Ex-Unification Church executive reveals quotas for donations

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Japan headquarters of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification in Shibuya, Tokyo.

A former executive of the Unification Church — a religious group that has drawn criticism in the wake of the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — told The Yomiuri Shimbun under his real name about how the group has collected large donations, saying that each region of the country has its own quota for donations, which puts followers under intense pressure.

Masaue Sakurai, 48, had worked at the group’s headquarters since 1998. From 2016 to 2017 he served as deputy director of its education bureau, which is responsible for educating second-generation followers. In 2017 he also published a document criticizing the church, which is officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, and was dismissed. Sakurai now belongs to another group.

Sakurai said there are several types of contributions, such as monthly offerings where a follower pays one-tenth of his or her income when attending religious services, so-called “blessing contributions” for marriages, and special contributions.

For special contributions, the church sets a target period and monetary amount to be collected, and allocates quotas to each of its prefecture-based districts according to the number of followers. General members of the group are not informed of the quota, and executives ask for donations in person or by fax, Sakurai said.

Around 2000, a teaching called “ancestor liberation,” which was not previously in the group’s doctrine, began to spread within the church.

A former member of the church, now in her 60s and living in the Kanto region, told The Yomiuri Shimbun that she paid a total of ¥2.8 million five years ago in exchange for “liberating” seven generations of her and her husband’s ancestors. She was told she needed to liberate their ancestors going back 420 generations, and she in fact made contributions that exceeded ¥5 million to liberate up to the 28th generation of their ancestors.

“I’d been worried about work and child rearing, and my senior follower told me over and over that it was because my ancestors who died in battle were suffering, and I believed it,” she lamented.

In 2009, the group issued a “declaration of compliance,” triggered by an incident where its followers were arrested for the practice of selling expensive seals and other items by stoking anxiety. Sakurai said the practice has almost disappeared since then, but emphasis has instead shifted to contributions.

While it is said that only some executives are informed of the contribution targets for all of Japan, Sakurai said he saw a document that noted “¥2.4 billion a month” at an executive meeting he attended in 2016.

“We have a target, but not a quota,” the group told The Yomiuri Shimbun. Asked about the “¥2.4 billion a month” Sakurai saw, the group said, “We don’t know which document he was talking about.”

“It is true that Sakurai is a former executive of our church, but much of his testimony is outdated and inaccurate,” they added.

As for “ancestor liberation,” Hideyuki Teshigawara, director general of the newly established head office for promoting reform in the group, said on Oct. 4 at a press conference, “It would be wrong if the group seemed to have made its followers anxious and extorted [contributions] by putting special emphasis on the suffering of their ancestors.”

The group has said it will keep records of excessive contributions, or those exceeding 30% of monthly income, and check if offerings prevent followers from performing daily activities. The group has also said it will respond to requests for refunds.

However, a woman in her 30s from Ibaraki Prefecture, whose parents are followers, said she didn’t believe the group.

Since her childhood, her parents have received letters asking for contributions via fax, and she heard that they donated more than ¥100 million, including their inheritance money. After the fatal shooting of Abe, the woman persuaded her parents to ask the group to return the money. While the group is open to negotiations, her parents are being asked to make a new contribution of ¥1.83 million by the group’s branch in their district.

“I’m afraid that once the public’s interest passes, the group will start asking for large donations again,” the woman said.