Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida counters claims of association with Unification Church

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Prime Minister Fumio Kishida

4th December 2023 – (Tokyo) Japan’s Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, firmly repudiated insinuations of any affiliation with the Unification Church on Monday. This comes on the back of a media exposé alleging that he had convened with the leader of a group closely linked to the controversial religious sect during his tenure as the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) policy chief in 2019.

The Asahi Shimbun reported on Monday that Kishida, during a meeting with a delegation which included Newton Gingrich, the former U.S. House Speaker, had interacted with Masayoshi Kajikuri, the chief of Universal Peace Federation Japan. The latter organisation is known for its close ties with the Unification Church.

Addressing reporters on Monday, Kishida claimed ignorance of Kajikuri’s presence in the delegation and admitted to not remembering the details of their conversation.

“The former Speaker expressed his desire for a courtesy visit to the former foreign minister of Japan,” stated Kishida, who had held that role from 2012 to 2017. “He was in the company of numerous individuals, and I was not aware of each one’s identity.”

The state’s stance towards the Unification Church has hardened considerably since the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in July 2022 and the ensuing renewed scrutiny of the church’s practices.

During the summer of 2022, when senior LDP members such as incumbent policy chief Koichi Hagiuda and late Lower House Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda faced backlash for their association with the church, Kishida firmly denied any personal connections to the organisation and urged all party members to cut ties with it.

Following months of in-depth investigation into the church’s activities, the government officially petitioned for a court order in October to deprive the group of its legal status. Both the ruling and opposition parties are currently negotiating a law to provide additional safeguards to victims of the church’s malfeasance, with a decision expected this week.

Gingrich, a former Republican representative who served as the House Speaker from 1995 to 1999, visited Japan in late 2019 and delivered the main speech at an event in Nagoya organised by the Universal Peace Federation. Hak Ja Han Moon, wife of Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon and co-founder of the Universal Peace Federation, was present at the event.

During this visit, Gingrich met with LDP representative Daishiro Yamagiwa, who was subsequently appointed as the economic revitalisation minister during a Cabinet reshuffle in the summer of 2022. He ultimately resigned a few months later after it was discovered that he had concealed his connections with the group.

Even though this controversy is likely to wane in the coming days, increased scrutiny could further deplete Kishida’s political stock during a challenging period for his administration, which is battling low approval ratings and mounting criticism over rampant political misconduct.

A JNN poll conducted over the weekend found that while Kishida’s popularity remained largely stable, 89% of respondents considered the LDP’s under-reporting of political funds to be an issue. The administration is directly implicated in the scandal, with former secretaries-general of the faction led by Abe, the group most affected by the ongoing inquiry, holding pivotal positions in the government.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno has so far side-stepped questions on the issue, while Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura purportedly asserted that he has been managing the funds “appropriately.”

Complicating matters, 73% of survey respondents expressed scepticism about Kishida’s proposal to reduce residence and income taxes next June, despite the government’s months-long campaign to persuade the public of the benefits of such cuts.

The LDP’s internal tax committee discussions are expected to reach a fever pitch this week, while the government will face intensified scrutiny from a revitalised opposition in the final parliamentary debates of the current session.