A divisive political figure in life, Shinzo Abe’s violent death on July 8th has inevitably divided Japan. Some are already grumbling about paying for a state funeral in September (the first since 1967) for a former prime minister whose legacy is still deeply disputed. The key element in his murder, however, appears to have been religion, not politics.
Abe’s presumed killer, Tetsuya Yamagami (41), was apparently driven by hatred of the Unification Church. Smart and ambitious, his road to middle-class prosperity was blocked when his widowed mother drained the family purse in service to a cult. According to family sources, she donated about 100 million yen (€715,000), including insurance money from her husband’s death, to the church.
Better known as the Moonies, the Unification Church claims to have about 600,000 followers in Japan. Family members say Yamagami’s distraught mother joined in 1991 after the suicide of her husband. An uncle told the media that the once prosperous clan fell into poverty, and her son had to scrap plans to attend university. “He was extremely smart just like his father ... and hardworking, too,” said the uncle. “I only have good memories of him.”
The church has tried to distance itself from claims that it bankrupted the Yamagami family. Tomihiro Tanaka, the head of its Japanese branch, confirmed that Mrs Yamagami was a member, but denied extorting money from her. The Moonies have since insisted they returned much of the cash. A group of lawyers fighting the church for the return of hundreds of millions of dollars in donations says both of those claims are false.
Either way, a picture emerges of a man who grew angry at his reduced station in life. Relatives have recalled phone calls from a young Tetsuya Yamagami and his two hungry siblings, demanding food. Instead of going to university, he joined the Maritime Self-Defence Force (Japan’s navy) in 2002, the year his mother declared bankruptcy. Thereafter, he slid down the social ladder and was unemployed and living in a one-room flat when he was arrested for Abe’s murder. Friends recall him being depressed and crying bitterly at his brother’s funeral.
The assassination has highlighted long-standing links between the Moonies and right-wing politics. The South Korean church, founded in 1954 by Rev Sun Myung Moon, a self-professed messiah, has invested heavily in conservative causes, much of this financed by selling religious baubles in Japan. Fiercely anti-communist, it set up the Washington Times newspaper in 1982 as a platform for anti-liberal views and forged ties with a string of conservative American leaders, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush.
Last year Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe both gave back-to-back recorded speeches to a meeting of the Universal Peace Federation, an affiliate of the church. Though neither were members, both praised the group’s work fighting for peace and “family values”. Abe warned against progressive politics, saying: “Let’s be aware of so-called social revolutionary movements with narrow-minded values.”
In the wake of Abe’s murder, journalists have begun again peering into ties between the church and the Liberal Democratic Party, the party Abe once led and which has governed Japan for all but a few years since 1955. One of the party’s elders, Abe’s grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, was a former prime minister who some experts credit with bringing the church to Japan. Politicians in Japan and America saw the church as a way to promote anti-communist views and win votes.
Yamagami has told police he originally intended to kill Hak Ja Han Moon, co-founder of the church, but switched targets after Moon’s visits to Japan were curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Abe’s video message to the Universal Peace Federation, which was condemned by lawyers for the families of ex-cultists, may have sealed his fate. It is not difficult to imagine Yamagami bristling with resentment at Abe, and not just for his alleged links to the church.
A third-generation politician, Abe had been groomed for power. His father, Shintaro Abe, was a former minister for foreign affairs. Shinzo Abe inherited not just wealth but social capital, says Kaori Hayashi, a professor at the University of Tokyo. “Yamagami’s life with all its ordeals was such a contrast to Abe’s. We’re told we are a homogenous, harmonious society so it is a shock to find out that we are not.”