Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, has removed ministers associated with the Unification church in a cabinet reshuffle aimed at reviving his fortunes amid a public outcry over his party’s ties to the religious movement.
The reshuffle comes just over a month after the murder of Shinzo Abe by a man who has said he targeted the former prime minister over his links to the church, which he blamed for his family’s financial ruin.
Abe, who was shot dead during a campaign speech, had sent telegrams and a congratulatory message to a group affiliated to the church, which has been criticized as operating like a cult motivated by financial gain. Its members are colloquially known as Moonies.
The fallout from his death has exposed longstanding ties between members of Kishida’s ruling Liberal Democratic party (LDP), with several senior figures, including cabinet ministers, confirming they had attended church events.
The most prominent casualty of Wednesday’s reshuffle, which took place a month earlier than expected, was the defense minister – and Abe’s younger brother – Nobuo Kishi, who acknowledged that members of the Unification church had campaigned on his behalf.
Media reports said Kishi was let go due to health problems, although he will reportedly advise Kishida on national security. In all, seven ministers who have disclosed ties to the church – which now refers to itself as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification – were reshuffled, including the industry minister, Kōichi Hagiuda, who was moved to a key party position.
Despite the personnel changes, the new cabinet has a familiar look. Most of the ministers are men aged over 60, and only two are women, including Sanae Takaichi, an ultraconservative and Abe loyalist who has been made economic security minister.
The Unification church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by the self-declared messiah Sun Myung Moon, has been active in Japan since it was encouraged to join the country’s anti-communist movement by Abe’s grandfather and postwar prime minister, Nobusuke Kishi.
The relationship has been mutually beneficial: associating 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 – the party’s secretary general, Toshimitsu Motegi, recently said the LDP and the church had no “systemic relationship” ”.
The organization’s leader in Japan, Tomohiro Tanaka, conceded that the church had associated with individual politicians, mostly in the LDP, but denied it had done so to avoid scrutiny over its controversial recruitment and fundraising methods.
“Ever since we were established, we have consistently taken a strong 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 kind of country Japan should be. All we are doing is joining hands to make a better country with politicians who take a stance against communism.”
Tanaka denied that the church instructs its members on how to vote in elections. “We encourage them to be active in politics and elections, but we do not ask them to support a particular party.”
Revelations the LDP’s ties with the church extend well beyond Abe have seen Kishida’s approval ratings plummet to below 50% – their lowest level since he took office last October.
“He’s basically doing damage control,” Atsuo Ito, a political commentator, said of Kishida’s reshuffle. “What people are really watching is the Unification church.”
Kishida has urged new cabinet members and party officials to “thoroughly review” their links to the church to regain public trust.
Support for Kishida, who has said he has no connections to the church, has fallen to 46% from 59% just three weeks ago, according to a poll by the public broadcaster NHK. Most of the respondents said politicians had not sufficiently explained their ties to the Unification church.
“Criticism over the Unification church caused a big drop in public support for the administration and stopping that decline was a big reason for bringing forward the reshuffle of the cabinet and major party positions,” said Shigenobu Tamura, a political commentator who previously worked for the LDP.
The scandal has overshadowed plans to hold a state funeral for Abe next month. Opinion polls show a slight majority oppose the event, with many objecting to the use of taxpayers’ money to honor a politician known for his divisive views on security and Japan’s wartime conduct.
The suspect in Abe’s killing, Tetsuya Yamagami, has told police that his mother had bankrupted the family after making donations to the church worth around ¥100m (£600,000).
Agencies contributed reporting to this article
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism