Japan followers of Unification Church breaking ties with group

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hideyuki Teshigawara, the director general for promoting the reform of the Unification Church, speaks at a press conference in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 22.

A number of followers are breaking ties with the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, widely known as the Unification Church, amid the lingering issue of massive donations made to the group.

Oct. 8 marked three months since the fatal shooting of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Statements made by the suspect in his murder, Tetsuya Yamagami, have focused significant attention on the issue of large donations to the Unification Church.

The group has held five press conferences seeking to explain the situation, due to anger among many Unification Church followers and a string of moves to leave the organization.

Suffering ‘2nd-generation followers’

“We will resolutely promote reform,” said Hideyuki Teshigawara, director general of the newly established head office for promoting the reform of the Unification Church, at a press conference held at the group’s headquarters in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 22.

The Unification Church attracted public attention after it was found that the 70-year-old mother of Yamagami, 42, had donated more than ¥100 million to the group and gone bankrupt. Yamagami was arrested for killing Abe and is currently being held for psychiatric tests.

After it was reported that Yamagami had expressed resentment toward the Unification Church, former followers of the group and “second-generation followers” who had experienced hardship as a result of their parents’ faith also began to speak out.

The group held the press conference to say that it plans to review excessive donations by its followers. However, Teshigawara maintained the group’s conventional stance at the press conference, saying that the “donations are made at the discretion of followers.”

At one point, he seemed frustrated when reporters repeatedly questioned his definition of “excessive” and the effectiveness of the planned review. Teshigawara’s remarks were far from a call for reform.

At his fifth press conference held Oct. 4, Teshigawara announced concrete proposals for reform, such as “keeping a record when followers donate more than three-tenths of their monthly income.” However, he rejected the idea of capping the amount of donations, saying that followers were free to contribute money.

114 consultations

Dozens of followers have expressed their intention to leave the group following Abe’s shooting, and the group said it had respond to 114 consultations about refunds as of Sept. 22.

The group is working to retain its followers. It streams online “Seisyun TV,” a regular series of videos targeting second-generation followers. In the video distributed on Aug. 7, a senior executive talked about donations, saying, “Giving gives you joy.”

A second-generation follower said with a smile, “Donations are not something that makes us suffer, but something that brings you joy and pride and expresses our gratitude.”

However, a man in his 20s in the Kansai region whose parents are both followers of the group said: “Many second-generation followers consider their own circumstances to be similar to those of the suspect. They’ll probably leave the group one after another.” The man also distances himself from the group’s activities.

At a series of press conferences, group representatives repeatedly said that followers “can donate at their discretion.” A woman in her 60s in the Kanto region lost her faith when she saw that, saying angrily: “They demanded money from me, and I even got into debt. What was I doing it for?”

“It’s true that some followers are upset. We want to steadily implement reforms to make sure that they’ll feel free from anxiety,” an official of the group said in an interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

Criticism of media

The group has repeatedly criticized the media and filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court on Sept. 29, seeking damages from two operators of key commercial TV stations and the lawyers who appeared on their programs.

“The group representatives didn’t indicate at the press conferences that they would squarely face the harm,” said Kimiaki Nishida, a professor of social psychology at Rissho University.

Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japan branch, said in July, “There’s a vast distance between holding a grudge against us and killing Mr. Abe, so it’s hard to understand.”

Tanaka also said, “We’ve never conducted spiritual sales, neither in the past nor at present.”

Nishida said: “There are fears that the group will tighten its grip on its followers to prevent the organization from weakening. Society as a whole needs to keep a close watch on whether it’s really implementing the reforms it claims and whether there are more victims.”