Japanese PM shakes up cabinet amid anger over Unification Church ties | Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has sacked ministers associated with the Unification Church in a cabinet reshuffle aimed at reviving his fortunes amid public outcry over his party’s ties to the religious movement .

The shakeup comes just over a month after Shinzo Abe was murdered by a man who said he targeted the former prime minister over his ties to the church, which he blamed for the financial ruin of his family.

Abe, who was shot during a campaign speech, had sent telegrams and a congratulatory message to a church-affiliated group, which has been criticized as operating as a cult driven by financial gain. Its members are colloquially known as the Moonies.

The fallout from his death revealed long-standing links between members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Kishida, with several senior figures, including ministers, confirming that they had attended religious events.

The most significant victim of Wednesday’s reshuffle, which came a month earlier than expected, was Defense Minister – and Abe’s younger brother – Nobuo Kishi, who admitted that members of the Church of Unification campaigned on his behalf.

Media reported that Kishi was fired due to health issues, although he would advise Kishida on national security. A total of seven ministers who revealed ties to the church – which now refers to itself as the Federation of Families for World Peace and Unification – have been reshuffled, including industry minister Kōichi Hagiuda, who was transferred to a key post in the party.

Despite the personnel changes, the new cabinet has a familiar look. Most of the ministers are men over 60, and only two are women, including Sanae Takaichi, an ultra-conservative and Abe loyalist who was named economic security minister.

The Unification Church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by self-proclaimed messiah Sun Myung Moon, has been active in Japan since being encouraged to join the country’s anti-communist movement by Abe’s grandfather and post-war Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

The relationship has been mutually beneficial: association with politicians helps the church gain new followers and an aura of respectability, while candidates can call on followers to help mobilize votes.

While the LDP and the church share conservative views on some issues – they both oppose same-sex marriage and support changes to Japan’s “pacifist” constitution – party general secretary Toshimitsu Motegi said recently that the LDP and the church did not have a “systemic relationship”. ”.

The organization’s leader in Japan, Tomohiro Tanaka, admitted the church had partnered with individual politicians, mostly within the LDP, but denied doing so to avoid scrutiny of its controversial methods of recruitment and fundraising.

“Since our inception, we have always taken a firm stance against communism,” Tanaka said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“We continue to take steps in the same direction with people who want to protect democracy and who share our vision of what Japan should be. All we do is join forces to create a better country with politicians who take a stand against communism.

Tanaka denied that the church educates its members on how to vote in elections. “We encourage them to be active in politics and elections, but we don’t ask them to support any particular party.”

In the wake of the revelations, the LDP’s ties to the church extend far beyond Abe, Kishida’s approval ratings have plummeted below 50% – their lowest level since he took office. took office last October.

“He’s basically damage control,” Atsuo Ito, a political commentator, said of Kishida’s reshuffle. “What people are really looking at is the Unification Church.”

Kishida urged new cabinet members and party officials to “review thoroughly” their ties to the church to regain public trust.

Support for Kishida, who said he had no ties to the church, fell to 46% from 59% three weeks ago, according to a poll by public broadcaster NHK. Most interviewees said politicians did not sufficiently explain their ties to the church.

“Criticism of the Unification Church caused a sharp decline in public support for the administration and halting that decline was a major reason for proposing reshuffling of the cabinet and key party posts,” he said. said Shigenobu Tamura, a political commentator who previously worked for the LDP.

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The scandal overshadowed plans to hold a state funeral for Abe next month. Opinion polls show a slight majority oppose the event, with many opposing the use of taxpayers’ money to honor a politician known for his differing views on security and the conduct of the Japan in wartime.

Abe murder suspect Tetsuya Yamagami has told police his mother bankrupted the family after making donations to the church worth around 100m yen (£600,000) .

Agencies contributed to this article

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