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Pathetic: Tokyo Copying Authoritarian States

Doug Bandow

American author maintains Kishida administration does a huge mistake in copying authoritarian states and banning religion.

The American Spectator: Tokyo copying authoritarian states The conservative American magazine The American Spectator, which normally covers news and politics, carried on 6th March 2024 an in-depth report titled “Unlikely Persecutor: Japan Threatens to Shut Unification Church”. It was penned by Doug Bandow, American political author and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, a Washington DC libertarian think tank.

The article subtitled “Religious liberty is at stake”, points out Japan appears to be “a vibrant, free environment for people of all faiths.” It has 180,000 registered faith societies with religious corporation status that enjoy government tax benefits.

Still, as Bandow emphasizes, recent developments may well lead to serious infringements on that liberty for more than one religious body. The Kishida administration has requested Tokyo District Court to issue a dissolution order against the Family Federation, formerly called the Unification Church. The court hearings began on 22nd February.

Family Federation of Japan HQ sign
Sign at the entrance of the headquarters of the Family Federation of Japan in Shibuya, Tokyo. Photo: FFWPU

The American Spectator warns,

“In effect, Japan’s democratic government would be impeding an international church with thousands of adherents from operating in its territory. Doing so also would create a legal weapon for use against other churches, especially ones disdained for being unconventional or targeted for being controversial.”

Bandow describes how the anti-religious activists behind much of the persecution in the USA used horrendous methods against what was then called the Unification Church,

“[…] for a time, the church gained unwanted attention from anti-cult activists and organizations. Although critics complained of high-pressure conversion tactics, the response – literally kidnapping new adherents, forcibly confining them, and browbeating them to give up their stated beliefs – was much worse. The controversy eventually disappeared and is largely forgotten today.”

Anti-religious activists orchestrating most of the persecution in Japan used those same methods, that became illegal in the USA and succeeded spreading a false narrative to the media. This in fact helped Tetsuya Yamagami, the 41-year-old who assassinated former prime minster Shinzo Abe, get his objectives realized. As Bandow writes,

“[…] but the murderer achieved his larger goal of injuring the Unification Church. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party stuck with an unpopular prime minister and poor poll ratings, decided to scapegoat the organization. It launched an investigation and, last year, proposed closing the church. Only two other churches have ever lost their religious status, one of which was the Aum Shinrikyo cult which staged a deadly Sarin attack on the Japanese metro in 1995. Today the case grinds on, with Tokyo attempting to do what authoritarian states routinely do, punish religious organizations out of public or government favor.

The American author is convinced that Tokyo’s plan to shut down the church is misguided for several reasons.

First, the legal system has previously proven effective in addressing similar issues. The problem of alleged pressured donations extends beyond Japan and the Unification Church, and specialized legal mechanisms have been developed in Japan to handle such cases. Assassin Yamagami’s grievance goes back more than 20 years and revolves around his belief that his mother’s contributions to the church impoverished the family. However, half of the money was returned in 2009, and it appears that the assassin failed to convince his mother of any mistreatment as she remains a member of the church. Furthermore, church practices have evolved over time, and until recently, fundraising tactics were not considered a political issue. Bandow points out that fundraising tactics,

“certainly were not seen as a problem that could not be resolved through normal legal means. It is bizarre to propose the most serious penalty imaginable, organizational destruction, based on complaints that are decades old.”

Shimbun Akahata logo
Logo of Shimbun Akahata

The second reason Bandow gives is what appears to be a politically motivated prosecution, with attacks coming from two widely different camps – the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). A journalist from the JCP’s daily Shimbun Akahata (Red Flag) wrote in November 2022,

“From the Communist Party’s point of view, this is the final war against the Unification Church.”

The LDP, in particular, faces scrutiny due to its historical ties with the Unification Church, and the public backlash against the LDP’s influence-peddling has led to blaming the church for its actions. However, this campaign is not driven by a pursuit of justice but rather by political agendas.

Fumio Kishida
Fumio Kishida 14th July 2022. Photo: 首相官邸 / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC Attr 4.0 Int. Cropped

Doug Bandow also gives a third reason the Kishida administration’s efforts to shut down the Unification Church is misguided: Even allegations of high-pressure fundraising do not warrant the church‘s closure, especially since the church has not been accused of criminal conduct. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida initially acknowledged that civil charges alone could not justify a shutdown before reversing his stance. Additionally, there is no substantial evidence suggesting that current or future complaints cannot be addressed through existing legal procedures.

If closure were ever justified for abusive practices, it would have been in cases of child abuse by Catholic priests, which involved criminal acts and systematic cover-ups by church leaders. However, even in those egregious cases, defrocking Catholic organizations was not seriously considered.

The fourth reason Bandow points out is that setting a precedent of closing down a church could have far-reaching consequences, potentially targeting other organizations based on dubious claims. This could undermine legitimate organizations and impede alternative means of addressing grievances, posing more harm than good. Doug Bandow explains,

“Some observers have suggested that the next target could be Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist movement that also has been called a cult. Except Soka Gakkai created the Komeito political party, which is in coalition with the ruling LDP and is therefore unlikely to be dissolved. Any large organization is likely to engage in some dubious practices that could become an excuse for punitive action. To pile civil claims upon one another, ignore alternative means of resolving legitimate complaints, and undermine otherwise legitimate organizations would threaten more harm than good.”

Attempting to close the Unification Church is particularly ill-advised when dealing with matters of religious faith, which warrant special protection from political interference. While Japan is not a country that mandates state-supported religion, the attempt to close the church represents an overreach of government authority for political gain.

The demagogic nature of the LDP’s campaign is evident in the public sympathy for Abe’s alleged assassin and the backlash against the victim. Japan, as a democracy that upholds the rule of law, has a responsibility to address abuses within religious organizations without resorting to discriminatory or punitive measures. Closing down the church should not be used as a pretext for such actions.

Doug Bandow served as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is also the author of “Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics” and “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire”.

Featured image above: Doug Bandow speaking at a conference on religious freedom in South Korea 12th November 2022. Photo: Screenshot from live transmission.

“Pathetic: Tokyo Copying Authoritarian States” – text: Knut Holdhus

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