TOKYO — The day before Shinzo Abe was killed, Tetsuya Yamagami sent a letter saying that the Unification Church had destroyed his life, “destroyed my family and drove it into bankruptcy.”
Mr. Yamagami’s mother had been a member of the Church for more than 20 years and made tremendous donations because of her family’s objections. “It’s no exaggeration to say that my experience with it during that time continues to warp my entire life,” he wrote to a blogger covering the church. The Japanese police have confirmed that he sent the letter.
The next day, Mr. Abe was dead, shot at close range with an improvised rifle while campaigning in the city of Nara.
Police have charged Yamagami with murder and said he was angry with a “certain group” and decided to attack Mr Abe, Japan’s former prime minister. Authorities have not named the group, but a spokesman for the Unification Church said Mr Yamagami was most likely referring to them. It remains unclear why Mr. Yamagami directed his hostility towards Mr. Abe.
The July 8 shooting has pushed the church’s legal issues back into the national dialogue, especially the battles with families who said they had been impoverished by large donations. Those payments were among the billions of dollars in revenue from Japan that helped fund much of the Church’s worldwide political and business ambitions.
In a 2016 verdict, a Tokyo civil court awarded more than $270,000 in damages to a church member’s former husband after she donated his inheritance, salary and pension funds to the group to “save him and his ancestors from damnation.” ‘.
In another 2020 civil case, a judge ordered the church and other defendants to pay damages to a woman after members convinced her that her child’s cancer was caused by family sins. On their advice, she spent tens of thousands of dollars on Church goods and services, such as researching her family history and purchasing blessings.
Last week, church officials said they made an agreement in 2009 with Ms. Yamagami’s family to repay 50 million yen, or about $360,000, in donations she’d made over the years. In an interview, Mr Yamagami’s uncle said she gave at least 100 million yen.
According to Hiroshi Watanabe, a lawyer who has negotiated some of them, many families have settled complaints against the church through arbitration agreements.
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Eri Kayoda, 28, grew up in a family devoted to the Unification Church.
She said her mother gave the church an inheritance and the proceeds from the sale of their house. The family had to squeeze into a tiny Tokyo apartment decorated with expensive Unification Church books and vases, which were thought to bring good luck, she said.
In high school, Ms. Kayoda said, she began to keep a close eye on her parents’ finances and persuade them to save for a car and a house. Her mother now donates modestly. While Ms Kayoda condemned Mr Abe’s shooting, she said she hoped it would draw attention to the “many cases of families destroyed”.
Susumu Sato, a spokesperson for the Unification Church in Japan, said some members had encouraged followers to donate excessively, but most donors were motivated by their faith.
“It seems unthinkable today, but those people believed in God,” said Mr. Sato, who feared church members would become scapegoats for Mr. abe.
Reverend Sun Myung Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. Five years later, he opened his first overseas branch, in Japan, which quickly became the Church’s largest source of income.
Mr Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, a former prime minister, appeared at events sponsored by a group Mr Moon had founded to fight communism. Decades later, in 2021, Mr. Abe via a video feed at a conference in Seoul sponsored by a Church-affiliated nonprofit, praising her “focus and emphasis on family values.”
Mr Moon, a staunch Korean nationalist, was educated in Japan while his own country lived under its colonial rule. His theology reflected his ambivalence toward Japan, describing it in his sermons as both a potential savior and a satanic force.
During visits, Mr. Moon told his Japanese followers that they were steeped in sin and urged them to sacrifice everything for the church.
“Each of you, by paying indemnity, must redress the sins committed by your ancestors throughout history,” he told a group of believers in 1973, instructing them to “shed blood, sweat, and tears.”
Hundreds of thousands answered his call. By the mid-1980s, billions of dollars in donations from Japanese families had poured into the Church’s treasury. mr. Moon used the money to build a sprawling business empire and network of nonprofits and media outlets, such as The Washington Times, which he used for political influence.
Families were asked to make constant donations and pay high fees for various religious services and leather-bound portions of Mr. Moon, according to court rulings handed down in subsequent civil lawsuits against the group.
Church-affiliated businesses sometimes used high-pressure sales tactics to raise even more money. Judgments from civil lawsuits describe how followers used ancestral curse warnings to sell products such as decorative vases imported from South Korea. The Church decided who her followers would marry and sent thousands of them—mostly women—abroad to become the husbands of Church members.
By the early 1990s, Mr. Moon in Japan peaked. In 1995, sarin gas attacks by members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious sect sparked a backlash against what are called new religions in the country. Suspicion of the Unification Church hardened as former followers published tell-all accounts and lawsuits began to mount.
The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, a group that has campaigned against the Church for decades, received complaints about it in the late 1980s. It eventually collected more than 34,000 and claimed damages of more than $900 million.
As criticism grew, the Unification Church went on the offensive, arguing that years of negative attention had led to the persecution of its followers. In one case, a young man, Toru Goto, was locked up in a Tokyo apartment for more than 12 years when relatives tried to deprogram him, following a civil suit he brought against his parents and others in the city.
In the spring of 2009, Tokyo police raided a church-affiliated company that forced customers to buy traditional seals, often used for documents, at high prices. The arrests resulted in fines against five employees and suspended prison terms for two executives.
Fearing that the Japanese government would revoke its legal status, the church announced new controls on recruiting and donating.
In the years since, the Church’s power and influence in Japan—as well as complaints against it—have waned. But “even now there are many people like Mr. Yamagami’s family,” said Yoshifu Arita, a member of parliament who has spoken out many times on the issue. “Japanese society just doesn’t see them.”
However, Mr. Yamagami never lost sight of the Unification Church. His mother’s actions had “plunged my brother, my sister and me to hell,” he wrote on Twitter account. The account name was in the letter he sent for Mr. Abe’s shooting.
Amid anti-Korean screeds, misogynistic musings on incel culture, and commentary on Japanese politics, the shelved account describes a painful childhood and seething anger at his mother’s allegiance to the Unification Church. He blamed the relationship on his own shortcomings in life.
mr. Yamagami was born into a wealthy family, but when he was 4, his father committed suicide. A decade later, his grandfather died suddenly, and no one could stop “my mother funneling money to the Unification Church,” Mr Yamagami wrote on Twitter.
She “wrapped our whole family in it and destroyed herself,” he wrote.
In the letter he sent before the shooting, Mr. Yamagami that for years he had dreamed of revenge, but had become convinced that an attack on the church would be useless.
mr. Abe is “not my enemy,” wrote Mr. Yamagami, “he is nothing more than one of the most powerful sympathizers of the Unification Church.”
But, he added, “I no longer have the luxury of contemplating the political significance or consequences that Abe’s death will entail.”