The shocking murder of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe initially seemed like the kind of event that pulls a country together, unifying the political spectrum in defence of the country’s democracy.
At first, that was what happened, but revelations in the wake of Mr. Abe’s murder about his and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the Unification Church – ties that allegedly motivated assassin Tetsuya Yamagami – have seen support for the government plummet and sparked protests over plans to hold a state funeral for Japan’s longest-serving prime minister.
Last week, a man in his 70s set himself on fire near a government office in Tokyo. A letter expressing “strong opposition” to the state funeral was found nearby.
Numerous polls show a majority of Japanese feel the same, while support for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s LDP – which has been in power since 2012 and run Japan for most of the past six decades – has dropped as low as 23 per cent.
“This is a natural response to just how poorly the LDP has responded to concerns about the church,” said Jeffrey Hall, special lecturer in Japanese studies at Japan’s Kanda University of International Studies. “This scandal is affecting the Abe faction, the most conservative members of the LDP, so it’s inevitably going to be tied into opinions about the state funeral.”
In interviews with police after he shot Mr. Abe in the western Japanese city of Nara in July, Mr. Yamagami reportedly said he was motivated by the former leader’s ties to the Unification Church – whose members are known as “Moonies” – a group he blamed for ruining his mother financially and breaking up their family.
Now officially the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church was founded by the late South Korean pastor Sun Myung Moon in 1954. It claims around 10 million followers globally, with some 600,000 members in Japan.
The Moonies are known for cultivating ties with conservative politicians around the world. In the U.S., it owns the right-wing Washington Times, and former president Donald Trump has spoken at church events.
In Japan, ties between the LDP and the church go back decades, including to Mr. Abe’s father, former Japanese foreign minister Shintaro Abe. The LDP benefited from the avowedly anti-Communist group’s support at election times, with church members forming a reliable conservative bloc for candidates across the country.
But while this connection was not secret, it was also not widely reported, particularly by the mainstream Japanese press. After Mr. Abe’s murder, the media has seized on the story, to the shock of many Japanese who were largely unaware of the church’s influence.
“The LDP tried very hard to avoid being publicly known as friends of the church,” Mr. Hall said. “Even since the start of this scandal they’ve only admitted to documented meetings with the church that are impossible to deny.”
This has caused significant embarrassment for many leading LDP politicians, who have denied links only to have to backtrack after evidence emerged. Earlier this month, amid intense pressure, the LDP conducted a survey of its 379 lawmakers, which it said found almost half had some form of interaction with the church, and at least 17 received election help.
“We take these results very seriously,” said Toshimitsu Motegi, the party’s secretary-general. “From now on, we will take thorough steps within the party to make sure nobody has connections with the Unification Church.”
The church said its political arm, the Universal Peace Federation, had courted lawmakers in the past, most of whom were from the LDP because of ideological proximity, but denied having any direct affiliation with the party.
Mr. Hall said the LDP survey was widely seen as “half-hearted,” relying as it did on self-reporting by politicians keen to avoid a scandal. And there is evidence that beyond depending on church volunteers, the connection to the Moonies may have pushed the already conservative LDP further to the right on key social issues such as sex education and gender rights.
Growing anger with the LDP has translated into opposition to commemorating Mr. Abe, particularly after the government said his funeral would be fully funded by the state, instead of split with his political party as in the case of previous leaders’ funerals.
Latest estimates put the total cost at around the equivalent of $15.6-million, which includes security and receptions.
Mr. Kishida has defended this decision repeatedly, pointing to Mr. Abe’s influence globally and the presence of foreign dignitaries at the event, but most voters remain unconvinced, with many questioning the need to hold such an expensive ceremony at a time of growing economic pain for ordinary citizens. Last week, Japan’s central bank intervened to prop up the yen for the first time since 1998, after the currency plummeted in value amid high inflation.
World leaders such as India’s Narendra Modi, and Australia’s Anthony Albanese are expected to attend the event on Tuesday, but many Japanese opposition lawmakers will stay away, as will the governors of Okinawa, Shizuoka and Nagano prefectures, according to local media.
Federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne will represent Canada at the state funeral. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had been scheduled to go, but cancelled those plans to oversee recovery efforts after post-tropical storm Fiona ravaged much of Eastern Canada and parts of Quebec.
Mr. Hall said the fallout of the revelations about the church could continue to dog the LDP long after Mr. Abe’s funeral. And while the next election is not until 2025, poor support could prevent Mr. Kishida’s administration from pursuing key goals such as reforming Japan’s pacifist constitution.
“Unless they take some kind of substantial action about the Unification Church, such as having certain politicians resign, potentially even including Kishida, this unpopularity will continue,” Mr. Hall said.
With a report from Reuters