Author: Aurelia George Mulgan, UNSW Canberra
In Japan, the Unification Church (UC) is a religious corporation known formally as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification and for its unique interpretation of Christian theology and practices widely criticised for being similar to those of a cult.
Its founder and long-time leader, South Korean Sun Myung Moon, certainly fits the archetype of a cult leader. He was narcissistic as a self-professed messiah but also charismatic and convincing in his quest to brainwash members from whom he demanded unquestioning loyalty in order to acquire money and power as head of both a religious and business organisation. Such ‘organisational totalitarianism’ has often been harnessed for political ends, particularly as the children of believers were taught that ‘instructions from above are absolute’.
In the 1950s and 60s, the basic connection was ideological. The UC was built on anti-communist ideals, particularly the political organisation set up by Moon in 1968 called the ‘International Federation for Victory over Communism’. These ideals underpinned the close connection established between Moon and Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who facilitated the importation of the UC into Japan, as well as its offshoot political organisation.
Kishi facilitated the close historic ties between the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the UC, perpetuated the connection through his son and Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, and established the faction that Abe inherited. Once in Japan, the UC sought legitimacy and influence through political connections and building networks with national and local politicians. These connections brought legal protection as well as social and financial benefits and policy influence despite UC’s record of financially destroying families through ‘mind control’ and other ‘cult-like’ aspects.
Abe shared the ardent anti-communist ideals espoused by his grandfather and the UC, cultivating close ties between himself and UC-affiliated organisations. In September 2021, he addressed a virtual forum, held under the aegis of the Moon-organised ‘Universal Peace Federation’ branch, one of the ‘friendship organisations’ of the UC. Abe called for ‘solidarity between countries sharing freedom and democracy’, demonstrating shared ideological principles with the group.
It was Abe’s video attendance at this event that convinced his killer, Tetsuya Yamagami, that Abe was connected to the UC and nurtured Yamagami’s hostility towards him.
Shared political ideology was also backed up by shared conservative values with policy implications. These include opposition to same-sex marriage, gender equality and diversity, as well as support for ‘traditional family values’ and ‘paternalistic family systems’, which both the UC and conservative politicians, including Abe, the ‘chief flag-waver of conservatism’, sought to promote and protect. The UC’s strongest connections have been with the LDP’s most conservative right-wingers.
The second and main attraction underpinning the connection between Japanese politicians and the UC was practical — daily support work by UC members as secretaries for parliamentarians — and electoral support such as votes, money, voter lists and campaign workers. The UC was particularly valuable because it could offer ‘group support’, namely ‘bloc votes’ for particular politicians, because of its persuasive powers over its members.
Indeed, UC votes were so secure that they could even be allocated to particular candidates in an organised fashion in order to maximise the number of politicians elected from a certain party — principally the LDP, almost half of whom had links with the group. The UC would tell members at gatherings or through online messengers to vote for certain candidates.
Financial support for election candidates was also secured by UC members’ buying tickets to politicians’ fund-raising parties and through donations from UC-affiliated organisations, although the amounts that individual politicians admitted they received were not huge. Still, UC members and their friends were particularly useful as ‘volunteers’ on the campaign trail, a boon for individual candidates as the cost of hiring the required number of election workers is very expensive.
Abe himself is believed to have funnelled UC followers’ votes to his former executive secretary, Yoshiyuki Inoue, as a UC ‘supporting member’ in the July 2022 Upper House election. These group votes almost doubled the number of votes that Inoue received in the 2019 election from 88,000 to 165,000. Abe reportedly ‘managed the allocation of the Unification Church’s votes and volunteer work’ among the LDP’s candidates in election campaigns while his brother, former Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, admitted to receiving various kinds of assistance from individual UC volunteers during election campaigns. The Abe faction also had the highest number of members (37) with connections to the UC.
Taking advantage of the strong familial, ideological and historical connections, both Abe brothers continued to cultivate ties with the UC primarily for electoral reasons. Abe encouraged this by actively appearing at UC-sponsored events and by addressing various fora organised by the group. The Kishi/Abe faction, as a non-mainstream conservative faction, was more dependent on UC votes than other LDP factions, such as the Tanaka and Ohira (now Kishida) factions, which gained strong support from the construction and transport industries and business leaders.
Not surprisingly, the Abe faction has been confirmed as having the largest number of members with UC links and the highest number of state ministers and parliamentary vice-ministers with connections to the group in Kishida’s recently reshuffled cabinet. Abe exemplified the way in which politicians could harness members’ loyalty and devotion to the church and the dictates of its leaders for political purposes. In return, the group gained credibility, political access and the ability to ‘show off’ its influence over particular politicians to its advantage through their speeches and interviews for group media outlets.
So while the connections between politicians and the group have been revealed as commonplace, those with the Abe–Kishi family were ‘special’. Abe was the key figure who connected the party to the church. The political utility of such groups was more broadly underpinned by their ability to attract the ‘unorganised’ — the social and economic ‘have-nots’ who were not grouped through economic organisations or strong employment connections.
Links to such organisations thus provided a mechanism for politicians to reach voters who were not members of established interest groups but who could be useful for those candidates who might need extra support if organised interest group support was insufficient for victory.
Aurelia George Mulgan is Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of New South Wales, Canberra.