Japanese Prime Minster Fumio Kishida said Monday he is "not aware" of holding a reported meeting involving a senior member of a group affiliated with the controversial Unification Church in 2019, when he was serving as the ruling party's policy chief.
His remarks came after the daily Asahi Shimbun reported earlier in the day that the leader of the Japan branch of the Universal Peace Federation was also present at a gathering Kishida held with former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich that year.
Kishida told reporters, "When I met with former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich several years ago, there were many accompanying individuals and I do not know who was among them." He emphasized that his links with the religious organization have already been investigated.
Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper said Kishida met with the leader of the group, launched by the founder of the Unification Church and his wife, at the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party on Oct. 4, 2019.
While the paper added that Kishida exchanged business cards with the leader, he said, "I do not remember what I did with the companions" of Gingrich. The premier has argued that he has no relations with the church as far as he is concerned.
Established in South Korea by a staunch anti-communist in 1954, the church has been under scrutiny in Japan following the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by Tetsuya Yamagami during his election campaign speech in July 2022.
Yamagami said he held a grudge against the Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, as his mother's massive donations to the organization ruined his family. Abe was allegedly targeted in part because his grandfather, a former prime minister, helped bring the church to Japan in the 1960s.
Later last year, dubious ties between a large number of LDP lawmakers and the Unification Church were revealed, raising fears among the public that the religious corporation may have been trying to exert influence in politics.
Amid criticism of the group's aggressive donation solicitations and other malicious practices, the government filed a request in October with a court for an order to dissolve the Unification Church, a move that could deprive the organization of its tax benefits.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said at a regular press conference on Monday that members of the government will continue making efforts to "thoroughly" sever their ties with the group.