Japan to investigate coercion in ‘spiritual sales’ by Unification Church, but is it too little, too late?
- New panel to examine how Unification Church obtained financial support from members, amount earned through sales of items such as urns and statues
- Lawyers’ group, magazine dispute church’s claims it is no longer pressuring members to make donations or buy its trinkets
The Japanese government will this week hold the first meeting of a new panel set up to investigate coercion in “spiritual sales” by religious groups, although a team of lawyers that has been acting on behalf of victims say it is too little, too late.
Announcing the creation of the panel, Kono said, “Since this issue is getting so much attention, I believe we need to review the issue and properly deal with it immediately.”
Perhaps sensing that the agency that he now heads might be the target of criticism that it failed to properly investigate earlier allegations of the church strong-arming followers to part with their savings, Kono has also stated he will examine how claims against the Unification Church have been handled in the past.
The Unification Church has been quick to refute any claims that it has acted in an inappropriate way towards its followers, insisting in the aftermath of Abe’s killing that while a number of court cases had found that the fundraising and sales activities of some members had been “excessive”, it had ordered followers as far back as 2009 to “conduct themselves in a manner that did not offend public order and morals”.
The church has also claimed its members have been the target of “inaccurate” legal cases brought by former members or their relatives at the behest of lawyers. In some cases, they added, the negative coverage has led to death threats against members.
An article in the most recent edition of the Shukan Bunshun weekly news magazine disputes the claim that the church is no longer pressuring members to make donations or buy its trinkets, pointing to internal documents that show the church is still raking in around 60 billion yen a year in “donations”.
The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales is equally dismissive of the church’s explanations, but says authorities should have acted far earlier to put a stop to “spiritual sales”.
“As lawyers, we have witnessed the distress, anguish and economic sufferings of too many former members, current members’ families and ‘second-generation’ ex-members of the Unification Church, and we have long been deeply concerned with this dire reality,” the organisation said in a statement.
It accused church followers of “deceiving” targeted individuals, inciting fear through alarming tales of “karma and fate” and triggering a sense of guilt through psychological pressure.
The church makes its targets feel “bewildered and then makes them pay as large initial donations as possible by telling them that further misfortune will befall their families due to karma if donations are not made”, which undermines the church’s claim that donations are “voluntarily offered based on pure faith”.
The “deep anguish and resentment” of the man accused of killing Abe are therefore understandable, the lawyers’ group added.
“For more than 30 years, neither the government nor politicians of the ruling party have done anything about the activities of the Unification Church that are devastating families,” it said. “While the despicable act by the accused is unforgivable, it also raises the renewed question of how society should address this issue.”