TOKYO (NYTIMES) – The day before Shinzo Abe was assassinated, Tetsuya Yamagami sent a letter saying that the Unification Church had ruined his life, “destroying my family and driving it into bankruptcy”.
Yamagami’s mother had been a member of the church for more than two decades, making prodigious donations over her family’s objections. “It’s no exaggeration to say that my experience with it during that time continues to distort my whole life,” he wrote to a blogger who covered the church. Japanese police have confirmed that he sent the letter.
The next day, Abe was dead, shot at close range with an improvised gun while campaigning in the city of Nara, Japan.
Police have charged Yamagami with murder, saying he was angry at a “certain group” and decided to target Abe, the former prime minister of Japan. Authorities haven’t named the group, but a Unification Church spokesperson said that Yamagami was most likely referring to them. It remains unclear why Yamagami directed his animus at Abe.
The July 8 shooting has thrust the church’s legal troubles back into the national dialogue, in particular its battles with families who said they had been impoverished by large donations. Those payments were among billions of dollars in revenue from Japan that helped finance much of the church’s global political and business ambitions.
In one judgement from 2016, a Tokyo civil court awarded more than US$270,000 (S$375,000) in damages to the former husband of a church member, after she donated his inheritance, salary and retirement funds to the group to “save” him and his ancestors from damnation.
In another civil case from 2020, a judge ordered the church and other defendants to pay damages to a woman after members had convinced her that her child’s cancer was caused by familial sins. On their advice, she spent tens of thousands of dollars on church goods and services, like researching her family history and buying blessings.
Last week, church officials said they had struck an agreement in 2009 with the family of Yamagami’s mother to repay 50 million yen (S$510,000) in donations she had made over the years. In an interview, Yamagami’s uncle said she had given at least 100 million yen.
Many families have settled complaints against the church through court-arbitrated agreements, according to Mr Hiroshi Watanabe, a lawyer who has negotiated some of them.
Ms Eri Kayoda, 28, grew up in a household devoted to the Unification Church.
She said that her mother gave the church an inheritance and the proceeds from the sale of their home. The family had to squeeze into a tiny Tokyo apartment decorated with pricey Unification Church books and vases thought to bring good fortune, she said.
In middle school, Ms Kayoda said, she began keeping a close eye on her parents’ finances and convinced them to save for a car and a home. Her mother now donates modestly. While Ms Kayoda condemned Abe’s shooting, she said she hoped it would draw attention to the “many cases of families that have been destroyed”.
Mr Susumu Sato, a spokesperson for the Unification Church in Japan, said that some members had encouraged followers to donate excessively, but that most donors were motivated by their faith.
“Nowadays, it seems unthinkable, but those people believed in God,” said Mr Sato, who said he feared church members would become scapegoats for Abe’s death.