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Shinzo Abe’s Assassin and Japan’s Complicated Spirituality

The country’s so-called new religions have caused a disproportionate amount of turmoil.

Japan is not widely known for religious extremism or gun violence, and yet Abe’s association with the Unification Church was his murderer’s apparent motive., Peerapon Boonyakiat / SOPA / Getty

The killing of the former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, on July 8th, sent shock waves rippling across Japan and the globe. Even after stepping down as Prime Minister, in the summer of 2020, owing to health issues, Abe was that rarest of presences on the Japanese political scene: an internationally recognizable face, even a celebrity. His hawkish brand of conservatism divided Japan and infuriated many leaders in the region, but endeared him to others, most famously Donald Trump. And, as the single longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, he remained, in many ways, the country’s face to the world.

The brazen daylight shooting, days before a major national election, initially seemed, to many, like a case of political violence. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared, “We must defend free and just elections, which are the basis of democracy,” and said that Japan would “never yield to violence.” The sentiment was echoed and amplified by other political parties, who explicitly framed the shooting as an act of “terrorism.” This narrative began to crumble when the police released a statement that the gunman, Tetsuya Yamagami, a forty-one-year-old Nara resident, professed no issues with Abe’s politics. Instead, it seemed, he had been motivated by a grudge against a religious group that he considered Abe to be associated with. Yamagami blamed the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, otherwise known as the Unification Church, for destroying his family. His mother had donated more than a hundred million yen over the years, since joining the church, in 1998, plunging the family into dire poverty. After a series of attempts to attack church members and facilities, the alleged assassin had switched his focus to Abe.

The connections between Abe’s family and Sun Myung Moon, the Korean religious leader who founded the Unification Church, are little discussed in mainstream Japanese media but well documented. Moon created the Federation for Victory Over Communism, a political wing of the Unification Church, in 1968. During the Cold War, he used church influence to forge inroads with world leaders, including Japanese ones. Moon’s ties to the Abe family extend back three generations. The former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi—Abe’s grandfather—and his allies spoke highly of Moon and his adherents, and Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, often counted on volunteer labor and a bloc of votes from Moon’s followers in support of its campaigns. These included those of Abe’s father, Shintaro, who was first elected to the Diet in 1958 and who was a leading candidate to become Prime Minister in the nineteen-eighties, before a scandal derailed his ambitions. Abe’s personal connections to the Unification Church surfaced in 2006, when the press reported that he had sent a congratulatory message to the participants at a church-affiliated event being held in Fukuoka. Last September, Abe made an appearance, along with Donald Trump, at the Unification Church’s digital Rally of Hope, convened under the auspices of Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han Moon. “The inspiration that they have caused for the entire planet is unbelievable,” Abe said of the Moon family.

The revelation of the church connection added yet another layer of strangeness to Abe’s assassination, for Japan is not widely associated with religious extremism or gun violence. The Japanese constitution, framed by American occupying forces and enacted in 1947, stipulates that “the State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” Yamagami’s makeshift weapon testifies to how difficult it is to procure a gun. But his alleged crime also sheds light on the fact that Japan isn’t nearly as secular a nation as many, including its own citizens, believe it to be.

Japan regularly appears on lists of the least religious countries. Yet there are more Shinto shrines on the islands of Japan than there are convenience stores, and special occasions such as the New Year bring out large portions of the population to celebrate at holy spots. According to statistics published last year by the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, a hundred and eighty thousand groups are officially registered as religious corporations. Together, these groups claim more than a hundred and eighty million followers—a startling figure, given Japan’s population of a hundred and twenty-six million. In an accompanying report, the agency says that the numbers of followers were inflated by citizens’ “weak sense of religious belonging,” meaning that respondents felt comfortable claiming a relationship with multiple faiths simultaneously. Even so, in survey after survey, some seventy to eighty per cent of citizens profess to having no religious beliefs at all.

The Japanese translation of the term “religion,” shukyo, is of surprisingly recent origin, dating to the late nineteenth century. It’s not that Japan lacks a spiritual side. The eighth-century “Kojiki,” the nation’s oldest extant literary work, refers to eight million kami, or spiritual presences, a number that is less a firm accounting than a measure of immeasurability. The kami form the basis for the faith of Shinto, which has long coexisted alongside imported Buddhism and the tradition of Shugendō, a domestic ascetic discipline that incorporates aspects of both. While priests, monks, and nuns specialize in one tradition or another, average folk will drift among them. This flexibility in choosing spiritual traditions to suit the occasion is summed up by a popular aphorism: “Born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.”

After Japan’s ports were opened to the world, in 1858, many there saw how the “hodgepodge” spirituality, as one Japanese religious leader called it, stood in contrast to the organized, evangelical religions of the West, where faith hinged on a contract between the devout and an almighty God. This absolutism perplexed the polytheistic Japanese. Scholars of the time grappled with “religion” alongside other new concepts, such as “liberty,” “individual,” “constitution,” and “bank.” The idea of shukyo effectively pitted Japan’s agrarian spiritual traditions, and by extension Japan itself, against the ascendant industrial West. In books and lectures, critics argued fiercely about whether Shinto and Buddhism represented shukyo or something altogether different.

In 1613, the shogun had banned Christianity over fears of foreign interference in local politics, a brutal persecution famously portrayed in Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence.” But, with the opening of Japanese ports, Western powers successfully lobbied to get the centuries-old prohibition lifted. Partly to blunt the expected influx of Christian missionaries, imperial authorities made a sweeping and divisive decision in 1868: Japan would henceforth officially recognize a single faith, Shinto, as the “national virtue” and enthrone the emperor at its head, making him by turns a ruler and a living kami. This forcible streamlining of Japan’s spirituality didn’t solve anything, and helped pave the way for nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. The right of Japanese citizens to freely practice religion didn’t become a reality until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

Freedom to worship in the postwar era reinvigorated long-dormant local spiritual traditions. But it also fuelled the rise of entirely new forms of religious practice, some created at home, others arriving from abroad. The Japanese called these newcomers shin shukyo, or “new religions.” Some were benign reinterpretations of existing faiths, or imports with established traditions overseas. Other new religions represented fringe presences even in their home countries, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, from America, or the Unification Church, from South Korea.

New religions account for less than ten per cent of the groups tallied by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, mirroring a broader drop-off in professed religious belief of all kinds in Japanese society, and the numbers of adherents have been in steady decline since the late eighties. Even so, new religions have caused a disproportionate amount of turmoil in Japanese society. The most infamous case is that of Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that launched a deadly nerve-gas attack on the Japanese subway system, in 1995. Today, the horrors of Aum are practically synonymous with shin shukyo in Japan, and a major reason why many Japanese citizens may feel a reluctance to identify with shukyo in any form. But it was the Unification Church that first brought the term into the Japanese spotlight.

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In 1992, a pair of Japanese stars announced that they would participate in a mass wedding ceremony in Seoul, South Korea. One was a pop singer and actress by the name of Junko Sakurada; the other, an Olympic gymnast named Hiroko Yamasaki. Shortly thereafter, they married Japanese grooms handpicked by Sun Myung Moon. The media derided the pair as “pandas on display,” a jab referring to the way that zoos rely on the most adorable animals to draw in crowds, and used the situation to report more broadly on the Unification Church’s activities in Japan.

Yamasaki broke with the church the following year, in a tearful public press conference. In a 1994 memoir, she alleged being subjected to brainwashing and being persuaded to donate money and purchase expensive religious items. In a press conference held shortly after Abe’s assassination, a group called the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which helps people victimized by religious groups, disclosed that more than thirty-five thousand complaints involving problematic donations to the Unification Church had been lodged in Japan during the past three and a half decades, totalling 123.7 billion yen, or about nine hundred million U.S. dollars.

Yamagami’s uncle on his father’s side has been widely quoted in Japanese newspapers as claiming that Yamagami’s mother donated more than a hundred million yen to the Unification Church since joining, in 1998, selling virtually all of the family’s assets and possessions even as the children struggled to eat. He says that the donations continued even after she declared personal bankruptcy, in 2002. When the head of the Japan branch of the Unification Church was asked about these statements, at a press conference, he confirmed that Yamagami’s mother was a longtime member and acknowledged her financial situation, but dodged questions about donations by citing the ongoing police investigation.

Yamagami’s mother seems to have turned to the Unification Church after her husband’s suicide. The church became well-known to the public in the early nineties, after the shocking collapse of Japan’s “bubble economy.” During the months after the triple blow of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown, I recall a steady stream of fringe groups knocking on my door in Tokyo, offering the same promise: times are tough; we have answers. I had a satisfying job, a good marriage, and extended family nearby. Those who weren’t so fortunate may well have opened the door, hoping to fill the holes in their lives. This story is nothing new or unique. As Haruki Murakami has said of his nonfiction book “Underground,” a series of interviews with survivors of the Aum attack, “I think those drawn to shukyo are those who feel unable to take action on their own.” (This sentiment was also a theme of his later novel “1Q84,” in which a cult group plays a major part.)

 

I was born and raised in Japan and feel a great affinity for my nation’s spiritual traditions. I pay my respects at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, dance at summer Obon festivals that welcome the spirits of the departed, and make a point of saying a prayer on the first day of the New Year, a custom known as hatsumode. Yet if someone were to ask me if I had a shukyo, if I were religious, I would instinctively answer no. This isn’t some form of subterfuge or insecurity. I suspect that most Japanese people simply don’t see themselves as yoked to any one particular faith, as so many in the West seem to be. This is an issue of semantics, but it is also one of identity. When Tokyo’s Sanja festival was held in May, after a two-year hiatus due to coronavirus concerns, the sight of children hoisting mikoshi parade floats attracted widespread media attention. And one of the key reasons organizers gave for re-starting Kyoto’s Gion festival this month was the imperative of passing traditions down to younger generations. Declaring allegiance to any single faith feels quite at odds with the Japanese mainstream—that hodgepodge of spiritual traditions that has sustained us for so long. One of the main reasons that both outsiders and locals mistake Japan for a secular nation is that, despite broad enthusiasm for engaging in nondenominational cultural traditions, there remains a great reluctance about discussing spirituality or religion in the public sphere.

The Unification Church is by no means the only religious organization vying to influence politics in Japan. The Shinto Association of Spiritual Leadership lobbies from its own perspective, and Buddhist groups such as Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai have long played active roles in politics here. “The mass media tends to focus on shin shukyo only when some kind of incident or social trouble occurs,” the religious-studies professor Nobutaka Inoue has written. “But in reality their efforts extend from politics to economics, education, culture, and medicine, exerting even more influence on society than average citizens imagine.”

A week after Abe’s assassination, Prime Minister Kishida announced his intention to hold an official state funeral for Abe. This would be the first such publicly funded ceremony since 1967. When asked by reporters why he was taking such an unprecedented step, Kishida took pains to frame it in purely secular terms, saying, “We must show our determination to protect democracy and our refusal to bend to violence.” Nevertheless, the revelation of the Unification Church as the alleged spur for Abe’s assassin has changed the public discussion.

The meaning of the word shukyo has transformed greatly since it was first coined, roughly a hundred and fifty years ago, to mean “religion.” In its original incarnation, it was an attempt to define Western faith traditions; in the postwar years, it became, to many, indelibly entwined with cults. Now, with the assassination of Shinzo Abe, the term is likely to take on yet another heavy association in the minds of the Japanese: that of politics. ♦