The Japanese government began investigating the Unification Church on Tuesday, paving the way for requesting a court to consider depriving the controversial group of its status as a religious corporation with tax benefits.

The Cultural Affairs Agency sent its inquiries to the organization, often labeled as a cult, in what was the first case of the "right to question" being exercised under the Religious Corporations Law.

Prior to the start of the investigation, culture minister Keiko Nagaoka on Monday acquired approval to initiate the procedure from a ministerial panel after consultations over questions the government should send to the Unification Church.

Keiko Nagaoka, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, holds a press conference at her ministry in Tokyo on Nov. 22, 2022. (Kyodo)

The ministry is believed to be eager to look into the group's property, decision-making processes and money flows. Nagaoka called for the Unification Church to reply to the questions by Dec. 9.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had previously been cautious about conducting a probe into the church amid lingering concerns doing so could violate the right to freedom of religion.

But he decided an investigation should be launched, with approval ratings for his Cabinet having plunged due largely to connections between lawmakers of his Liberal Democratic Party and the organization, founded by a staunch anti-communist in South Korea in 1954.

Nagaoka has explained that the group is worthy of investigation as it is "suspected of wielding great influence and inflicting widespread damage," given that it has been ordered to pay damages of at least 1.4 billion yen ($9.9 million) in 22 civil lawsuits.

If the investigation confirms that the religious corporation has violated laws and damaged public welfare, the government can request a court to order its "dissolution."

The Unification Church, however, will still be able to operate even if its status as a religious corporation is removed.

The "right to question" was incorporated into the Religious Corporations Law when it was revised in 1995 in the wake of a series of crimes committed by the AUM Shinrikyo cult, which included a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that year.

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 and the other was the Myokakuji temple group based in Wakayama Prefecture.

In a related move on Tuesday, Japan's welfare ministry sent separate inquiries to the Unification Church looking into the organization's practices around child adoption between believers' families.

The group, now formally called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, has apparently recommended that followers without offspring should adopt other members' children.

Japan's law on adoption requires organizations to obtain permission from a prefectural governor to facilitate an adoption, regardless of whether they receive any money.

The group has said around 750 children have been adopted between followers since 1981, but it has denied any involvement, saying the adoptions were decided between its members based on personal or regional connections.

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