The Unification Church: who are the Moonies?

Man who killed former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe cited grudge against the global religious movement

A mass Moonies wedding in South Korea
A mass Moonies wedding in South Korea
(Image credit: Woohae Cho/Getty Images)

The Unification church is facing widespread scrutiny after being linked to the assassination of Japan’s former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

The man arrested for killing Abe claimed to have targeted the politician for allegedly championing the Japanese branch of the global religious movement, whose members are commonly known as Moonies.

The suspect’s claims have “cast a spotlight” on the controversial church and “its ties to politicians”, said The Guardian’s Tokyo correspondent Justin McCurry.

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Who are the ‘Moonies’?

Officially titled the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the Unification Church was founded in South Korea in 1954 by excommunicated Presbyterian minister Sun Myung Moon, a “self-declared messiah and ardent anti-communist” who “also ran a business empire”, said Deutsche Welle (DW).

Moon, who died in 2012, claimed to have had a vision at the age of 15 in which he was charged by God with completing Jesus Christ’s unfinished mission to restore humanity to a state of “sinless” purity.

After establishing his own church to teach new interpretations of the Bible, Moon’s “strident anti-communism would lead him to build ties with conservative politicians around the world”, said The Guardian’s McCurry. And the total number of his followers “soared from an initial group of 100 missionaries to around 10,000 in a few years”.

Membership of the Unification Church is believed to have peaked at up to three million in the 1980s.

“Often described as a cult motivated by financial gain, the church became known for conducting mass weddings in huge sports stadiums – involving thousands of couples who were meeting for the first time,” McCurry continued.

In Japan, the church “has attracted celebrities as well as the attention of politicians who seek to court its influence”, said DW.

But membership has fallen in recent years, amid allegations about followers being pressured into giving large donations that forced some into bankruptcy.

A spokesperson for the church said that current membership stood at around 300,000 followers in Japan and up to 200,000 in South Korea.

Why is the Unification Church controversial?

The church “caused serious damage to many citizens in Japan, family breakdown and destruction of lives”, according to The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which represents people forced to make donations or to purchase so-called “spiritual goods” from religious groups.

Damages being sought from the Unification Church by people represented by the network total more than ¥123bn (£760m) over the past 30 years. “In one case, a single family donated ¥2bn to the group,” the Financial Times (FT) reported.

Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the church’s Japan branch, told a news conference in Tokyo this week that “the amount of donations is up to each individual”.

The group has acknowledged past scandals related to donations but has “denied having any such trouble since 2009, when its head at the time acknowledged the past problems and pledged to comply with the relevant laws”, The Japan Times reported.

What is the link to Abe?

“For decades, close ties between the Moonies and powerful figures in the governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been a little-discussed open secret in Japanese politics,” according to the FT.

The Japan chapter was founded in 1959, when Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was prime minister. Abe and his late grandfather “were publicly known as supporters of the church”, said the paper.

“It’s uncertain whether Abe’s grandfather actually invited the group to Japan,” said The Japan Times.

But Jeffrey J. Hall, an expert on nationalist activism at Kanda University of International Studies, told the FT that the religious group “has been one of the bases of the LDP’s campaigns since that time in the Cold War when the church was a reliable ally against communism”.

The church has denied providing financial donations to the LDP. But Hall argued that the group had benefitted from “having religious groups that can provide a very reliable group of voters who will definitely turn out on election day” and “vote for your party” and that can “provide volunteers for your campaign”.

The extent of Abe’s connections with the Moonies is “not clear”, said The Times’ Tokyo-based Asia editor Richard Lloyd Parry. The Japanese Communist Party’s newspaper, Akahata, has previously reported that he sent congratulatory messages and gave online speeches at ceremonies held by a front organisation for the church.

Last September, Abe appeared at an event organised by the widow of the church’s founder Moon that “also featured former US president Donald Trump as a keynote speaker”, the FT reported.

And the link to Abe’s alleged killer?

Tetsuya Yamagami is accused of shooting Abe with a homemade gun as the former PM was giving a campaign speech in the western city of Nara on Friday. Police sources said that the 41-year-old suspect was “attempting to strike a blow against a religious organisation to which his mother gave away the family’s assets after the death of her husband, resulting in bankruptcy and the impoverishment of her family”, The Times’ Lloyd Parry reported.

According to Japanese media reports, Yamagami told police that “as my mother is a follower of [the church], and was declared bankrupt after donating large amount of money, I thought I had to punish them without fail”.

He reportedly said that “I thought Abe had a connection with it, so I carried out the shooting”.

The church’s Japan branch boss Tanaka confirmed that Yamagami’s mother had been a member since the late 1990s but denied that she was forced to make the donations.

Tanaka also said the Abe had never been a member but added that the late PM had been involved with a “friendship group” affiliated with the group.

Whatever Abe’s links, if Yamagami’s reported motive for the killing is confirmed,“the country’s most devastating political assassination since the Second World War was driven by nothing more significant than a family squabble about religion”, said Lloyd Parry.

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