Skip to main content
opinion

Peter McGill is a British journalist and author. He was based in Japan for 19 years.

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon sprinkles holy water over couples he married during a mass wedding ceremony at Madison Square Garden in New York, July 1, 1982. The Unification Church says that Reverend Moon personally matched all of the 2,000 couples that were married in the mass wedding.The Associated Press

Two very different worlds collided in the brutal murder of Shinzo Abe.

In the public realm were grieving Japanese who, regardless of their political feelings about Mr. Abe, were shocked and saddened by the tragic death of one of Japan’s most important postwar leaders. Tributes from around the world testified to Mr. Abe’s strong stand in countering China’s military might. His funeral drew solemn crowds of mourners to the front of Tokyo’s Zojoji Buddhist temple, where several feudal shoguns are buried.

Tetsuya Yamagami, the unemployed man wrestled to the ground moments after shooting Mr. Abe from behind with a homemade gun on July 8, lifted the curtain on a world that is far grubbier, but also troubling and distressing. During interrogation, Mr. Yamagami said his family was left destitute by his mother’s huge donations to the Unification Church. Since Mr. Abe had links to the religious group, in Mr. Yamagami’s warped mind that made him a legitimate target for revenge.

Why did a globally renowned political leader wish to associate with a church notorious for its alleged brainwashing techniques and the mass weddings of its members, known as “Moonies”? In 1981, the Daily Mail won a landmark libel case for an article titled The Church that Breaks Up Families. It thrived like a “maggot” feeding on society, the paper said. Recruits were “robots, glass-eyed and mindless” and the doctrines spouted by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the man who founded the cult in South Korea in the 1950s, were “half-baked ravings.” From 1984 to 1985 Mr. Moon served 13 months in U.S. federal prison for tax evasion. The United Kingdom banned him from entry for a decade but he carried on regardless. “Emperors, kings and presidents have declared to all heaven and earth that Reverend Sun Myung Moon is none other than humanity’s saviour, messiah, returning Lord and true parent,” he declared of himself in 2004.


Japan has been crucial to the growth of the Unification Church. The former colonial power, which ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 and 1945, has twice the number of Moonies as its home country – 300,000 compared with between 150,000 and 200,000 in South Korea, according to spokesperson Ahn Ho-yeul – and provides the lion’s share of the church’s global income.

Concealment is often practised in recruiting members and raising funds. “They don’t disclose who they are but aim first at establishing a strong emotional relationship,” says Yoshihide Sakurai, a professor of sociology at Hokkaido University and an expert on Japanese cults and new religions. Another strategy employs fortune-telling and ancestor worship to target elderly Japanese and housewives.

By 1987, there were so many complaints of Japanese citizens being defrauded by Unification Church members that a group of lawyers started a national network to counter the cult. At a news conference earlier this week, lawyers representing the network said that in the past 35 years, they had given 34,537 consultations over monetary losses totalling 123.7 billion yen ($1.17-billion).

Typical Moonie approaches to strangers have included “Please co-operate in this questionnaire into youth consciousness,” or “I am studying palm reading. There are stress lines in your hand that indicate a transition period.” Bit by bit, they drew out personal worries, and family and financial misfortunes.

The remedy from bad karma, “to free you from the fateful destiny of ancestors,” involved buying “Buddhist” marble pagodas, jars, statues and remedies, ginseng and all sorts of goods made in the cult’s factories in South Korea and imported by its Happy World Trading. One bottle of concentrated ginseng extract was peddled for $755. A carved pagoda would set you back $51,000. Missionaries scanned death notices to identify the recently bereaved, who were then offered special communication channels to the spirit world in return for a sizable donation.

An inevitable Japanese backlash forced the Unification Church to curtail unscrupulous sales in favour of pressuring members like Mr. Yamagami’s mother to make donations. These were often linked to fundraising themes, such as a tunnel between Japan and Korea that was never built, a “Panda” car factory in China and a 1,200-hectare “Peace Park” park at the North Korean birthplace of messiah Moon.

Mr. Yamagami’s father owned a construction company but died when he was a child. Japanese media reported that his mother sold the family home and land she had inherited and with the proceeds made a 100 million yen ($935,000) donation to the Unification Church. In 2002 she was declared bankrupt but continued giving the church money. A relative in Osaka said he used to receive telephone calls from the three children complaining that they had nothing to eat.


Japanese Moonies are not so numerous as to count as a significant voting bloc. Prof. Sakurai says their political value is as a source of volunteer manpower to help favoured candidates such as Mr. Abe in their election campaigns.

The same holds for other highly organized “new religions” in Japan. One of the country’s largest and most effective political machines is the Soka Gakkai, an organization of lay followers of Nichiren Buddhism that claims a worldwide membership of 12 million. It is closely tied to the Komeito political party, which is in coalition with Mr. Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Rissho Kosei Kai is another rich and powerful lay religious group based on Nichiren Buddhism. It was founded by Nikkyo Niwano, a milk dealer, and Myoko Naganuma, a devout housewife.

Wrenching, disorientating social and economic change is one reason often cited for the flourishing of “new religions” offering comfort and solace in Japan over the past 150 years. The revolution that overthrew the shogunate in 1868 was one such traumatic watershed, another came in 1945 with defeat in the Second World War. Many of the older Buddhist sects had degenerated into little more than “funerary Buddhism.” Shinto, the other traditional religion of Japan, was even more tainted through state co-option, as a tool of emperor-worship and militarism.

To sever bonds between church and state, the 1947 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Prof. Sakurai says this has bred a culture of excessive religious tolerance. He points out that the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult (now renamed Aleph) is still permitted, with 1,650 members at the last official count, despite carrying out the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other crimes, for which founder Shoko Asahara and 12 other members were executed by hanging in 2018.

Shinsuke Suematsu, the current Education Minister who is ultimately responsible for regulating religions in Japan, this week pointedly refused to take any action against the Unification Church, which is classified in Japan as a Christian sect.


Korea and Japan have a fraught past, and relations between Seoul and Tokyo nosedived under Mr. Abe’s premiership. To South Koreans, Mr. Abe seemed intent on rubbing salt into old wounds, by refusing to endorse a previous apology for wartime sexual slavery, visiting the Shinto Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo where Class A war criminals are venerated, and appearing to exonerate Japan’s war in Asia by arguing in parliament that “the definition of aggression has yet to be established.” Anti-Korean publications line the shelves of Japanese bookstores.

It may appear paradoxical that a fervent Japanese nationalist should have held warm feelings toward a cult that views Koreans as a master race destined to rule the world. The explanation lies in Mr. Abe’s family history.

Mr. Abe’s maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, played a key role in designing a centrally planned, military-dominated economy in Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo to feed the home island’s war machine. His policies helped inspire the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) in plotting Japan’s postwar export miracle, as well as guiding South Korea’s rapid industrialization. Mr. Kishi was brought back to Tokyo to serve as General Hideki Tojo’s minister for munitions. After the war, Mr. Kishi was locked up at Sugamo Prison as a Class A war-crimes suspect but was never put on trial. Instead, he was released on Christmas Eve 1948, a beneficiary of the Occupation “reverse course” from purging militarism to suppressing communism. In 1955, Mr. Kishi brokered the founding of the Liberal Democratic Party that has since ruled Japan almost without interruption. Capping an astonishing metamorphosis, Mr. Kishi became prime minister in 1957.

Park Chung-hee, the most consequential of South Korea’s leaders, was an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army who in his cups would later lustily sing old Japanese army songs. Like Mr. Kishi, he also reinvented himself as a conservative nationalist. In 1961, Mr. Park seized power in a coup and began implementing elements of the Manchukuo model of state-led capitalism to jumpstart the economy. One of his priorities was to normalize relations with Japan. Mr. Kishi played a key backstage role in forging terms that were highly favourable to Japan. “Fortunately, South Korea is under a military regime when even a small number of leaders under Park Chung-hee can decide everything,” Mr. Kishi noted. Mr. Park was desperate for Japanese capital, and the 1965 treaty largely brushed aside Japanese compensation for the colonial past. The issue still festers in bilateral relations. Mr. Park’s rule became increasingly repressive and in 1979 he was assassinated by his intelligence chief. His daughter became president of South Korea in 2013 and frequently sparred with Mr. Abe until being impeached over a financial scandal.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon emerged out of the chaos of the Korean War as a charismatic preacher whose deviant cult soon became embroiled in scandal. In 1955 he was arrested over allegations of sex with female followers. The FBI later cited reports that the cult was engaged in a sexual “blood-cleansing” rite in which a woman had sex with Mr. Moon three times to cleanse her blood from Satan’s linage. The woman could then cleanse her husband by having sex.

The cult first came to prominence after the 1961 military coup. According to a 1963 CIA report, the Unification Church was “organized” by General Kim Jong-pil, founder and first director of the South Korean CIA (KCIA). Mr. Kim, who later became prime minister, “has been using the Church, which has a membership of 27,000, as a political tool,” the report stated. Several South Korean military and intelligence officers joined the Unification Church, most notably Lieutenant-colonel Pak Bo Hi, the founding chairman of the conservative Washington Times.

Successive South Korean governments have denied any links to the Unification Church, yet many of its activities and business subsidiaries have required official licences, most notably the manufacture of rifles and machine guns for the South Korean military by Tong Il (”Unification”) Heavy Industries.

The cult has always tacked shifts in South Korean political wind. From being “organized” at the height of the Cold War to the Gotterdammerung at the end of the 1980s – the near simultaneous democratization of South Korea after two decades of rule by generals, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Seoul’s dramatic diplomatic openings to Moscow and Beijing – the Unification Church was always stridently anti-communist. Part of Yamagami’s lethal animus derives from Mr. Kishi’s partnering with Mr. Moon in the International Federation for Victory Over Communism, a rogues’ gallery of right-wing tyrants, cronies, gangsters and adventurers, founded in Seoul in 1968. When the regime changed in Seoul, and détente with Pyongyang was suddenly required, Pak Bo Hi and Mr. Moon were among the first to meet (and doubtless grease the palms) of dictator Kim Il-sung and son Kim Jong-il.

Without such thread of consistency, it is easy to get lost in the bizarre labyrinth of political leaders (usually retired), clergy and celebrities who have accepted Unification Church money to speak at conferences, or in the case of George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara, before stadium crowds of bused-in Moonies.

In 2021, both Mr. Abe and Donald Trump addressed a Unification Church “Rally of Hope.” Mr. Abe expressed “profound thanks” to Mr. Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han, “for your tireless efforts in resolving disputes around the world.”

My own interest in the Moonies was piqued during a visit to Seoul in the 1990s, when I found former British prime minister Edward Heath and former Canadian governor-general Ed Schreyer both sitting next to Mr. Moon on a ballroom podium at a conference in the Lotte Hotel. During an intermission, I asked Mr. Heath what he was doing there. He flew into a rage. “How dare you!” he shouted at me. He continued to appear at Moonie conferences, and at a birthday party for Mr. Moon.

After Mr. Moon’s death in 2012, a bitter family feud erupted over control of the church and its business empire. The widow controls the official church, but one of the sons, Hyung Jin, now heads a splinter cult called the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary Church, also known as the Rod of Iron Ministries, after a passage in the Book of Revelation. He preaches that AR-15 assault weapons are needed “to defend ourselves against an aggressive satanic world” and wears a crown formed from bullets. Followers train with AR-15s at the sect’s base in Newfoundland, Pa., and bring them to be blessed in worship. His brother Kook Jin owns a manufacturer of semi-automatic pistols, Kahr Arms, also based in Pennsylvania.

Hyung Jin has been touring Japan this month to drum up support for the Sanctuary Church. “I don’t think it has any future in Japan,” Prof. Sakurai told me. “Japanese people have a strong aversion to guns.”

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.