Unification Church linked to Abe’s death, sounds alarm in China over cult group’s infiltration
Dangerous hand
Published: Jul 12, 2022 10:49 PM
A bride poses for a photo before a giant image of the late founder of Unification Church Sun Myung Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han before a mass wedding ceremony in Gapyeong on September 7, 2017. Photo: AFP

A bride poses for a photo before a giant image of the late founder of Unification Church Sun Myung Moon and his wife Hak Ja Han before a mass wedding ceremony in Gapyeong on September 7, 2017. Photo: AFP

The curtains have come down on former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the sobering end of his funeral. But the cloud of suspicion surrounding his assassination still looms large in the minds of many around the world. Sentiments of shock continue to be expressed at the fact that Japan's worst political assassination since World War II is related to a cult. 

On July 8, Abe was fatally shot while addressing a crowd at a campaign stop in Nara by a 41-year-old man identified as Tetsuya Yamagami, who confessed to the police that he "did not resent Abe's political beliefs," but that his resentment toward the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, known as the Unification Church, a religious movement founded in South Korea, turned into a desire to kill the former national leader.

Yamagami believed Abe had promoted a religious group to which his mother made a "huge donation," Kyodo news agency has said, citing investigative sources. His mother subsequently went bankrupt. 

The police investigation into the assassination prompted the head of the Japanese branch of the Unification Church to confirm on July 11 that Yamagami's mother is a member. 

Looking back on the history of the Unification Church, people have seen the specter of an extremist religious group looming over the political arena of Japan, South Korea, and even the US. 

In the mid-1960s, Abe's maternal grandfather and former Japanese Prime Minister, Nobusuke Kishi, would never have imagined that his association with Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the Unification Church, would sow the seed that eventually led to the death of his grandson.

Expansion of a cult

Moon founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. Within a year, about 30 church centers had sprung up. Moon began organizing the Unification Church on a large scale in the US in the early 1970s. He also sent his church emissaries to Japan in the early days when the Unification Church developed fast. He settled in the US in 1972.

One of the activities that the Unification Church likes to practice is mass weddings. Moon claimed that he can complete the unfulfilled task of Jesus: To restore humankind to a state of perfection by producing sinless children, and by blessing couples who would produce them. According to media reports, thousands of couples often attended such mass weddings. But those couples would only meet each other weeks prior and they went into marriage based on Moon's arrangement. Many had to remain separated for several years doing church work.

At the same time, Moon was particularly interested in politics. Church leaders plotted a strategy to defend former US President Richard M. Nixon for his role in the Watergate crisis and held rallies in support of him. In the late 1970s, Moon was embroiled in many scandals and was under investigation by US federal authorities mainly over allegations that he has ties to South Korean intelligence and was involved in bribing members of Congress to support President Park Chung-hee, according to a New York Times report.

Moon liked to court world leaders and politicians to advance the Unification Church and sometimes he behaved quite oddly. 

Moon, who spoke fluent Japanese, launched an anti-communist group in Japan in the late 1960s, the International Federation for Victory Over Communism, and built relations with Japanese politicians, according to the church's publications, Reuters reported. 

Nobusuke Kishi, Abe's maternal grandfather and a former prime minister, was an honorary executive chair at a group banquet hosted by Moon, the International Federation for Victory Over Communism said on its website.

In 2004, Moon had himself crowned "humanity's savior" in front of members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon, read the New York Times report.

Prominent people including the US president were paid to appear at Moon-linked conferences. "The first President George Bush did so after he left office. Others, like former President Gerald R. Ford, Bill Cosby, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, and Jack Kemp, attended banquets and gatherings, sometimes saying later that they had not known of a connection between Moon and the organizations that invited them," said the New York Times report.

The Unification Church has a long history of courting Republican officials as part of a propaganda campaign, according to media outlet The Independent. In September 2021, former US President Donald Trump appeared in a virtual address linked to the Unification Church. He praised the founders of the Unification Church. Abe also participated in the same event.

The Financial Times reported that for decades, close ties between the Unification Church in Japan and prominent figures in the governing Liberal Democratic Party have been an open secret in Japanese politics.

"The Unification Church has a strong capacity for brainwashing with propaganda and external expansion. Through the establishment of personal worship and an emphasis on donations for purposes of enrichment, meddling in private property distribution and marriage autonomy of the congregation, the group has garnered a loyal following," an expert on religion and security studies surname Zhou told the Global Times.

On the other hand, Zhou pointed out that, through generous political cash and mutual exploitation, the Unification Church has gradually gained a strong foothold in East Asia and the world.

Along with the expansion of the Unification Church was the growth of Moon's business empire. He was involved in many industries in South Korea and also had various commercial interests in Japan. Right-wing nationalist donors in Japan were said to be an important financial source. In the US, he had business interests in a range of fields including jewelry and construction, and bought properties including the New Yorker Hotel in Midtown Manhattan.

"In addition to spreading extremist ideas, the Unification Church also has a strong sense of modern business management, operating the religious group as a company, investing and expanding extensively in industry, finance, culture, education, media, and other industries, providing the basis for a 'virtuous' cycle of development for the expansion of its extremist ideology and political infiltration," Zhou said.

The church has about 600,000 members in Japan, out of 10 million globally, Reuters reported.

Thousands of couples attend a mass wedding held by the Unification Church on August 27, 2018 in Gapyeong, South Korea. Photo: VCG

Thousands of couples attend a mass wedding held by the Unification Church on August 27, 2018 in Gapyeong, South Korea. Photo: VCG

Conservative tone

During the Cold War, the Unification Church movement was criticized by the mainstream media for its anti-Communist activism.

In 2010, Moon bought the US-based media publication the Washington Times into the New World Communications, an international media conglomerate similar to Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox News. The conglomerate was directly affiliated with Moon's Unification Church, the US News reported.

The newspaper often plays up claims that the Chinese mainland will "invade" the island of Taiwan, for example, citing US officials who accuse the Chinese military of posing an "acute threat" to the island

The New York Times reported that Moon acknowledged that in the two decades since the founding of The Washington Times in 1982, he pumped in more than $1 billion in subsidies to keep it going.

In 2002, during the 20th anniversary party for the Washington Times, Moon said, "The Washington Times will become the instrument in spreading the truth about God to the world," the Washington Post reported in 2009.

Unification is a political concept, and the Unification Church, which uses this concept as its name, has always been a heretical religious organization with distinct political positions and intentions, Zhou noted.

Unification Church followers hold a memorial service mourning the death of their leader Sun Myung Moon in the church's Seoul headquarters on September 3, 2012.? Photo: AFP

Unification Church followers hold a memorial service mourning the death of their leader Sun Myung Moon in the church's Seoul headquarters on September 3, 2012.? Photo: AFP

Alarm bells

The cultist elements behind the Abe assassination have set off alarms in China, which has maintained a zero-tolerance attitude toward cults through various efforts.

The Unification Church has been classified as a cult since the 1990s in China. In May 1997, the Ministry of Public Security listed the Unification church as a cultic organization, according to, a website promoting China's anti-cult policies under the State Council.

The website states that the Unification Church has been infiltrating China since as early as the country's Reform and Opening-up in 1978 in the name of investment, sponsorship, and tourism, in a bid to take root in China and expand its influence.

In recent years, the cult's infiltration efforts have become more active in China. Its affiliated organization "International Education Foundation," for instance, carried out penetration activities in some cities in the name of cultural exchange and educational cooperation. The church also set up branches secretly in Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenyang, Xi'an, and other major cities to carry out illegal missionary activities. Sunmoon University also tried to absorb Chinese believers via cooperation with China's universities, said the website.

Currently in China, the Unification Church is among the list of 18 defined cultist organizations masquerading as Christian churches, according to

The cults share similar traits and modes of operation, such as deifying leaders or founders, promoting inhumane, antisocial, and immoral theories, and inciting the public to confront the larger society, Yan Kejia, director of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Religious Studies, told the Global Times. "The cults could easily confuse the public by taking advantage of religious beliefs and feudal superstition."

China has been cracking down on cults, especially since the late 1990s, Yan noted. "The efforts have been greatly beneficial. The campaigns against cults are widely understood and supported by the public and have brought a breath of fresh air to the society."

"The Abe incident proved that governments should pay great attention to issues surrounding cultic activities. It also reminds China that the work to fight cults should be consistently enhanced," he said.