Why Japan’s political moonies have staying power
When Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his cabinet for the first time since the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in early July, it was in reaction to his ouster approval rating. His government has struggled to contain rising COVID infections and acute inflation.
But it was also seen as damage control for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the controversial Unification Church. Kishida dismissed cabinet ministers linked to him iconic South Korean-born religious movement whose members are known as the Moonies (after founder Sun Myung Moon).
Although the prime minister also pledged to only appoint future cabinet members who agree to review their relationship with the church, that was not enough. After its popularity crashed 16 percentage points in just one month to 36%, the lowest level since he came to power, Kishida claimed this week Everyone cabinet members review their past connections to the religious community.
The Moonies were in the spotlight after Abe’s alleged assassin blamed the church for his family’s financial ruin. The revelation that over 100 national politicians – most of them LDP MPs – have ties to the church also came as an ugly surprise to the public, given that Japan’s constitution requires it separation of church and state.
Kishida fired then Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, who was not a member of the church but had received help from her in past elections. The same applied to Koichi Hagiuda, who was replaced as economy minister.
The assassination of Abe sparked a public outcry against the Church’s political power. according to a current survey, almost 90% of Japanese want the ruling party to better explain its ties to the Moonies. Amazingly, less than 7% accept this Kishida’s explanation that there is no organizational relationship between the LDP and the Church.
Since the reshuffleAt least 20 MPs out of 54 have been appointed deputies to cabinet members Approved Connections to the Church, either through attending events or selling tickets to fundraisers.
But Kishida doesn’t cut ties entirely. For example, the ousted Kishi is likely to become a special adviser to the Prime Minister on national security issues, effectively serving as a direct line to Kishida, and Haguida has been asked to head the LDP’s Political Research Council, an influential party position.
The cabinet reshuffle was a classic move in Japanese politics to change a negative news cycle, says Eurasia Group’s senior Japan researcher David Boling. “But this time the Japanese said: not so fast.”
Also the PM allegedly knew that successors to many of the ousted ministers carried some of the same baggage, which hardly comes as a surprise to Boling. In other words, the Moonies aren’t really out of power — at least not yet.
“Kishida is between a rock and a hard place,” says Boling. The prime minister must make the impossible choice of appointing experienced people despite their past ties to the church, or inexperienced ones free of Moonie disorder.
Still, the Japanese public wants “a clean break.”
What is special about the Moonies and their relationship with the Japanese ruling party? The links between the LDP and Moon’s church go back until the 1960s when South Korean pastor expanded into Japan.
In the 1970s, Moon and Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi (a former prime minister and founding member of the LDP), co-founded an offshoot of the religious movement to counter the spread of communism during the Cold War. Both the LDP and Moon were staunchly anti-communist and deeply conservative.
Japan “was remarkably fertile ground for so-called ‘new religions’.” Thinking of the Unification Church in this way, it is less surprising that it has taken root and taken root politically,” says Boling.
Over the years the relationship developed into one of mutual pragmatic benefit. The church would pay for LDP members to speak at its events, and in return they would receive the material support and manpower through donations and volunteers for campaigns that help achieve Moonie’s political goals, which align often with the ruling party.
“The LDP helped the church gain a sense of legitimacy in Japan,” says Charles T. McClean, a Japan scholar at Yale University’s Council on East Asian Studies. And that legitimacy led to an economic windfall for the Moonies.
In just over half a century, Moon’s Church has done it built a multibillion-dollar global business empire that owns the conservative Washington Times newspaper that Moon founded, the New York Hotel in the Big Apple, and other massive properties. The Moonies supported Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign by organizing prayer breakfasts and rallies and, in the 1980s, the church attracted controversy for snuggling up to America’s New Right.
Despite these notable connections, most of the Church’s wealth comes from Japan. Japanese members have traditionally provided up to 70% of the Unification Church’s financial resources, which were later channeled through South Korea to fund Moon’s ambitions in the US and elsewhere.
The Moonies are notorious in Japan for their so-called “Spiritual print sale” Method of extorting donations through manipulation and flattery, bankrupting many believers – like the mother of Abe’s alleged killer.
What’s Next for Politicians Associated with the Church? For McClean, the cabinet reshuffle was “a dam to stop leaks before it becomes a major flood”. But the bigger question is whether the ongoing links between the LDP and the church will have serious consequences for the future of Kishida and his party.
The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party has already denounced Kishida’s reshuffle as a cover-up. (A dozen CDP lawmakers have authorized tend to have church ties, but the LDP took the most flak for ruling Japan for most of the country’s post-war history.)
The intersection of religion in politics and business is common practice in Japan, Where about 180,000 groups are officially registered as religious bodies. The LDP is just one of many parties using religion to muster the resources and votes needed to succeed.
Komeito, a junior coalition partner of the LDP since 1999, gets almost all of its financial support from the Buddhist group Soka Gakkai, which has eight million followers in Japan alone.
The LDP and Komeito have had a strained alliance in the past, and with intense scrutiny of the LDP’s involvement in the church, Komeito may feel an increasing threat to its very survival. But McClean says the LDP relies on Komeito to run its campaign because the ruling party lacks the strong ability of its grassroots partner to get the vote, let alone the Soka Gakkai constituency.
“It is difficult to predict how negatively the current scandal will affect the LDP in the next few months,” explains McClean. “At least through Abe’s state funeral, I don’t see it going away… we’ll definitely be talking about it over the next month.”
However, Boling sees it lasting longer: “The opposition parties will continue to stoke the heat on Kishida. Japanese media have reported aggressively on the link between the LDP and the Unification Church, and they will continue to shine a bright light on it.”
Still, the moonies are just one of Kishida’s growing problems. Along with COVID, rising inflation and a majority of Japanese citizens opposite the taxpayer-funded state funeral scheduled for Abe on Sept. 27 is looking up Poorly for the PM in the near future.
“Kishida needs to focus on the economy like a laser beam,” says Boling. “By far the most important issue is the economy – Kishida ignores that at his peril.”