woman at ceremony in front of line of people

Contempt for the messiah: The scandal behind Shinzo Abe’s murder

A messianic sect holds sway with Japan’s ruling party. The murder of ex-premier Shinzo Abe is forcing the country to reckon with this shadowy alliance.

The World

Editor’s note: This story aired in two parts. To listen to part one, click on the audio player above. The second part is below:

Strange noises emanated from his apartment: grinding, clanking metallic sounds that kept the neighbors awake at night. They had no idea that Tetsuya Yamagami, a 41-year-old living alone, was inside fashioning a DIY shotgun from aluminum pipes, nine-volt batteries and homemade gunpowder.

He’d eventually use that weapon to assassinate Japan’s most prominent politician: former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

But Abe was not his original target.

Yamagami wanted to murder a self-proclaimed messiah.

Hak Ja Han Moon calls herself “God’s only begotten daughter,” a female successor to Jesus Christ. Disciples believe she and her late husband, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, are a new-and-improved Adam and Eve, sent to restore the world to an Eden-like state.

At 79, Mrs. Moon still leads the sect, commonly known as the Unification Church. But her salvation isn’t free. The Moons’ holy scripture states to followers: “Why are you thinking of donating an amount that is not even worth a meal for lunch? You should be offering your entire life’s assets.”

Yamagami’s mother, a devout believer, did as the messiah bade. Over the years, she donated roughly $700,000, bankrupting the family. Yamagami, once an excellent student, had in recent years resorted to low-end factory work. This “cult,” he wrote in a letter, “has distorted my whole life.”

But Yamagami couldn’t reach Mrs. Moon, who lives in the US. So, he settled for killing Abe.

On July 8, as the politician addressed a small crowd in the city of Nara, near Osaka, Yamagami walked up and shot him — twice. Yamagami was tackled and arrested. He quickly confessed.

The assassination stunned Japan, which has extremely low gun crime rates. In its aftermath, the crime was widely deemed “senseless,” the work of a lunatic. An op-ed in The Washington Post likened Yamagami to John Hinckley Jr., the American who shot former US President Ronald Reagan in 1981 just to impress the actress Jodie Foster.

But Yamagami’s rage made perfect sense to Unification Church defectors. They’ve long wondered: Why does no one know, or care, that Abe and other political elites are so cozy with this cult?

“Of course, what Yamagami did was wrong,” said Keiko Kaburagi, a defector in her late 40s. “But what led him to take that action? His experience is identical to my own.”

As a teenager, Kaburagi was also swept into the faith by her mother, who dumped the family’s savings into the church’s coffers. Kaburagi calls it a “fear-based” religion, threatening damnation against those who refuse its commands. Japanese worshippers are shamed for the sins of their forebears: colonizing Korea (home of the church’s headquarters) and, during World War II, forcing Korean women into sexual slavery.

“They teach us Korea is the Adam nation and Japan is the Eve nation,” Kaburagi said. “As Eve, Japan must now play the feminine role, nurturing Adam with money.”

Kaburagi became an apostate in 2012 when church founder Sun Myung Moon died. She recently published a book about leaving the organization.

“He was supposed to work miracles. But he just died from pneumonia like any ordinary man.”

Her self-described “brainwashing” wore off, she said, and, after defecting, she took steps to protect her identity. Keiko Kaburagi is not her given name. She changed it to avoid persecution by the church, which, in her view, is a dangerous and frighteningly well-connected organization. Just look at who their friends are, she said.

One of Mrs. Moon’s events last year was co-headlined by former US President Donald Trump and Abe, both of whom praised her “tireless efforts” around the world. Before Abe’s death, few people in Japan knew the church was linked to Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party or LDP, which has dominated Japanese politics for seven decades.

But Kaburagi knew.

“Followers would receive messages on our mobile phones, telling us to vote for certain people.”

And if they preferred an alternative candidate?

“No one would react that way. Whatever the church says is absolute.”

Abe was the “lynchpin” connecting Japan’s ruling party and the Unification Church, according to Koichi Nakano, a political scholar at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Neither Abe nor other high-ranking party stalwarts actually believed the Moon gospel. But they were quick to praise the Moons — usually behind closed doors — to lock in votes from roughly 100,000 adherents in Japan. In a country with low voter turnout, that’s enough to tilt an election.

“In more recent years, they’ve also been training and providing secretaries to certain politicians,” Nakano said. “Electoral campaign staff, too. It’s all about votes, funding and manpower.”

And what has the church received in return?

This is the subject of an ongoing government probe, one that has already revealed that half of the ruling party’s lawmakers have ties with the church — a fact Nakano called “shocking.” Critics of the Moon sect insist its political patrons guarantee perks: tax-exempt religious status and possibly lawmakers discouraging police from investigating their heavy-handed tactics.

The current premier, Fumio Kishida, vows to totally sever the Liberal Democratic Party’s ties with the sect. The government has not ruled out dissolving the church completely — a move that would please certain sectors of the public.

“Their central dogma,” Nakano said, “has to do with ripping people off. Sorry to put it this way. But that’s what they do.”

The Moonists, meanwhile, insist their crusade must go on. Among them: Se-ta Funato, a Japanese devotee who spreads the gospel on YouTube. (He prefers to go by Se-ta.)

At 22, Se-ta has the fresh-faced, exuberant demeanor of a counselor at a Christian summer camp.

“Maybe it’s difficult for people to understand,” Se-ta said. “But our essence is all about spreading love.”

Se-ta grew up in the church, praying to a portrait of the messiahs in a special altar room in his house. As a child, he couldn’t fathom why his father, working for a vending machine company, donated so much money to the church.

“I couldn’t ask for toys or even snacks. I had to suppress those desires.”

But as an adult, he understands. Only those sanctified as “True Children” of the Moons will enter heaven. Though the “True Father” Sun Myung Moon has ascended to the spirit world, the “True Mother” remains on Earth to incite her disciples into action — often with stern admonitions.

“Mothers should not just be loving and tender-sweet,” Moon said to followers at a speech in New York earlier this year. “Mothers should be able to spank.”

The late Mr. Moon was no coddler either. He castigated adherents who did not save enough souls, even commanding them to “liberate” their deceased ancestors from damnation in the afterlife through a special ceremony. Only the church could perform it — for a fee.

“Wait and see. If you go to the spiritual world without offering the ancestors a liberation ceremony,” Mr. Moon said, “your ancestors … will wring your neck. They’ll say, ‘You idiot. What have you done on Earth?’”

In Japan, praying to ancestors is a deeply ingrained practice, even among those who self-describe as nonreligious. The Moon sect taps into this belief, teaching disciples that unsaved ancestors can sow misfortune among the living, causing sickness, accidents, even marital infidelity.

“Whoever is not a member of our church, whether it’s people around us or our own ancestors, they will all go to hell,” Se-ta said. “It’s our job to help them … but in order to send them to heaven, you need to pay.”

Spiritual deliverance is not cheap. Saving seven generations on both sides of a worshipper’s family, paternal and maternal, runs more than $9,000 in Japan. Saving every ancestor going back 200 generations runs more than $40,000. “Blessings” for dead predecessors are sold separately.

Asked why the church doesn’t conduct these rituals for free, Se-ta cited the Bible.

“Maybe you’ve heard about Abel and Cain,” he said, referring to the sons of Adam and Eve. “In their time, they’d offer up a sheep, because livestock was valuable to them. But in modern times, it’s necessary to sacrifice money.”

This is the belief that drove Yamagami, the assassin, to his breaking point. His mother has long endured great misfortune. Her husband, Yamagami’s father, committed suicide in the 1980s. Another son suffered cancer in the 1990s. All the while, she kept donating, driving the family to hunger. In 2005, Yamagami reportedly tried to take his own life, hoping to trigger an insurance payout to his broke siblings.

Though Abe was perhaps Japan’s most popular politician in a generation — no prime minister served longer — there’s been a remarkable dearth of public rage toward his killer.

“Public sentiment is more focused on venting anger at the LDP,” Nakano said, “and the protection they provided the Unification Church.”

Yet, the ruling party has so far refused a third-party investigation into its semi-secret alliance with the Moonists.

“The official line,” Nakano said, “is, ‘We’re not doing an investigation. We’re just doing a checkup. We’ll ask each member to tell us about their ties.’”

Kishida, the current premier, appears reluctant to humiliate party stalwarts who could easily vote to replace him.

The “checkup” system, Nakano said, “is like asking thieves, ‘Did you steal anything?’”

It’s possible, he said, “that we may never really get the full picture.”

Even if the Moon sect’s political protectors prove loyal, the church’s future in Japan looks grim.

Se-ta, a member of the youthful vanguard, concedes that “it’s going to be really difficult” to convert new followers.

“Some believers have already decided to leave. Our public image could not be worse than right now.”

Though it’s unseemly to admit, the assassin made headway toward his goal: disgracing the church and illuminating its vast patronage web.

As a disciple of the “True Mother,” Se-ta would have every reason to revile anyone who once plotted on her life. But he doesn’t. Asked if he’d like to say anything to Yamagami, he spoke of Christian forgiveness.

“He’s a complete stranger. But as a fellow second-generation kid, I feel sorry for him,” Se-ta said. “I’d just tell him, ‘Hey man, life must’ve been hard for you.’”

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