Japan's PM vows his party will cut ties with Unification Church

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday his ruling party will cut ties with the Unification Church following a widening scandal triggered by former leader Shinzo Abe's assassination last month.

Accused assassin of former PM Shinzo Abe allegedly told police the church ruined his life

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, speaks to media at the prime minister's official residence in Tokyo after the fatal shooting of former leader Shinzo Abe. (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Wednesday his ruling party will cut ties with the Unification Church following a widening scandal triggered by former leader Shinzo Abe's assassination last month. He also apologized for causing a loss of public trust in politics.

Widespread cozy ties between members of Kishida's governing Liberal Democratic Party, many of them belonging to Abe's faction, and the South Korean-born church have surfaced since Abe was shot to death while delivering a campaign speech in July.

The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagani, who was arrested at the scene, allegedly told police he killed Abe because of his apparent link to the church. In a letter seen by The Associated Press and social media posts believed to be his, Yamagani said he believed his mother's large donations to the church had ruined his life.

Some Japanese have expressed understanding, even sympathy, as details of the man's life emerged, creating deep implications for the political party that has governed Japan virtually uninterrupted since the Second World War.

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While religious groups must abide by law, "politicians are strictly required to be careful about groups with social problems," Kishida said. Members of his cabinet and other key posts have agreed to review their past links and cut ties with the church.

"As president of the LDP, I honestly express my apology" for causing the public's doubts and concerns over the continuing revelations in media reports about the party's extensive ties to the church, Kishida said.

Church has long history with conservative politicians

The Unification Church, which was founded in South Korea in 1954 and came to Japan a decade later, has built close ties with a host of conservative lawmakers over their shared interests of opposing communism. Abe's grandfather and former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi was a key figure who helped found the church's political unit in Tokyo in 1968.

Since the 1980s, the church has faced accusations of problematic recruiting, sales of religious items and donations, which often lead to financial strains on the followers' families and, according to experts, mental health of adherents' children. 

Unification Church members in Seoul, South Korea, take part in a protest against what they call discriminatory and unfair Japanese media coverage of their church since former prime minister Shinzo Abe's assassination. (Ju-min Park/Reuters)

Abe sent a video message last year to the Universal Peace Federation, an international group affiliated with the church, which experts say may have motivated the suspect in Abe's shooting. Abe had praised the federation's co-founder Hak Ja Han Moon, who is also head of the church, for her effort in promoting traditional family values.

Experts and cult watchers also say that the church has promoted its key agendas such as the opposition to women's advancement and same-sex marriage to influence policy.

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Some ties already cut

Kishida shuffled his cabinet earlier in August to purge seven ministers linked to the church. Among them was Abe's younger brother Nobuo Kishi, who acknowledged that church followers volunteered in his election campaign. Dozens of LDP members have since come forward with their ties to the church and related organizations.

Kishida said at the news conference that he has instructed LDP Secretary General Toshimitsu Motegi to survey the party fully over any other members' ties to the church. Kishida said he is rushing the effort, but it has taken time because the review will span decades.