Kishida seen to be stumbling on Unification Church issue

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida raises his hand during a session of the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has shifted his position on an aspect of the Unification Church issue in a bid to deflect criticism that the government has not done enough to clear up the matter. However, following a rapid succession of shifts, Kishida’s approach could be doing him more harm than good.

When Kishida said Wednesday that illegal acts under the Civil Code could be the basis for a court order to dissolve a religious corporation, he was departing from the conventional interpretation of the Religious Corporations Law, which focuses on the Penal Code. It was a sharp turn from comments he had made in the Diet the previous day.

“It’s a fine line, but the interpretation must constantly be adjusted,” Kishida said during a session of the House of Councillors Budget Committee on Wednesday, explaining the reasoning behind the volte-face.

Kishida’s sudden shifts have sparked suggestions he has not been prepared for the questions he has faced in the Diet.

On Monday, the first day of the House of Representatives Budget Committee session, Kishida announced that an investigation would be launched to determine if it was appropriate to request a court order to dissolve the religious group officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Within the government, many were reluctant to open such an investigation due to concerns it could violate freedom of religion, among other issues. However, Kishida pushed ahead with the plan due to concerns that not doing so would invite intense criticism over this issue in the Diet.

Kishida’s announcement bolstered the perception within the government that this step was a prelude to an order to dissolve the group.

Despite this, Kishida came under fire during Tuesday’s lower house Budget Committee session. “This could take three, four or even five years if illegal acts under the Civil Code aren’t included,” Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Policy Research Committee Chairperson Akira Nagatsuma said. “Your level of commitment to dealing with this issue is under question.”

A senior government official was perplexed by Kishida’s stance. “In the first place, why did he give an answer [on Tuesday] that reduces the possibility of requesting an order to dissolve the group?” the official said.

Some of the prime minister’s close aides have received messages expressing strong concerns that “a failure to get the religious organization disbanded could topple the administration.”

On Tuesday evening, Kishida decided to change his stance following discussions with officials including ones from the Cultural Affairs Agency, the Consumer Affairs Agency and the Justice Ministry. After that, a senior government official immediately telephoned a CDPJ official to inform him about the change.

Kishida is also trying to get the ball rolling on the issue of legislation that would provide support to people who have made large monetary donations to the religious group or been victims of its actions.

The government had been making preparations, aiming to have relevant bills enacted during the ordinary Diet session in January. But at the lower house Budget Committee on Tuesday, Kishida abruptly declared he would press ahead with preparations with a view to submitting the bills “during the current Diet session.”

At Kishida’s instruction, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party decided to hold talks with the CDPJ and Nippon Ishin no Kai to consider bills to provide relief to victims of the religious group’s activities. Given the lack of necessary behind-the-scenes arrangements with relevant ministries and agencies, it remains unclear whether effective legislation can be drawn up in such a short time.

These developments have fueled deep consternation within the government and ruling parties. “Continuing with this seat-of-the-pants approach could come back to haunt the prime minister,” a former cabinet minister said.

Dissolution order

The Religious Corporations Law states that a dissolution court order can be issued when a so-called religious corporation violates laws and regulations, commits acts “that are found to substantially harm public welfare,” or “deviates substantially from the purpose of a religious organization.”

In its 1995 decision regarding the dissolution of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, the Tokyo High Court defined the acts that provide grounds for a dissolution order as ones that violate laws and regulations such as the Penal Code.

According to an official of the Cultural Affairs Agency, which has jurisdiction over religious groups, the agency is of the position that senior members of the Unification Church “had not been subject to criminal punishment, so a dissolution order could not easily be requested,” based on the ruling.

The agency has not even launched an investigation to determine the advisability of seeking a dissolution order.

“It’s natural that acts that could trigger a dissolution order would also fall under civil law, so the prime minister’s comment in the first question session was unreasonable,” said Susumu Shimazono, a professor emeritus of the University of Tokyo and former head of the Japan Association for Religious Studies. “He should be given credit for recognizing his mistake and swiftly correcting it.”

However, in just one day, he shifted position on a point that is fundamental to the government’s response, which created an impression of instability and uncertainty.

“The prime minister is chopping and changing far too much,” an opposition party official said.