel agency; a construction company and various factories; and owning a land bank of 4,628 hectares. It has even been allowed to conduct the most sensitive economic and political diplomacy with North Korea. 

I submitted these and other written questions to the government in Seoul. I never received a reply. This did not entirely surprise me. Years before, I had asked a South Korean diplomat, with many years of experience in Japan, to explain the privileged treatment accorded the Unification Church by his government. He hotly denied there was any. We have not spoken since.

Peter McGill is a veteran journalist, published by over 100 magazines and newspapers. A former Tokyo correspondent of the Observer, he was the youngest-ever president of the FCCJ. He is currently writing a book about Japanese business.