Shinzo Abe assassination stirs surprise backlash against the former leader

Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida. (AP)
Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida. (AP)


  • As world leaders arrive in Japan for state funeral, revelations about ruling party’s ties to church founded by the late Rev. Moon Sun-myung weaken Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

Few in Japan anticipated the events of July 8, when a man with a homemade gun walked up behind former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a rally and shot him to death.

The political reverberations in the months since have been almost as surprising.

While tributes to Japan’s longest-serving prime minister poured in from overseas, at home the killing has led to revelations about the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ties to the church founded by the late Rev. Moon Sun-myung—ties that were nurtured by three generations of politicians in Mr. Abe’s family.

Mr. Abe’s reputation has taken a hit, and polls show that more than half of the public opposes the state funeral for him on Tuesday, which will be attended by world leaders including Vice President Kamala Harris. The polls also show that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who won office last year with Mr. Abe’s support and ordered the funeral to be held, is suddenly in trouble, with more voters opposing his cabinet than supporting it.

That is a problem not only for Mr. Kishida but also for U.S. priorities in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington is counting on Japan as a steadfast ally while China threatens to invade Taiwan and North Korea carries out missile tests, the latest of which happened Sunday. U.S. officials say they don’t want to deal with a revolving-door stream of weak prime ministers.

“Mr. Abe had a clear vision for the nation and put a lot of effort into diplomacy and defense. He was a rare case among Japanese politicians," said Komaki Matsuda, a writer who studied at Japan’s defense university and covered Mr. Abe as a journalist. “That’s why he was praised abroad."

But at home, Ms. Matsuda said, the economy’s uneven performance and frequent allegations that Mr. Abe used the levers of government to favor his friends—which Mr. Abe denied—left many voters cold. They were receptive to the new allegations about Mr. Abe and the church, polls suggest.

The suspect in the killing, Tetsuya Yamagami, wrote in comments on a blog and in a letter to a blogger that he believed his family was ruined when his mother joined the Rev. Moon’s Unification Church, now known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Mr. Yamagami, who turned 42 this month, wrote that he believed he could get revenge on the church by harming Mr. Abe.

Mr. Abe’s grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, supported an anticommunist group allied with the church, according to books and articles from the 1960s and 1970s, and the connection continued under Mr. Abe’s father, also a leading politician. More recently, Mr. Abe spoke to sister organizations of the church after he stepped down as prime minister in 2020. Mr. Abe’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The church had long drawn criticism in Japan over accusations that it extracted large sums from its followers by selling religious items. Mr. Yamagami’s uncle said the suspect’s mother gave the equivalent of more than $700,000 to the church and had to declare bankruptcy in 2002.

A church lawyer at a news conference Thursday confirmed the donation and agreed it was excessive. The church has said overzealous followers, not the church itself, were responsible for the problems of that era, and it says it has mostly curbed abuses since a 2009 overhaul.

While no one across the political spectrum has condoned the violence that took Mr. Abe’s life, some people have expressed sympathy for Mr. Yamagami, whose troubled life included the deaths by suicide of his father and older brother. The suspect is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation and hasn’t been charged.

His uncle said in an interview that donations of food, clothes and other items have been pouring into the detention center where Mr. Yamagami is held.

News of the shooting has been replaced by daily reports about ties between the church, Mr. Abe and the ruling party. Under pressure, Mr. Kishida ordered a review that found nearly half of the Liberal Democratic Party’s members of Parliament had some church links.

Most of them were minor, such as sending greetings to a church event. A few went deeper, and some involved people close to Mr. Abe. His brother, former Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, said volunteers from the church worked on his election campaigns.

There is nothing illegal about such support, though Mr. Kishida has essentially conceded the critics’ main argument—that in light of longstanding concerns about the church’s fundraising practices, lawmakers should have severed all ties with it. He said at an Aug. 31 news conference that the ruling party is now ordering members to do so.

During his long term in office, Mr. Abe’s opponents dug up what they viewed as scandal after scandal, baroque affairs that spawned books and a movie but no clear picture of what he personally had done wrong. Mr. Abe typically denied favoring his friends or called any slip-ups inadvertent.

The criticism has only deepened since July 8, without Mr. Abe around to rebut it. Secretary-General Katsuya Okada of the leading opposition group, the Constitutional Democratic Party, said he intends to use the revelations about the church to battle the ruling Liberal Democrats.

“The roots of the Unification Church issue run extremely deep," Mr. Okada said. “We have an organization engaged in antisocial activities influencing politics, and Mr. Abe seems to be at the center of that. All of this must be brought to light."

Revising the constitution to provide clearer support for the military—a cause dear to Mr. Abe that Mr. Kishida adopted—has moved to the back burner because the prime minister lacks the political capital to push it through, analysts said.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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