Japan branch of ‘Moonies’ church confirms mother of Abe suspect is member

Photograph of late former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe at a makeshift memorial outside the headquarters of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo, Japan July 12, 2022.
Photograph of late former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe at a makeshift memorial outside the headquarters of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo, Japan July 12, 2022. © Kim Kyung-Hoon, Reuters

The Japanese branch of South Korea’s Unification Church this week acknowledged that the mother of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's suspected killer was a member. But the Unification Church denied allegations that it demanded large donations from anyone.

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Tetsuya Yamagami, an unemployed 41-year-old, has been identified by police as the suspect who approached Abe and opened fire during a campaign speech on Friday.

Yamagami believed Abe had promoted a religious group to which his mother made a "huge donation", Kyodo news agency has said, citing investigative sources.

Although police have not identified the church, Japanese media reports pointed to the Unification Church in Japan, also known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, founded by the late Sun Myung Moon. In the West, the church and its members are better known as "Moonies". 

The suspect told police his mother subsequently went bankrupt after making the huge donation, the Yomiuri newspaper and other media have reported.

Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japanese branch of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, known as the Unification Church, confirmed to reporters in Tokyo that the suspect's mother was a church member.

But he declined to comment on the specifics of the donations since a police investigation was ongoing. Speaking in generalities, Tanaka confirmed that some people had made generous donations, but stressed none were forced. 

No records of suspect attending services, says church

Yamagami was not a church member, and neither was Abe, Tanaka said. The former Japanese prime minister merely supported the church’s peace promoting efforts, he added. 

Tanaka brushed off Japanese media reports as speculation, stressing the motive was still unclear. 

Abe was fatally shot in Nara, western Japan, while campaigning for Sunday’s nationwide parliamentary elections. Video and photos taken by the crowd showed Yamagami pulling out a homemade gun. Two smoke-filled blasts were fired. Abe collapsed and later died at a hospital. 

“This is something that should never have happened, and I feel a deep outrage,” Tanaka said, bowing deeply. “My heart aches that Japan has lost a loved and respected leader.” 

Such bows are part of Japanese protocol to express condolences and do not necessarily signify admission of guilt.

Tanaka wasted no time in distancing his church from the assassination, stressing there were no records of Yamagami ever having attended a service or event, although he could possibly have come with his mother as a child. 

Massive business empire

Yamagami’s mother, who joined the church in the late 1990s, had been taking part in church events about once a month lately. There were many years in between during which she did not come at all, according to Tanaka’s account. 

The Unification Church was founded in South Korea in 1954 by Moon, a self-declared messiah and strident anti-communist.

It has gained global media attention for its mass weddings, where it marries thousands of couples at a time. The church's beliefs are based on the idea that love in marriage and family is what God wants for world peace and harmony. 

The church's affiliates include daily newspapers in South Korea, Japan and the US.  Moon ran a business empire and founded the conservative Washington Times newspaper.

Although the church has had scandals related to donations, compliance measures were set up in 2009, and there have not been any major troubles since then, Tanaka said.

“The amount of donations is up to each individual,” he said. “We are grateful to those who give large donations, but nothing is required.”

'I take this extremely seriously'

The news conference, to which only select media were invited, was livestreamed by Japanese media company Abema, and parts of it were carried on Japanese TV broadcasts. 

“As a religious leader, I take this extremely seriously,” Tanaka said of Abe’s assassination.

Japanese media reports say Yamagami's mother declared bankruptcy in 2002, but records dating back 20 years couldn’t be confirmed and Tanaka said details were unknown.

Yamagami is under custody and not available for comment. 

The Unification Church has been embroiled in some controversy over the years. In Japan, celebrity actresses have joined the church, while politicians courted friendly ties because of the church's influence. The Japan branch was founded in 1959.

Church spokesperson Ahn Ho-yeul said the church has 300,000 believers in Japan and 150,000-200,000 in South Korea.

The majority of Japanese people adhere to a mix of Shinto and Buddhism as their spirituality and folklore. 

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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