The Japanese government is considering pursuing a court order to disband the contentious Unification Church, which has been at the center of a political scandal since the killing of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2022, a government source said Sunday.
If the evidence and victims' testimonies gathered so far are deemed adequate, a request for the group to disband could be filed with the Tokyo District Court as soon as October, following a meeting of the government's religious organization council, the source said.
But a dissolution remains uncertain given that some people in the government are cautious and want the evidence to be carefully reviewed before a decision is made. Concerns include that proving illegal activity occurred at an organizational level may not be possible.
If dissolved, the Unification Church would lose its status as a religious corporation and be deprived of tax benefits, although it could still operate as an entity.
The move to consider issuing a dissolution order comes after the government's Agency for Cultural Affairs began in October 2022 investigating whether the church's activities contravene the law on religious corporations.
As part of the investigation, the agency has conducted seven official rounds of questioning with the church since November. These inquiries have sought various reports, including those related to the church's management and financial matters, civil cases where it has acknowledged legal responsibility and its communication records with its South Korean headquarters.
In total, the agency has sent out more than 600 questions, but with each round, the church has provided less and less documentation and even declined to answer in some instances.
Due to what it sees as the group's apparent refusal to answer, the agency is considering fining the church and also intends to end its questioning with the seventh round as it would be hard to gather further evidence.
Japan's religious corporation law allows relevant authorities to ask courts to order a dissolution in cases where a religious organization "commits an act which is clearly found to harm public welfare substantially."
If the government can prove that malicious and illegal acts occurred continuously on an organizational level, it can seek the church's dissolution.
The church maintains its senior officials have never been implicated in a criminal case and that illegal activity breaking Japan's civil law would not constitute grounds for ordering its dissolution. It also says the government's questioning of the organization is illegal.
The Unification Church is a South Korean religious organization established by a staunch anti-communist in 1954. In Japan, the church has long been criticized for extracting huge donations from followers via "spiritual sales," in which victims are pressured to buy items at exorbitant prices.
The group drew renewed public attention in July 2022 when Abe was fatally shot during an election stump speech over his perceived links to the church.
Police have said that Tetsuya Yamagami, standing trial over the incident, claimed he targeted Abe partly because Abe's grandfather, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, helped bring the church to Japan in 1968. He also told the police his mother donated vast sums to the church, which financially ruined the family.