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Couples attend a mass wedding ceremony in South Korea organised by the Unification Church. Japan has set up a panel to investigate “spiritual sales” by the church. Photo: AFP

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.

The panel is being created on the orders of Taro Kono, the new minister overseeing consumer affairs, and comes a little over a month after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot dead while speaking at an election event in Kobe.
Tetsuya Yamagami, the 41-year-old man accused of killing Abe with a home-made gun, has reportedly told investigators that he acted to protest against the former prime minister’s support for the Unification Church, to which his mother had donated around 100 million yen (US$749,465), effectively bankrupting the family.

More than 100 Japan lawmakers had links with Unification Church: survey

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.”

The panel will examine how the church obtained financial support from its members in Japan, including how much came in the form of financial donations and the amount earned through followers purchasing religious urns, statues, medallions, pictures or the church’s literature. The investigation is expected to look into how much items cost and whether followers were pressured into buying them.

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.

Taro Kono, the new minister overseeing consumer affairs, has stated he will examine how claims against the Unification Church have been handled in the past. Photo: Kyodo

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.

Church or cult? Abe murder spotlights South Korea’s ‘pseudo-religious’ groups

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.”