Unification Church under fire over donations, ‘spiritual sales’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Tomihiro Tanaka, the president of the Japan branch of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, speaks during a press conference in Tokyo on Aug. 10.

In the wake of the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Unification Church has come under criticism over the large donations it receives from its followers and so-called spiritual sales tactics, which involve cajoling people into buying goods by claiming they bring supernatural benefits.

Officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the group claims it has fully complied with laws and regulations since 2009 when it issued a compliance declaration.

However, a network of lawyers that helps people impacted by the religious group said it still receives inquiries from former followers and claims problems linked to spiritual sales and large donations continue.

Compliance declaration

On Aug. 10, Tomihiro Tanaka, the president of the group’s Japan branch, held his second press conference since the shooting. Tanaka read a prepared text for about 40 minutes, emphasizing the legitimacy of the group’s activities.

The Unification Church’s sales of pots, seals and other items at extremely high prices has been a problem since the 1980s.

After the arrest of a follower in 2009 who was the president of a company that sold seals, the Unification Church issued a compliance declaration and the then president of the Japan branch resigned.

Tanaka described 2009 as a turning point for the Unification Church, stressing that the group has instructed its followers not to conduct any socially problematic activities.

He denied the group’s involvement in spiritual sales “in the past and the present.”

The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales has refuted those claims.

According to the network, the number of consultations about damages from spiritual sales and large donations handled by the network and consumer affairs bureaux nationwide totaled 34,537 from 1987 to 2021, with damages claims totaling about ¥123.7 billion.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The number declined after the compliance declaration was issued in 2009, but there were still 2,875 consultations from 2010 to 2021, with damages claims totaling about ¥13.8 billion.

Before the fatal shooting, there were a few consultations per month, but the figure jumped to more than 100 cases after the shooting.

The lawyers’ network claims the group has adopted sophisticated tactics to limit the risk of damages claims arising.

Refunds sought

A woman in her 60s in eastern Japan who had lost her husband and children became a follower of the group in 2013 after becoming acquainted with a believer who claimed ancestral bonds were the cause of her problems.

The woman donated more than ¥6 million, raising part of the funds by liquidating her life insurance. But she was unhappy that she had been forced to buy scripture, and sought a refund of about ¥2 million in 2015.

At the time, she was asked to sign an agreement confirming, that “there are no other debts and credits.” The woman did so and the refund was issued.

The woman later left the group and consulted with the lawyers’ network. In April 2017, the woman filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court seeking a refund of donations, excluding the fee for the scripture.

During the trial, the group argued it had no obligation to issue a refund based on the prior agreement. But in February 2020, the court ruled that the agreement was invalid because it waived her right to make a claim with no explanations, and breached public order and standards of decency.

The ruling, which ordered the group to pay back almost all the money the woman had sought, has been finalized.

The lawyers’ network said the use of such agreements increased after the 2009 declaration of compliance. In addition to the agreements, there have been cases in which the group recorded video footage of followers promising not to seek refunds.

“It’s obvious that the group is aiming to make it difficult to seek refunds,” said lawyer Daisuke Sasaki, a member of the network. “There has been no change in the way the organization seeks donations by stirring up people’s anxiety.”

A spokesperson from the group told The Yomiuri Shimbun: “We had concluded such agreements even before the 2009 declaration of compliance. They are used as records to prevent problems from arising.”

Yamagami, mother signed agreement

The mother of Abe’s alleged shooter Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, had reached such an agreement with the group. According to their relatives, Yamagami’s mother, 69, donated a total of about ¥100 million after raising funds through such means as selling the family’s house. She filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

The relatives negotiated with the group and a refund process began in 2005. The agreement was concluded in May 2009, about two months after the group issued its declaration of compliance.

The agreement stated that by October 2014 a total of ¥50 million would be returned to the Yamagami family, including ¥17.6 million that had already been refunded.

Both mother and son had signed the agreement, which also stated, “The two sides confirm that there are no other debts or credits between the two sides.”