Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged Monday to launch a probe into the Unification Church, the first such move under the Religious Corporations Law, reversing his initial decision amid a plunge in support for his Cabinet to its lowest level since he took office last year.

The probe will be implemented under a provision of the law that allows authorities the "right to question" a contentious group. 

Depending on the outcome of the investigation and judgement by a court, the Unification Church could lose its status as a religious corporation and be deprived of tax benefits, although it would still be able to operate as an entity.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responds to questions about the Unification Church during a session of the House of Representatives Budget Committee in Tokyo on Oct. 17, 2022. (Kyodo) 

Revelations about the way the organization has encouraged followers to make financially ruinous donations and the links it had with members of Kishida's ruling Liberal Democratic Party have become a serious headache for the premier.

The group has been under the spotlight since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was gunned down in July by a Unification Church member's relative who held a grudge against it and believed Abe was a supporter.

The Kishida administration had previously been cautious about ordering a probe into the Unification Church -- founded by a staunch anti-communist in South Korea in 1954 and often labeled as a cult -- due in part to fears of violating the principle of freedom of religion.

But Kishida said at a parliamentary session on Monday that he ordered the investigation of the religious organization as the government received more than 1,700 consultation requests by Sept. 30 through its telephone service set up on Sept. 5.

"The government has taken seriously the fact that there are a large number of victims as well as poverty and broken families, and they haven't been provided with adequate relief," he said.

It is difficult to predict when the investigation will end, said Kishida, who has denied any relationship with the Unification Church, emphasizing that his administration has "no intention of protecting" the group "at all."

Keiko Nagaoka, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, said her ministry is eager to begin the probe as soon as possible, adding an expert panel on the issue is expected to start considering the details of the investigation as early as Oct. 25.

Nagaoka said groups affiliated with the Unification Church will be exempt from the probe, as they are not legal entities based on the religious corporations law.

Revealed connections between LDP members and the Unification Church have sparked concern that the organization may have tried to exert influence in the political arena for its own interests.

The group has become a social problem mainly for its mass weddings and "spiritual sales," in which the church pressures people to buy jars and other items for exorbitant prices by the use of threats, including the citing of "ancestral karma."

Kishida's policy shift came as a panel of experts at the Consumer Affairs Agency announced a set of proposals regarding the Unification Church on Monday, including asking the government to exercise its power to investigate the organization.

The agency said it has received many complaints about the Unification Church purportedly demanding huge donations from its followers that push them to the point of financial ruin.

Tetsuya Yamagami, the man who shot Abe during an election speech, said his family was financially ruined after his mother made huge donations to the church.

The group, now formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, has acknowledged the financial impact on the family from the donations.

Yamagami also reportedly said that he targeted Abe as he was aware that the former prime minister was linked to the Unification Church. Abe appeared in a video message aired at an event held by an organization affiliated with the group in 2021.

A Kyodo News survey conducted earlier this month found the approval rating for Kishida's Cabinet has fallen to 35.0 percent, its worst level since its launch in October last year.

An LDP internal investigation released in September showed around half of the ruling party's lawmakers had some connection with the organization.

Among Kishida's Cabinet members, economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa has especially come under fire for repeating fallacious explanations about his relationship with the religious group.

The Kishida administration has been shaken by several issues, such as his decision to hold a controversial state funeral for Abe on Sept. 27 and rising prices without wage growth, in addition to the dubious ties between LDP members and the Unification Church.

So far, only two religious organizations have received a dissolution order from a court because of legal violations in Japan. One was the AUM Shinrikyo cult, which carried out the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

The other was the Myokakuji temple group, based in Wakayama Prefecture. Its priests defrauded people who sought help by telling them they were possessed by evil spirits and then charging them for exorcisms.

The government did not exert the right to question the two religious organizations, as the groups were ordered to disband after their executives were sentenced in criminal cases.

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Japan PM eyes launching probe into controversial Unification Church