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The Essence of Japan’s Religious Liberty Crisis

Dr. Massimo Introvigne on religious liberty crisis

The Religious Liberty Crisis in Japan after the Assassination of Shinzo Abe – 2022 to 2024

A speech by Dr. Massimo Introvigne, founder of CESNUR, an independent network of scholars, and editor-in-chief of Bitter Winter, a magazine on religious liberty and human rights. The speech was given 12th April 2024, the second day of an international online 3-day conference on “Peace and Public Leadership: Addressing the Challenges of Our Times”, organized by HJ International Graduate School for Peace and Public Leadership, New York, USA.

Assassinated on 8th July 2022. Here, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe some months earlier, in March 2022. Photo: English: United States Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel / Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image. Cropped

I would like to start by asking you to do a mental experiment and go back to the morning of 8th July 2022. For us who are in the field of defending religious liberty and studying religious movements, it was a morning like many others. When we woke up, we would know that as on any other day, believers would suffer for their faith in several parts of the world.

Several would go to jail in China or Russia or Iran or North Korea. Some may be tortured or killed. And perhaps devotees of religious minorities would once again be attacked by mobs in Pakistan or Nigeria.

But what we surely did not know, nor could imagine, was that one of the worst religious liberty crises, and certainly the worst in a democratic country in our century was about to erupt in a most unlikely place – Japan.

We all love and admire Japan for its rich culture, religious traditions and effective democracy. And also in the past, Japan has proved its capacity not to succumb to emotions when in 1995 the rogue leaders of the new religious movement Aum Shinrikyo perpetrated a terrorist attack in the Tokyo subway and committed other crimes. They were identified and punished.

But a push that general laws would be enacted punishing new religious movements in general were rejected by politicians and by most Japanese media.

The Unification Church – I will use this name for short, even if I know it’s now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification – has run into problems since the 1980s. The real root of those problems was the Unification Church’s anti-communist political activists and its very effective political activity which also had electoral consequences.

IFVOC campaign 1969
From a 1969-campaign aimed at Japanese students, organized by International Federation for Victory over Communism (IFVOC), an anti-communist organization associated with the Unification Church. Photo: IFVOC

For this reason, in 1987, lawyers, mostly belonging to the Socialist or the Communist Party, established an anti-Unification Church organization called National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales.

“Spiritual sales” was a nickname created by those lawyers to denounce the activities not of the Unification Church as a church, but of a private company called Happy World whose members were devotees of the Unification Church.

And they were selling seals, small pagodas and other artifacts for very high prices, claiming they would bring good luck or grant advantages to one’s relatives in the afterlife. And since they were members of the Unification Church, they donated part of their profits to the Unification Church.

And the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales used those practices to mount an attack against the Unification Church in general. But again, the Japanese society proved its capability to resist.

The National Network of Lawyers called several times for the dissolution of the Unification Church and even sued the government on the issue. But the lawyers’ requests were always turned down, and by the morning of 8th July 2022, this was largely a problem of the past.

A new law on sales of spiritual items and donations had been passed. The Unification Church had announced its intention of complying with it. The company Happy World no longer existed.

And the number of complaints received by the consumer authorities against the Unification Church for new incidents had decreased from hundreds per year in the 20th Century to less than ten in the 21st Century and almost to zero by 2022.

So in July 2022, there was no Unification Church problem in Japan. There were no so-called spiritual sales problems in Japan. Those problems had existed in the past and had largely been solved.

Assassination of Shinzo Abe
The immediate aftermath of the assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in the vicinity of Kintetsu Yamato-Saidaiji station northern entrance on 8th July 2022. Photo: Tokumeigakarinoaoshima / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 4.0 Int

However, all changed on 8th July 2022, when a man called Tetsuya Yamagami assassinated the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

And soon, in murky circumstances, the information was leaked that the motivation of the killer was to punish Shinzo Abe for having been friendly to the Unification Church. That happened because his mother, the mother of the assassin, had gone bankrupt 20 years earlier, in 2002, while the killer acted in 2022.

This is significant and we can discuss it later. Rather than blaming the killer in Japan, the National Network was able to launch a huge campaign against the Unification Church, which basically led to three consequences.

Circled number 1 An action for dissolving the Unification Church, which the government started by changing its own interpretation of the law, which had always maintained that only groups committing crimes could be dissolved. While the Unification Church had only lost some civil cases.

Circled number 2 A law affecting all religions was passed, severely limiting the possibility of soliciting donations and offering to donors the possibility of recovering their gifts even after many years, claiming they had been brainwashed.

Circled number 3 Regulations were passed about children, limiting the possibility for parents to socializing their children in controversial religions, with provisions targeting not only the Unification Church, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups.

In conclusion, what started as a campaign against the Unification Church has now escalated to a campaign which puts religious liberty in Japan in danger in general, as some of the provisions target all kinds of conservative religions.

I have defined before what is happening in Japan as the worst religious liberty crisis in the world in democratic countries.

I made this statement several months ago, and I should say today that the situation is not getting better. Every day it is getting even worse.

Thank you!

“The Essence of Japan’s Religious Liberty Crisis” – this is a slightly edited version of Dr. Massimo Introvigne’s speech 12th April 2024.

Featured image above: Dr. Massimo Introvigne, here on 6th April 2023. Photo: FOREF. Published with permission 

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