The man who allegedly killed the former prime minister says he was aiming for something larger: the Unification Church—the Moonies—and its political influence in Japan.
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On the last morning of his life, Shinzo Abe arrived in the Japanese city of Nara, famous for its ancient pagodas and sacred deer. His destination was more prosaic: a broad urban intersection across from the city’s main train station, where he would be giving a speech to endorse a lawmaker running for reelection to the National Diet, Japan’s parliament. Abe had retired two years earlier, but because he was Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, his name carried enormous weight. The date was July 8, 2022.
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In photos taken from the crowd, Abe—instantly recognizable by his wavy, swept-back hair; charcoal eyebrows; and folksy grin—can be seen stepping onto a makeshift podium at about 11:30 a.m., one hand clutching a microphone. A claque of supporters surrounds him. No one in the photos seems to notice the youngish-looking man about 20 feet behind Abe, dressed in a gray polo shirt and cargo pants, a black strap across his shoulder. Unlike everyone else, the man is not clapping.
Abe started to speak. Moments later, his remarks were interrupted by two loud reports, followed by a burst of white smoke. He collapsed to the ground. His security guards ran toward the man in the gray polo shirt, who held a homemade gun—two 16-inch metal pipes strapped together with black duct tape. The man made no effort to flee. The guards tackled him, sending his gun skittering across the pavement. Abe, shot in the neck, would be dead within hours.
At a Nara police station, the suspect—a 41-year-old named Tetsuya Yamagami—admitted to the shooting barely 30 minutes after pulling the trigger. He then offered a motive that sounded too outlandish to be true: He saw Abe as an ally of the Unification Church, a group better known as the Moonies—the cult founded in the 1950s by the Korean evangelist Reverend Sun Myung Moon. Yamagami said his life had been ruined when his mother gave the church all of the family’s money, leaving him and his siblings so poor that they often didn’t have enough to eat. His brother had committed suicide, and he himself had tried to.
“My prime target was the Unification Church’s top official, Hak Ja Han, not Abe,” he told the police, according to an account published in January in a newspaper called The Asahi Shimbun. He could not get to Han—Moon’s widow—so he shot Abe, who was “deeply connected” to the church, Yamagami said, just as Abe’s grandfather, also a prime minister and renowned political figure in Japan, had been.
David Frum: Shinzo Abe made the world better
Investigators looked into Yamagami’s wild-sounding claims and found, to their alarm, that they were true. After a quick huddle, the police appear to have decided that the Moonie connection was too sensitive to reveal, at least for the moment. It might even affect the outcome of the elections for the Upper House of the Diet, set to take place on July 10. At a press conference on the night of the assassination, a police official would say only that Yamagami had carried out the attack because he “harbored a grudge against a specific group and he assumed that Abe was linked to it.” When reporters clamored for details, the official said nothing.
After the election, the Unification Church confirmed press reports that Yamagami’s mother was a member, and the story quickly took off. The Moonies, it emerged, maintained a volunteer army of campaign workers who had long been a secret weapon not just for Abe but for many other politicians in his conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which remains in power under Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Later that month, the Japanese tabloid Nikkan Gendai published a list of 111 members of parliament who had connections to the church. In early September 2022, the LDP announced that almost half of its 379 Diet members had admitted to some kind of contact with the Unification Church, whether that meant accepting campaign assistance or paying membership fees or attending church events. According to a survey by The Asahi Shimbun, 290 members of prefectural assemblies, as well as seven prefectural governors, also said they had church ties. The rising numbers exposed a scandal hiding in plain sight: A right-wing Korean cult had a near-umbilical connection to the political party that had governed Japan for most of the past 70 years.
The Japanese were outraged not just by the appearance of influence-peddling but by a galling hypocrisy. Abe was a fervent nationalist, eager to rebuild Japan’s global standing and proudly unapologetic for its imperial past. Now he and his party had been caught in a secretive electoral alliance with a cult that—it soon emerged—had been accused of preying on Japanese war guilt to squeeze billions of dollars from credulous followers.
As information about Yamagami’s personal history and the LDP’s role became more widely known, a strange inversion took place: People began expressing sympathy for the alleged assassin and anger at the victim. A Japanese weekly devoted a cover story to the swooning fans known as “Yamagami Girls” and other supporters. Well-wishers began sending Yamagami gifts. Thousands of people protested the decision to grant Abe a state funeral, and a hastily made feature film that portrayed Yamagami as a tragic hero was shown all over the country. The LDP’s poll numbers, already falling, continued to drop, and a cabinet minister was forced to resign after he failed to adequately explain his ties to the church.
The assassination exposed deep divisions over the legacy of Abe, who is hailed by some for restoring Japanese influence around the world and reviled by others as a dangerous throwback to the country’s warlike past. The influence of the Moonies on Abe and the LDP remains a live issue, and last November the Kishida government—eager to clear its name—opened an inquiry that could threaten the Unification Church’s legal status in Japan as a religion. That could prove a lethal blow, and might raise questions about the church’s role in the other 100 or so countries where it has a presence, including the United States. Because the group’s leaders have not been charged with any crime, the Japanese government would, in essence, be asserting the power to decide when a religion does more harm than good.
All of this might have remained hidden were it not for the desperate act of a man who had failed at just about everything else. As he awaits trial in the solitude of his prison cell, Tetsuya Yamagami can console himself that he may be among the most successful assassins in history. A year after Abe’s death, his murder has come to seem less the random act of an unhinged loner than a tragedy unfolding slowly over decades.
In the days after Abe’s assassination, many people were amazed to discover that the Moonies were still relevant at all. In Japan, as in the United States, the group had receded from the headlines since the 1980s and ’90s, when it made news with its bizarre mass weddings, eerily totalitarian style, and often brazen bids for political influence—including Sun Myung Moon’s founding of The Washington Times, a conservative newspaper in the U.S. capital.
Another surprise was Japan’s central role in Moon’s activities. Although the Unification Church is headquartered in South Korea, since the 1970s the bulk of the group’s money has come from Japan, and so have many of its most fanatical followers. “Japan is actually designated as a core pillar” of the church’s finances, I was told by Masaue Sakurai, a former high-ranking official in the church who was forced out in 2017. Of all the people I spoke with while reporting on the Moonies in Japan—about a dozen current and former members and their families, as well as lawyers, journalists, political figures, and activists—Sakurai was the only one who seemed to sympathize with both sides: those who loathe the church and those who revere it. He met me in a Tokyo coffee shop where Mozart and Schubert piano sonatas played softly in the background, and he stood to greet me in the Japanese manner, bowing and proffering his business card with both hands.
Read: Sun Myung Moon’s groundbreaking campaign to open North Korea
Sakurai was blunt about the church’s ruthless methods in Japan, but he spoke warmly about its adherents, whom he sees as victims of a misguided leadership. (He grew up in the church.) He told me that when he began working for the church, in 1998, it was “already focusing 100 percent on the forced collection of donations.” The group initially raised money from “spiritual sales.” Japanese followers were pressured to buy and sell cheap Korean-made products at outrageous markups—miniature stone pagodas, personal inkan signature stamps, “special” ginseng tea—with the promise of healing powers. When that triggered lawsuits and public complaints, the church moved to direct donations.
Moon, who died in 2012, justified a predatory focus on Japan by proclaiming that South Korea is an “Adam nation” and Japan an “Eve nation.” Like a traditional wife, Japan was obligated to fulfill the needs of her husband. Behind this blithely patriarchal formula was an old and festering grievance between the two countries. From 1910 until 1945, Japan ruled Korea as a colony and treated its people as an inferior race, an attitude that remains widespread in Japan to this day. During the Second World War, thousands of Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery by Japan as “comfort women.”
This sordid history was never fully acknowledged or taught in Japan after the war, and the Moonies have exploited that willed ignorance to tremendous effect. They make a practice of showing new members photos of Japanese soldiers committing war crimes in Korea, says Pascal Zivi, a Frenchman who has lived in Japan for 43 years and runs a research center on religious extremism based in the city of Sapporo. “Young Japanese are shocked, and that makes them more likely to believe that other things have been hidden from them,” he told me. The Moonies then tell their recruits that their ancestors are suffering in hell for their sins, and that the only way to save them is by giving money.
Few outsiders know as much about the Moonies as Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a grandfatherly lawyer of 74 who founded a legal consortium to help former church members recover their money. “What they do,” he explained to me, “is dig up your concerns,” probing for family troubles and emotional vulnerabilities. They then attribute those difficulties to sins committed by ancestors, sins that can be atoned for only by donating to the Unification Church. Meanwhile, the Moonies ferret out the details of a target’s income and assets, and report it up the chain. All of these methods are laid out in manuals for the church’s fundraisers, who answer to a military-style hierarchy. (Although I spoke with several individual members, the church did not respond to queries about its practices.)
Yamaguchi is a devout Buddhist who told me he got involved because he was revolted by the way the Moonies “abuse religion to make money or manipulate people.” When Yamaguchi first heard that Abe had been shot, he was horrified. But when he discovered that the suspected killer was a victim of the church, his reaction was “No wonder.”
He and his fellow lawyers have brought roughly 35,000 compensation claims against church followers and employees by former members since 1987, and have recovered more than $206 million. Presumably that represents only a fraction of the church’s donation revenue in Japan during those years. And Japan, where the church has an estimated 60,000 followers, was a rich resource for decades before the lawyers got involved. The church transferred at least $800 million from Japan to the United States from 1975 to 1984, according to two former church officials who spoke with The Washington Post in 1984. (The church never did gain a large American following, despite its visibility in the U.S. in the ’80s.)
Behind the numbers is widespread human suffering of a kind that Yamagami helped reveal. His mother joined the Unification Church when he was a boy, after his father committed suicide and his brother was diagnosed with malignant lymphoma. She donated about 100 million yen to the church—roughly $700,000—forcing her to declare bankruptcy, and leaving the family destitute. Yamagami had to abandon his hopes of going to university. His brother killed himself. “It is no exaggeration to say that the experiences then have continued to distort my entire life,” he wrote in a letter to a blogger the day before the assassination.
Yamagami may seem an extreme case. But Sakurai, the former church official, told me the family’s account was familiar. Sakurai’s job involved traveling all over Japan and counseling church families who had complaints or problems. He heard so many stories about suffering caused by excessive donations that he began speaking up about it to his superiors. His warning was not well received, he said, and when he persisted, he was asked to retire.
The Japanese public got an unusual real-time glimpse of the familial wounds suffered by church members in early October 2022, when a defector appeared at an emotional press conference in Tokyo. The defector was a 26-year-old woman who had grown up in the Unification Church, and still felt so threatened by it that she used a pseudonym, Sayuri Ogawa. Her face was partially covered by a surgical mask. Dressed in a gray suit and seated alongside her husband, she was earnest and concise, describing the church’s abusive practices and offering proposals to curtail them. She spoke of the fear of hell that the church had instilled in her as a child, and of people pressured into marrying virtual strangers during group weddings, with many of the couples “now living a life of regret.”
The most powerful moment came 47 minutes into the press conference, when a hand-delivered message arrived unexpectedly from the Unification Church. The message—read aloud in front of the cameras by Ogawa’s husband—declared that Ogawa suffered from psychiatric issues, that she had a tendency to lie, and that the press conference must stop immediately. The message had been signed by her parents. Ogawa was visibly stunned and upset. But she went on to describe her struggles with dissociative and panic disorders, brought on by her parents’ rigid adherence to church practices. Fighting back tears, she said she was now mentally healthy and had been free of the church for the past four years. Many in the audience were deeply moved to see the way Ogawa maintained her dignity in such a vulnerable moment. “If you truly believe in me,” Ogawa said unsteadily before the conference ended, “please make sure that this organization is dissolved.”
The church’s leaders have tried to tamp down criticism once again by conceding that their fundraising has been too aggressive. In September 2022, a senior official said the church was putting new measures in place to prevent excessive donations.
But when I spoke with current believers—all but one of them chosen by the church—I heard a much less penitent tone. Every one of them said that complaints about fundraising were exaggerated, and that money was given voluntarily. Two of them said they didn’t believe that Yamagami’s motive for the alleged murder had anything to do with his mother’s donations. He is a “terrorist,” one of them told me, and the whole affair was cooked up by leftists as a pretext to go after the church.
The Moonies I met in Japan surprised me with their friendliness and candor, but I got the impression that they live in a world apart from their fellow citizens. One of them was a 27-year-old woman named Kiaki Kojima, who belongs to what the church calls its “second generation”—the children of believers. We met in a Tokyo office building where tiny furnished rooms are rented by the hour for business meetings, each one numbered and code-locked in long corridors, like cells in an immaculate prison. Kojima told me her mother had donated 100 million yen to the church, the same amount as Yamagami’s mother. Kojima had grown up in poverty as a result, eating frugally and wearing hand-me-downs, her university options limited. She said she had resented those privations at one brief moment in her childhood, but had then come to accept them.
She also accepted the church’s choice of husband for her, a Filipino man whom she married online in 2021 without ever having met him. (They have met since then, but he has not yet moved to Japan.) She demonstrated how she had leaned forward to kiss her laptop screen during the wedding ceremony, sitting in a bridal dress in a church some 2,000 miles from the groom. At times, I thought I caught a hint of embarrassment in her eyes, as if she understood how odd these things sounded to an outsider. But she said she had grown up in the church and felt loved there.
In retrospect, Abe’s relationship with the Unification Church looks exactly like the political land mine it turned out to be. Hiroshi Yamaguchi and his lawyers’ group wrote repeatedly over the years to politicians in the LDP and other parties, urging them to cut ties with the Moonies. Abe himself may have recognized the risks. In 2003, a Japanese journalist named Yoshifu Arita, who had written about the Unification Church, appeared on a TV talk show alongside Abe, then a senior LDP lawmaker. Arita, who later served in parliament with a party opposed to the LDP, told me that during a commercial break he asked Abe if the Moonies had ever approached him. Abe said yes, they were very persistent about it, and he tried to avoid them.
Abe’s ambitions appear to have changed his mind. He became prime minister for the first time in 2006, and then resigned a year later, brought down by financial scandals, election losses, and a painful case of ulcerative colitis that made it difficult for him to work. “Abe was traumatized by the failure of his first term,” Koichi Nakano, a political-science professor at Sophia University, in Tokyo, told me. “When he came back, he was focused on never letting that happen again.”
Abe did not get another chance to run until 2012. The opportunity came after what may have been a fateful meeting. In April of that year, Abe hiked up Mount Takao, a forested peak about an hour from downtown Tokyo where many visitors stop at a Buddhist temple to pray for good fortune from a long-nosed supernatural being known as a daitengu. Abe was accompanied by a senior church-allied figure named Masatoshi Abe (no relation). Along with them, Masatoshi said in an interview years later, was a contingent of some 300 young Moonies. Masatoshi and the younger Moonies urged Abe to run for prime minister.
It’s impossible to know what difference this mountainside pep talk made to Abe, but it may have served as a reminder of the church’s power to enlist eager volunteers. It may also have underscored their political common ground. Although the LDP has no religious orientation, its longtime emphasis on family values, anti-communism, and neoliberal economics meshed well with Moon’s neobiblical conservatism. The party appears to have conveniently ignored Moon’s other beliefs, including his claim to embody the “perfect Adam” who would redeem humanity through his own sinless family.
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The moment was an important one for the Moonies too. By the early 2000s, the group had come under renewed suspicion, and not just because of the rising number of lawsuits filed by victims of its “spiritual sales.” In early 1995, members of a doomsday cult called Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas on the Tokyo Metro at rush hour, killing more than a dozen and injuring hundreds. The attack was a terrible shock for a country unused to violent crime, much less terrorism, and drew hostile attention to what are known in Japan as “new religious movements.” (Aum had no links to the Moonies.) The Unification Church, Yamaguchi told me, became worried that it no longer had political protection. So church officials reached out to Abe. “Why Abe? Because Abe already knew he could use them for his political advantage. And his hawkish politics jibed with theirs.”
For Shinzo Abe, the Unification Church was also a family inheritance. His grandfather Nobusuke Kishi had helped the Moonies become established in Japan when he was prime minister in the late 1950s, and in 1964 the church moved its Japanese headquarters to an Art Deco–style building in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward that Kishi had used as his official residence when he was prime minister. His own home was next door. The relationship was rooted in their shared anti-communism. Kishi was a political survivor. He had risen to prominence in the 1930s, when he oversaw Japan’s brutal occupation of Manchuria. He was jailed in 1945 as a Class A war-crimes suspect, but American authorities released him when they saw that right-wing anti-communists like Kishi could help steer Japan on a pro-Western course. Kishi brokered the founding of the LDP in 1955.
Political influence had been Moon’s guiding star almost from the start. Although he founded his church in the 1950s, it gained a broad following only after Lieutenant General Park Chung Hee staged a military coup in South Korea in 1961. The church was then “organized” by the founder and director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, Brigadier General Kim Jong-pil, according to an American CIA report written two years later, though it is not clear exactly what role the Korean agency played. South Korea’s leaders appear to have seen Moon as a useful instrument because of his fierce opposition to communism. But they were also anxious about the quasi-religious cult of personality being developed in the ’60s and ’70s by the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. It is possible that they saw Moon as a cultural counterweight of sorts, says Peter McGill, a British journalist with decades of experience in Japan and South Korea who has written about the Unification Church.
Moon used his state connections and his growing Japanese income to build a large portfolio of holdings. Tongil Heavy Industries, headed by one of Moon’s cousins, manufactured artillery guns and other weapons for the South Korean military. Moon’s family owned or controlled chemical and construction companies, resorts, Brazilian soccer teams, and real estate all over the world, including the New Yorker Hotel. Moon’s most successful business venture may have been sushi, which he and his Japanese followers helped popularize in the United States. Eating raw tuna was still an exotic pursuit to Americans when Moon—the self-declared “king of the ocean”—began investing in shipyards in the late 1970s and sending his followers to sell door-to-door from refrigerated vans. True World Foods, a seafood company founded at Moon’s direction, controls a large share of the sushi trade, selling raw fish to thousands of restaurants across the United States and Canada.
Kishi and Moon exchanged favors for decades, often under the aegis of church-sponsored groups such as the International Federation for Victory Over Communism, which helped Moon curry favor with right-leaning political figures around the world. After Moon was convicted of tax fraud in the United States and sent to federal prison, Kishi wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan, urging him to release his old friend. (Reagan did not.) Kishi passed on his Moonie connections to another leading LDP member, his son-in-law, Shintaro Abe (Shinzo Abe’s father), who would serve four years as Japan’s foreign minister.
Revelations about the depth of the Abe dynasty’s involvement with the Moonies have continued to trickle out over the past year. In April, church records published online in South Korea showed that Moon considered himself a kingmaker and even a kind of savior in Japanese politics. “Anyone who wants to become prime minister in Japan needs my support,” he was quoted as saying in 1987. He boasted about his relationships with three generations of the Abe family.
Shinzo Abe’s involvement with the church appears to have been discreet at first. Leaked church memos direct members to support him, and suggest that the church saw Abe as a reliable conservative who agreed with its positions on gay marriage and traditional gender and family roles. Later on, Abe became less cautious. In September 2021, he delivered a prerecorded video address at an online church conference, praising Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han Moon, for her “tireless efforts in resolving disputes in the world, especially in relation to the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.” (Donald Trump delivered a speech at the same event.) Yamagami reportedly saw Abe’s video at the 2021 conference, which may have helped him decide to target the former prime minister.
Why was the church such a valuable ally? I tried to ask LDP officials, but they would not speak with me. The Moonie connection remains politically toxic for Japanese politicians. The Moonies are less shy about the relationship.
“I was able to get candidates elected for the parliament, for gubernatorial elections, and city mayors,” Mamoru Kamono, a dapper 67-year-old who spent decades as an in-house journalist and election organizer for the Unification Church, told me. Kamono met me at the church’s Tokyo headquarters, on a high-rent downtown street just a few minutes from the crowds and digital billboards of Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection. We were escorted into a spotless room overseen by a portrait of Sun Myung Moon. Kamono seemed proud of and eager to talk about the political work he’d done for LDP candidates in Toyama prefecture, northwest of the capital. The church’s volunteers did more than just knock on doors and make phone calls, he told me. They worked their contacts with leading executives in hundreds of companies, and leveraged an informal system of group voting. After obtaining the names of all the employees in a given company, Kamono told me, the Moonie volunteers would press them to secure the votes of their family members and neighbors. In Japan’s highly disciplined, hierarchical society, this strategy often resulted in big margins for the church’s favored candidates.
After elections, logs of campaign phone calls would show that the Moonies did 10 times as much outreach as any other group, Kamono said, and this translated into immense gratitude from candidates. That made it all the more hurtful, he added, when the Toyama city council passed a resolution severing all ties to the church after Abe’s assassination.
What tangible gain did the Moonies get in return for their campaign miracles? They may not have needed much, because they had trust in the LDP’s conservative views about gay marriage, women’s rights, and the importance of family, core issues for the church. (Moon’s own homophobia went far beyond the LDP’s; he once described gay people as “dirty, dung-eating dogs.”) But the Abe administration does appear to have gone out of its way to do them at least one big favor.
In 2015, the government took the controversial step of allowing the church to rename itself, to the outrage of its longtime critics. This was a matter of real import, because since the mid‑’90s the words Unification Church had been tainted in Japan. The church now advertises itself under the more anodyne banner of Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, though most outsiders still use the old name.
Kihei Maekawa, who was a senior official in the education ministry when it approved the rebranding, is still stewing about it. (Religion falls within the ministry’s portfolio.) When I arrived at his office, he handed me a printout of the 41-page Law on Religious Corporations. He told me the church’s application to change its name was granted a quick approval by the education minister at the time—an ally of Abe’s who had received his own election help from the Moonies and taken money from a church-linked publication. (The minister, Hakubun Shimomura, has denied that he was involved in the name change.) This wasn’t just political opportunism, Maekawa said. It was also a repudiation of his ministry’s prior decision. When the church had first approached the government about changing its name, in 1997, Maekawa was in charge of the relevant bureau. He and his colleagues reached a consensus that allowing the change would be “an extreme cover-up,” because the church had become notorious for its fundraising practices.
There are hints that the government may have done other favors. Arita, the journalist and former parliamentarian, told me that he spoke with a group of senior police officials after the 1995 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo Metro, when all new religious groups were under greater scrutiny. One of the officials told him that “next, we are aiming to expose the Unification Church.” A decade later, Arita said, he met some retired police officials, and when he asked them why there had been no prosecution of the Unification Church, they replied, “Its political power.” The police have declined to comment on the matter, and last year the church sued Arita and several others for defamation.
The LDP denies that it did anything for the Moonies and maintains that it simply accepted the help of campaign volunteers. But after Abe’s assassination, the party’s plummeting poll numbers created a political imperative for Prime Minister Kishida (who has denied any connection to the church) to prove that he and the rest of the LDP are not Moonie stooges. In November 2022, his culture minister announced a formal probe into the church’s alleged misbehavior. This would help establish whether there are grounds to withdraw the church’s tax benefits and status as a religious organization. Even if there are such grounds, a resolution could take years.
Is the Unification Church a religion at all? The church’s representatives scoff at the question. They point out that the Moonies have been recognized in Japan since 1964, and that only two of the country’s 180,000 registered religious groups have ever been dissolved. One was Aum Shinrikyo, and another was a Buddhist group whose priests were enriching themselves through fraud. In both cases, the group’s leading figures were convicted of crimes—a standard that the Unification Church’s main lawyer, Nobuya Fukumoto, told me ought to be the relevant legal precedent. There is no criminal case against the Unification Church’s leaders in Japan, and therefore, in his view, no basis to withdraw the church’s legal status. He said the current government inquiry is nothing more than a desperate effort by Kishida to shore up support.
Others say the church should have been confronted long ago. Kihei Maekawa, the former government official, showed me a line in the Law on Religious Corporations declaring that the state is entitled to revoke a religion’s status if, “in violation of laws and regulations, the religious corporation commits an act which is clearly found to harm public welfare substantially.” Individual members of the Unification Church have been sued successfully; the unanswered question is whether the institution itself can be held liable. Maekawa noted that the Church of Scientology, which is not approved as a religion in Japan, approached his ministry during the 1990s about applying for official recognition. It was told not to waste its energy. If the Unification Church were applying today for the first time, the same thing would likely happen.
Some critics say the church has done so much damage that removing its nonprofit status is not enough. They want a law to help protect the public from the dangers of cults. Eito Suzuki, a journalist who has been writing about the Moonies for decades and who has helped reveal the extent of their relationship with the LDP, told me that a government report proposed a law of just this kind back in 1995—after the Aum Shinrikyo subway attack—with a provision for monitoring abuses by religious movements. The idea, Suzuki said, was shelved.
Perhaps all religions start off as cults. It’s not hard to imagine Buddha or Christ showing up at a Japanese government ministry today, application in hand, and being sent packing. But there are reasons to regard the Unification Church as unusual. Its devotees systematically misrepresent themselves and their intentions. They use fear to police their ranks and maximize their profits in a way that is often more redolent of the Mafia than of a holy order.
This was brought home to me during a long talk I had with a woman who was lured into joining the Moonies in 1997 and spent two years as a member. She and her husband—who helped her get out—agreed to tell me their story but asked that their names not be used, because even today they fear retaliation. I will refer to them as Keiko and Jun.
We met in a restaurant in downtown Tokyo. Keiko, a small, pale woman of 68, told me it all started when she was befriended by a fellow member of the parent-teacher association at her son’s school. The woman invited Keiko and several other mothers to a place called the video center, where they watched films and TV shows. The center didn’t have any visible affiliation, but as they returned over the following months—they were housewives with time on their hands—they noticed that religion began to play a bigger role in the films they saw. Twice Keiko asked, “Is this a religion you’re trying to convert me to?” Both times, her new friend said no; it was just about education. The women grew closer. After a year, Keiko arrived at the center one day and was surprised to be handed a copy of the Bible. “They sat us down and said, ‘We’ll tell you who the Messiah is,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘It’s Moon.’ ”
Keiko said she was taken aback, but also reluctant to abandon her new friends. She decided to continue, telling herself she’d quit if things got bad. She attended lectures on the principles of the Unification Church, and soon she was being sent into the street to sell socks and handkerchiefs to benefit charities. (She later discovered that the charities did not exist, and the profits went to the church.) She concealed all of this from her husband, at the urging of her Moonie supervisors. She began spending money on vases and other supposedly spiritual products, and traveled to the church’s headquarters in South Korea for “expel the demon” ceremonies. As her attachment to the group grew stronger, she began hearing a new message: If you speak ill of the church, you could die. If you betray Reverend Moon, you and your ancestors will burn in hell forever.
Jun, a retiree with a quiet, steadfast manner, told me it didn’t take him long to figure out what had happened to his wife. He was determined to act, but he knew that other deprogramming efforts with Moonies had backfired, in some cases in spectacular fashion, when believers were locked up by their families for months, even years, and sometimes returned to the church anyway after regaining their freedom. The Moonies I met talked about these failed interventions (some of them documented in court) as evidence of the hostility they often face in Japan.
Jun told me he spent 18 months coming up with a team and a strategy before confronting his wife. He wanted to approach her “with sense, with feelings,” and not just castigate her. He organized a month-long decompression, living with her in a hotel where relatives and former church members visited and helped her gain a fuller perspective on what she’d been through. Eventually, Keiko told me, she realized that the church had reduced her to a state of infantile dependence. This, she told me, is at the root of its doctrine: “They tell you not to think on your own,” because that was Eve’s original sin.
On April 15, 2023, Prime Minister Kishida was about to give a campaign speech at a fishing port in the southern city of Wakayama when a man in the crowd tossed a homemade pipe bomb at him. The smoking projectile landed just a few yards from his feet. Kishida’s aides quickly pulled him to safety, and local fishermen wrestled the assailant to the ground. Although no one was seriously hurt, the incident instantly reawakened memories of the Abe assassination.
Japanese politicians may never again approach a campaign crowd with the same ease Abe displayed when he arrived that July morning at Nara. His death may come to mark a moment of lost innocence, the way the assassination of John F. Kennedy does in the United States.
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The broader legacy of the Abe assassination is still taking shape. One thing seems clear: The Unification Church is likely to suffer in Japan even if it doesn’t lose its legal status. The Moonies I met described a litany of insults and abuses hurled at them over the past year. The church’s current faithful may not be overly troubled (“the Messiah is always ostracized,” they are told), but recruiting new followers will be a challenge.
Nor has what Moon called the “Perfect Family” fared well since his death. Its members have spent much of the past decade fighting in court over his assets and legacy, and his children have struggled to live up to their “sinless” billing. One son was accused by his wife of cocaine addiction and domestic abuse. (He denied both claims and has since died.) Another son leaped to his death from a balcony at a Nevada casino. A third son, Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, founded a separate, gun-centered church in Pennsylvania known as Rod of Iron Ministries, where followers do target practice with AR-15s and bring guns to church to be blessed. Hyung Jin wears a golden crown made of rifle shells, and delivers hate-filled sermons against the Democratic Party. He also expects to become the king of America. He reviles his mother—who runs the international church in South Korea—as the “whore of Babylon.”
Although Abe’s reputation has been stained, it may recover somewhat. His harshest critics tend to be older Japanese who have strong memories of the war and its aftermath, and who fear the revival of their country’s military power. As that generation dies off, Abe may come to seem prescient, because of the way he prepared his country for the threats of a new century in which Japan must defend itself from an assertive China.
Counterintuitively, the reputation of Yamagami, his alleged assassin, may not suffer. There is an old tradition in Japan of reverence for the doomed hero, the man who undertakes a suicidal quest and becomes a figure of deep nobility, regardless of the justice of his cause. Many Japanese still revere the right-wing nationalists who stormed Tokyo’s government buildings in 1936 and killed not one but two former prime ministers. The plot’s ringleaders were later tried and executed, but a shrine to their memory stands in a prominent place in central Tokyo. The great Japanese author Yukio Mishima memorialized them in a story and a film. Their sincerity and patriotism are what matter to their admirers, not the cruelty of their act or its ramifications.
Something similar could be said of Yamagami. “I no longer have room to think about the political meaning and consequences of Abe’s death,” he wrote a day before the assassination. The purity of his motives—his righteous anger at the Unification Church—seems to have resonated with the Japanese public.
Yamagami’s trial will offer Japan a chance to relive the entire drama. No date has been set as of this writing. Japanese prosecutors take their time, and for a man who has admitted to killing a former head of state, there may be pressure to apply the death penalty. If so, Yamagami will face an excruciating fate. Death-row prisoners in Japan are not told the date of their execution in advance. They wake up every morning not knowing if this day will be their last.
In the months before he fired the fatal shots, Yamagami described himself as a tragic figure, drawn inexorably to a confrontation that would destroy him. And he did not miss the ironic parallel between his own heedless fury and the zealotry of the church members who had ruined his life. His desperation for a murder weapon, he wrote, was “like a member of the Unification Church throwing his life away for a false savior.”
This article appears in the October 2023 print edition with the headline “The Prime Minister and the Moonies.”
The man who allegedly killed the former prime minister says he was aiming for something larger: the Unification Church—the Moonies—and its political influence in Japan.