- POLITICS & GOVERNMENT
Prime Minister Kishida launches probe into Unification Church amid slumping approval ratings
6:09 JST, October 19, 2022
Fears of a further decline in the Cabinet’s approval rating have spurred Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to order an investigation into the Unification Church, officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
Despite unease within the government about conducting an investigation, feelings shared by Kishida himself, the prime minister ultimately chose to focus on breaking the deadlock he faces.
“I want to take responsibility for solving this problem for the future,” Kishida said at the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Monday, expressing his determination to clarify the situation involving the Unification Church through the investigation.
The “right to ask questions” under the Religious Corporations Law will be exercised for the first time in this probe.
Issues involving the Unification Church have been a stumbling block for the administration since the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July. As Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers have one after another been found to have connections with the religious group, Kishida stated that his party would “sever ties” with it.
He also released the results of a survey confirming details of the church’s ties with lawmakers, but the approval rating for Kishida’s Cabinet have continued to fall.
Opposition parties are pressing for the replacement of economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa, who was found to have close ties to Unification Church, and have intensified their pursuit of him.
A senior LDP official said the prime minister “had no choice but to play the ‘investigation card,’ as the strength of the administration was gradually being eroded.”
At first, there was a strong sense of caution within the government — particularly at the Cultural Affairs Agency, which oversees religious corporations — over the unprecedented use of the right to ask questions. “Can we go that far?” Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno reportedly asked a senior LDP official at one point.
Talks began to move forward in October, several government officials said.
In August, Consumer Affairs and Food Safety Minister Taro Kono established a panel of experts within the Consumer Affairs Agency on measures to combat so-called spiritual sales. As one of the members, Kono chose lawyer Masaki Kito, who works to help victims harmed by the group.
During the panel’s discussions, many members called for improving implementation of the right to ask questions, which has gone unused since its inclusion in the 1996 revision of the law. Kono reported the status of the discussions to Kishida in early October and recommended launching an investigation.
The cultural agency also leaned toward exercising the right after closely examining past civil court rulings in which the group was judged to have systematic responsibility for tort.
The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales said about 30 civil court rulings have recognized the Unification Church’s liability since 1994 for soliciting large donations or conducting missionary work. In addition to illegal acts committed by its followers, some cases involved the group’s own illegal actions.
In the end, Kishida decided to issue a directive to investigate the matter in tandem with the start of lower house Budget Committee meetings, to respond to the panel’s recommendations.
The government is also believed to be seeking to discourage opposition parties from further pursuing the issue.
The focus will now be on whether the investigation will lead to a request for a dissolution order.
Asked at Monday’s Budget Committee if the investigation would presuppose such a request, Kishida did not give a clear answer. He referred to the 1996 top court ruling dissolving the Aum Supreme Truth cult, saying, “It is important that both illegality and systematic actions are firmly confirmed.”
A senior government official said, “In light of past civil rulings, there is a good chance, depending on the investigation, of proving systematic misconduct,” a senior administration official said.
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