Japan's parliament on Saturday enacted a law to ban organizations from maliciously soliciting donations following criticism over the fundraising practices of the Unification Church and public anger over decades of close ties between ruling party lawmakers and the religious group.

Aiming to prevent the creation of new victims of controversial religious groups, the House of Councillors, or upper house, passed the bill with the support of the ruling bloc and most of the opposition parties on the final day of the 69-day extraordinary parliamentary session.

The bill cleared the Diet five months after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fatally shot by the son of a follower of the Unification Church, often regarded as a cult and known for its "spiritual sales" in which people are pressured into buying items for exorbitant prices.

The House of Councillors enacts a law to ban organizations from maliciously soliciting donations at an extraordinary parliamentary session in Tokyo on Dec. 10, 2022, following controversy over the fundraising practices of the Unification Church. (Kyodo)  

Making concessions on key issues with the opposition camp, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida scrambled to enact the law in an apparent attempt to stave off a plunge in his Cabinet's approval ratings due partly to issues surrounding the church, set up by a staunch anti-communist in South Korea in 1954.

It is rare for Japanese lawmakers to hold a weekend plenary session to adopt a law.

Kishida, at a press conference after the Diet session wrapped up, said he met with victims of the Unification Church and felt that the problems are "very serious."

The government will "take necessary measures" to manage the new law in an "efficient manner" to rescue the victims, he added.

But lawyers supporting those who have suffered financial ruin as the result of giving large donations to the church have criticized the hastily crafted law for having many deficiencies, saying it is unlikely to help most of the group's victims.

The legislation prohibits organizations from "confusing" people to solicit donations through tactics such as "stoking fear," but the lawyers have argued some believers "willingly" offer massive donations to them.

While the new law was prepared with the Unification Church's fundraising practices in mind, including claims made about spirits, it actually covers all corporations, not just religious ones.

The legislation prohibits organizations from requesting donors to borrow money by selling real estate and other assets. Members of groups engaged in unfair solicitation could face a prison sentence of up to one year or a fine of up to 1 million yen ($7,300).

File photo taken in September 2022 shows the name Family Federation for World Peace and Unification at a building housing the Unification Church in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

Moreover, if donations are made in ways that are banned under the new law, spouses and dependent children of donors would be allowed to cancel donations on their behalf through legal procedures.

A woman whose parents are Unification Church believers, however, said in a YouTube clip posted in December that there is a "high hurdle" to clear before children of donors can file lawsuits against religious organizations.

The woman, who uses the pseudonym Sayuri Ogawa and has repeatedly held press conferences to talk of the problems facing "second-generation" family members of Unification Church followers, added that religious groups are likely to find "loopholes" in the law to solicit donations.

Scrutiny of the Unification Church, now formally called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, intensified after Abe was killed during an election campaign speech in early July by Tetsuya Yamagami, who held a grudge against the organization.

Yamagami has said his mother made considerable donations to the group that financially ruined his family, while reportedly telling investigators that he targeted Abe as he believed the former prime minister had close ties with the Unification Church.

Some opposition parties and lawyers, meanwhile, called for a clause that would allow for the cancellation of donations and the punishment of members of suspicious organizations if the money was paid as the result of "brainwashing."

In response to such calls, the Kishida administration decided to incorporate a clause asking groups "not to suppress the free will" of donors to dissuade them from receiving donations maliciously.

The clause will also enable the government to make public the names of organizations that do not abide by the rule. The lawyers, however, have lambasted it as ineffective because it does not involve prison terms or fines.

Amid mounting criticism of the legislation, a provision stipulates that the law will be reviewed by the government around two years after taking effect.

The scope of the legislation was eventually narrowed down in light of property rights, which allow individuals to use their money as they want, and freedom of religion, government sources have said. Both rights are guaranteed by Japan's Constitution.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Kishida was reluctant to make the law too strict in consideration of its junior coalition partner Komeito, which is backed by Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest lay Buddhist group, political experts said.

Komeito has voiced concern that the new legislation may negatively affect religious organizations as a whole, claiming they typically rely on donations from followers.

With the government rushing to enact the law, the experts also brushed aside the opposition for trying to ride on the bandwagon and receive support from victims of the Unification Church.

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