The “Former Unification Association” is big news in Japan at the moment. (NHK always refers to it like that (in Japanese)); its current official name in English is “Family Federation for World Peace and Unification”, while the popular name for the group is “the Moonies”. The reason it is big news is that Abe’s assassin said he was motivated by Abe’s links to the group, because the group had bankrupted his family by pressuring his mother to make an unreasonably large donation. The opposition parties picked up on this, and demanded an investigation into links between the former Unification Association and the ruling LDP, which developed into a formal investigation of the religious group itself.
First, I would like to say that I think this was, even by the admittedly low standards of Japanese politicians, a mind-bogglingly stupid response. They have just shown everyone with a grudge against an organisation with political links that the best way to get results is to assassinate a prominent politician. Of course, it will almost certainly not work next time, but that will be too late. I would have expected politicians’ considerations of self-interest, at least, to extend beyond point-scoring in the Diet next week, but apparently not.
Nevertheless, the investigation is happening, and it is significant for all religious organisations in Japan. The Japanese constitution guarantees religious freedom, and the law places strict limits on how much the state can interfere with religious groups. After Aum Shinrikyō released sarin on the Tokyo Metro in 1995, it was decided that the existing limits were a bit too strict, and the law on religious corporations was revised to give the state, specifically the Minister for Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, the authority to demand answers to certain questions from religious corporations, and to dissolve them if satisfactory answers were not forthcoming.
However, that power had never been used, and so the proposal to use it in this case was accompanied by discussion of the details. The law exists, of course, but it uses terms like “suspicion”, which are not entirely clear. A committee of university professors and religious leaders was convened to provide advice, and they reported on November 8th. That, in turn, was reported in the November 21st issue of Jinja Shinpō.
Their recommendations were that, first, general reputation and accusations by alleged victims should not be enough to establish “suspicion” in the legal sense. Rather, official investigations, such as court cases, must have found that the organisation, or its members, have engaged in illegal activities. One-off or unpredictable illegal actions are not enough; they have to be repeated and systematic. Further, even if a religious organisation is systematically going beyond its religious activities in an illegal way, that does not qualify if the consequences of the illegal activities are relatively minor. For example, if a jinja failed to pay taxes on the sales of food and drink in its cafe, that would be illegal, repeated, and systematic, but would probably not be grounds for the minister to seek to have the jinja dissolved as a religious corporation. (That is my example, not one from the article in Jinja Shinpō.) The chief priest of the jinja might well go to prison for tax evasion, but the jinja itself would survive.
In this case, the former Unification Association has lost multiple court cases and been required to pay over a billion yen in compensation, and the organisation itself has been found to bear at least some responsibility in 22 cases. The minister took this evidence to the committee, and they agreed that this was enough to open a formal investigation.
This is interesting from a religious freedom perspective, because it would seem that the global child abuse scandals involving the Catholic Church would give the Japanese government ample grounds to investigate the Japanese Catholic Church, and dissolve it if the prevalence of abuse in Japan turned out to be similar to that in, say, Boston. Obviously, this would be politically awkward, but there is a real problem for religious freedom if only marginal groups are targeted.
It is important to note that the government cannot ban the religion, or indeed the religious practice. It can only dissolve the religious corporation, seize its assets, and end the tax breaks the religion enjoyed. Going back to the Catholic example, we can see that it would be severely disruptive if all Catholic churches in Japan were seized by the government, along with all their movable property, and all priests and other staff fired. While priests who had not abused children could not be arrested for being priests, they would be out of a job, and have no spaces in which to hold mass. Even given the limits, this is still a serious threat.
In the case of the former Unification Association, the accusation is that they use psychological pressure (“maindo kontorohru”, in Japanese — sound it out) to force people to make excessive financial donations. Since every religious group I am aware of relies on donations to fund its activities, and religions work on the basis of psychological pressure, there is a definite risk of an overly-broad application here.
In the case of Aum Shinrinkyō, the leadership of the group ordered its members to commit mass murder. That would seem to warrant dissolving the whole group. But, going back to the Catholic example, while that is very bad, it does not seem to warrant the same sort of response. The abusive priests, and the hierarchy that protected them, were all acting against the principles of the Church and instructions of the leadership. A lot of people should go to jail, and probably be banned from holding any position in a religious corporation, but dissolving the Church just seems like the wrong sort of response. The activities of the former Unification Association seem to be, in individual cases, less bad than either of these, and the extent to which they were officially endorsed or required within the organisation has yet to be established. They should probably pay compensation, and some members probably ought to spend time in jail (but may not, as there may not be a law against extorting money from people with spiritual threats, or conning them out of it with spiritual promises — there is a draft bill under consideration to address this sort of activity), but given the importance of religious freedom, the whole group would really have to be a money-making scam before I would be convinced that dissolving it was the right response. (There is, apparently, a past case in which exactly that happened, but the courts seem to have shredded all the records of it. That was probably legal, and arguably obligatory, and this is another area where I suspect the regulations are going to be reviewed.)
The article in Jinja Shinpō finished by mentioning the other grounds on which the minister can dissolve a religious corporation: having no legal head, or having no site for performing religious rituals. There are quite a lot (low thousands, by my estimate) of jinja that fall foul of one or other of these, putting them theoretically at risk of being dissolved and having their assets seized. These powers have also not been exercised much, but the move to investigate the former Unification Association might indicate a more active policy in the future — and that would be of immediate concern to the Shinto world.