Darkening view of Japan ruling party's ties with Unification Church drags down support for PM Kishida

The approval rating for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida plunged 16 percentage points from about a month ago to 36 per cent. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's assassination was expected to unite a nation in shock. Instead, it exposed embarrassing ties between the ruling party and the Unification Church, leading to a sharp fall in public support for the current leader and possibly threatening his grip on power.

The approval rating for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida plunged 16 percentage points from about a month ago to 36 per cent in a Mainichi newspaper poll published on Monday (Aug 22), the lowest since he took power in October.

A majority of respondents to the poll said they saw relations between his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the church, whose founder Moon Sun-myung was convicted in the US of tax evasion, as problematic.

"The fact that politicians had very deep ties with this cultish religion came as a surprise to the public," said Yuichi Kodama, chief economist at the Meiji Yasuda Research Institute. "This has also given off a creepy impression, and that's led to a decline in approval ratings."

There may not be an easy fix for Mr Kishida, who is pursuing what he calls "New Capitalism" - policies aimed at boosting wages and better redistributing wealth. Kishida doesn't need to face a national election for three years after the LDP scored a victory in races for the upper house of parliament in July.

But a further decline in support would raise concerns of a return to Japan's revolving-door leadership, seen between 2006 and 2012 when the Topix index slumped 45 per cent compared with a 2 per cent dip in the MSCI World Index.

"The fall in support came just as there were expectations that a 'golden three years' would allow him to embark on more medium and long-term challenges. If this situation continues, there's a concern of a declining ability to focus on growth strategies," said Tomoya Suzuki, a researcher at the NLI Research Institute.

Ties between the LDP and the South Korea-based church, best known for its mass weddings and whose followers are derisively called Moonies, came into focus after Abe was fatally shot while campaigning for the LDP in July. The man arrested for the murder has been quoted by police as saying he was motivated by a perceived connection between Abe and the church, which he blamed for his family's financial ruin.

After revelations of ties between multiple LDP politicians and the church, Mr Kishida reshuffled government in an attempt to clean up its image. But he placed several members with ties to the church in cabinet posts and in party executive positions - including LDP policy chief Koichi Hagiuda, who recently acknowledged visiting a Unification Church-linked facility in June along with Ms Akiko Ikuina, a former pop star and LDP newcomer.

Another reshuffle could rankle LDP members and raise doubts about Mr Kishida's leadership among a public questioning his decision-making. Meanwhile, the problem has been snowballing with new revelations involving the LDP and the church, including lawmakers giving speeches at the group's events and church members helping during election campaigns.

National public broadcaster NHK recently said its investigation showed that about 40 per cent of 73 ministers, state ministers and parliamentary vice ministers in the newly formed government had ties to the church or its associated groups.

Opposition parties are calling for an extraordinary session of parliament to look into the ties.

Mr Hagiuda told a news conference he never received money from the group, Kyodo News reported. Mr Kishida has said he has no connections that he knows of with the church, which has courted conservative politicians in several leading democracies around the world.

Mr Kishida, who is recovering from Covid-19 and is working remotely, said in an online briefing late Monday that he took the decline in public support seriously, and that cabinet members must end any relationships with the church to avoid raising suspicions about the government.

While it's unclear whether those relationships have influenced LDP policy, some of the Unification Church's priorities, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and banning married couples from having separate surnames, align with those of the conservative wing of the party.

Until the attack on Abe, such relationships were hardly known outside political circles. Now, they have become a staple of stories in major newspapers and programming for daytime gossip TV shows on national networks.

This has eroded support for a state funeral planned for late September to honour Abe, the country's longest-serving prime minister. About 30 per cent of respondents to the Mainichi poll said they supported one while 53 per cent were against it.

About two in five respondents said their opinion of Abe changed as revelations of the Unification Church came to light.

Mr Kishida's approval ratings had briefly risen to one of the highest among leaders of major democracies, as he navigated a response to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and called on companies to raise wages.

While he isn't expected to implement any major changes to LDP policy, compared with Abe, he was considered slightly more centrist than Abe with a greater focus on those feeling left behind by the government's focus on market liberalisation.

"If political turmoil breaks out, the markets will be uneasy," said Yasuhiko Hirakawa, head of an investment department at Rakuten Investment Management. He added that if parliament spends too much time talking about the church, it could slow down measures such as a supplementary budget.

Inflation remains relatively subdued compared with other major economies, partly because of government measures to limit price gains. Mr Kishida has ordered another round of measures to be compiled by early September.

"In the end, the assassination of Shinzo Abe and the subsequent scandal surrounding the Unification Church have brought to light a fact that has not changed in Japanese society. Japan is still divided, with or without Shinzo, and this will not change even with the dovish Kishida administration," said Lully Miura, president of Yamaneko Research Institute.

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