In a rare move, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on October 17 instructed the Minister of Education to investigate the Unification Church, a religious organization heavily criticized by the public for its methods of collecting donations.
“The Prime Minister told me to start (the investigation) to solve the problem,” said Keiko Nagaoka, Minister of Education. “We are ready to start right away.”
Well, not quite.
The investigation will be conducted on the basis of the Religious Societies Act, which grants government authorities the “right to question” such societies. The church inquiry will be the first to use this right.
At the Lower House Budget Committee session later on October 17, Nagaoka said his ministry wanted to clarify in advance how it would proceed with the right to question the church.
The ministry will set up a panel of experts on religion, legal issues and religious corporations to get input on the issue.
She said the ministry will begin on Oct. 25 to study how to address the right to question and launch investigative procedures after gaining approval from the Religious Corporations Council, an advisory committee to the Minister of Education.
“We believe it is necessary to provide a response as soon as possible,” Nagaoka told the Diet session. “We will take steps to be able to exercise (the right to question) as soon as possible by the end of this year.”
The South Korea-based Unification Church, which has previously been criticized for its “spiritual sales”, could face a court order to disband its Japanese branch depending on the results of the investigation.
The Cultural Affairs Agency, under the Ministry of Education, has jurisdiction over registered religious societies, which receive tax incentives with this status.
A court order dissolving would strip the Unification Church of its corporate status. Although it can continue its religious activities, the organization would struggle to survive without the tax breaks.
As part of the investigation, authorities are expected to request reports on the operations and management of the church, which now officially calls itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
Authorities will review the reports for evidence of legal violations and other matters that may warrant a request for a court order for the church to be dissolved.
The church had been sued by former congregants demanding the return of money paid in “spiritual sales” of big-ticket items from the organization.
The church’s fundraising methods and its ties to politicians have come under the spotlight after the alleged assassin of former prime minister Shinzo Abe says his mother gave the family fortune to the church.
Many government officials remained cautious about taking action against the organization, citing freedom of religion.
However, Kishida’s Cabinet support ratings have plunged largely due to inaction against church activities.
Kishida told the Diet session on October 17, “The government will strictly deal with the issue of a religious society charged with social problems under the Religious Societies Act and other relevant laws.”
He cited court rulings on civil lawsuits against the church in 2016 and 2017 as the reason for ordering the investigation.
The prime minister also said that as of September 30, the police department, the government-affiliated Japan Legal Support Center and other entities had conducted more than 1,700 consultations regarding church-related issues.
“Although a great number of people have suffered and many families have crumbled and been broken up (by the church), measures to save the victims have not yet been sufficiently taken,” Kishida said. “The government takes this situation very seriously.
Kishida pledged to get to the bottom of the Unification Church through the investigation and to strengthen the organization’s victim support systems.
The “right to question” a religious society was incorporated into the revised Religious Societies Act, which came into effect in 1996, a year after the deadly sarin gas attack by the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo on the subway in Tokyo.
Aum Shinrikyo is one of only two religious corporations ordered to dissolve under the law.
If government authorities believe there are grounds to seek a court order to dissolve a religious society, they may request reports or responses from the organization based on the approval of the Council of Religious Societies.
But the authorities cannot interrogate those in charge of the premises of the religious corporation without their consent.