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Japan's government asks court to revoke legal status of Unification Church

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Japan's government has asked a court to revoke the legal status of the Japan branch of the Unification Church, the controversial group founded in South Korea by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul that the government's unusual move was set in motion by a shocking crime last year.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Japan's education minister, Masahito Moriyama, announced the government's decision yesterday. He said that a government investigation found that the church's Japan branch had manipulated and coerced its followers for decades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MASAHITO MORIYAMA: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "The group has long restricted many of its members' ability to freely make decisions," he said, "and forced them to make donations and purchase goods while they were not in a condition to make sound decisions." This is only the third time Japan's government has sought the dissolution of a religious group. Unlike this case, the other two involved criminal charges, including against the Aum Shinrikyo sect, which staged a gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. This time, the government was prompted to act by the death of ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was gunned down in the street while campaigning last July.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

KUHN: Abe's alleged assassin claimed his family's donations to the church bankrupted them. Abe's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, has long relied on the church to mobilize its followers to help them at election time.

LEVI MCLAUGHLIN: Always below the surface in Japan, there's a great deal of anxiety about the relationship between religion and government.

KUHN: Levi McLaughlin is an expert on religion in Japan at North Carolina State University.

MCLAUGHLIN: Laying those relationships bare in the aftermath of that murder raised people's ire to a very large extent.

KUHN: Of course, he points out, many interest groups forge ties with Japanese politicians and...

MCLAUGHLIN: Politicians avail themselves of help from all kinds of organizations, including religions. And so in that regard, their relationships with the church weren't unusual, at all.

KUHN: McLaughlin says the Unification Church's fate will make another prominent religious group nervous. The LDP's partner in their ruling coalition is Komeito. That party was founded by members of Soka Gakkai, a Buddhist religious movement seen by some critics as a cult, who may now worry that they could become the next target. The Japan branch of the Unification Church, meanwhile, called yesterday's government decision a stain on Japan's constitutional history. While a court dissolution order will strip them of legal status and tax breaks, the group will continue to exist in Japan.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL LAURANCE'S "MADELEINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn
Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.