TOKYO - Japan's politicians are coming forward to reveal their ties with the Unification Church in a wave of disclosures that has exposed the church's reach in politics.
Many of them are from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), including Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi, though opposition groups are also revealing such ties within their own ranks.
The issue has come under scrutiny after the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe on July 8.
Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, confessed to shooting Mr Abe over his apparent links to the Unification Church, which he blamed for using coercive tactics that bankrupted his mother and destroyed his family.
Mr Kishi said on Tuesday (July 26) that he "has associations" with members of the Unification Church, which is officially known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
"Church members have helped me as volunteers during my election campaign. It is an election and so it is necessary to gather as many supporters as possible," said Mr Kishi, Mr Abe's younger brother by birth who was adopted by his maternal uncle.
"Rather than the Unification Church helping me as an organisation, it was a case that individual church members were helping me on their own accord," he said.
The wave of revelations comes as the tabloid Nikkan Gendai compiled last week a list of 112 lawmakers - including 34 current and former Cabinet ministers and party executives - who have sent congratulatory messages or attended events held by the church or its sister organisations such as the Universal Peace Federation (UPF).
Yamagami has told police that he grew convinced of Mr Abe's ties to the church after watching a video message that the former prime minister sent to a UPF event.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is not on Nikkan Gendai's list.
Neither is LDP secretary-general Toshimitsu Motegi, a former foreign minister, who stressed on Tuesday that there is "no relationship" between party and church.
"I would like to warn each and every LDP parliamentarian to be vigilant and cautious about their relationships with organisations that have been pointed out as having social problems," he told reporters.
He did not say if the LDP will launch an internal probe of its lawmakers' links with the religious group, which has been described as a cult in several countries.
Mr Abe's late grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, a former prime minister who led from 1957 to 1960, was said to be close to Unification Church founder and self-proclaimed messiah Moon Sun-myung.
The Japan chapter of the church was established in 1959, and Mr Kishi was photographed several times with Reverend Moon.
The church headquarters was at one point located next to Mr Kishi's residence in Tokyo.
At the time, leftist pro-communist forces were rife in Japan and the LDP had regarded the Unification Church as a kindred spirit with which it shared political ideologies.
However, since the 1980s, social issues have clouded the image of the church, which has been accused of hard-sell tactics that led to more than 30 civil lawsuits.
The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales said it has been consulted over financial damages of at least 123.7 billion yen (S$1.26 billion) in the past 35 years ending 2021.
Today, the group claims to have about 600,000 followers in Japan, which reportedly accounts for at least 70 per cent of its donations.
In recent years, the Unification Church has been close to right-leaning members of the LDP - in particular the Seiwakai faction that was led by Mr Abe.
Other politicians who have been connected to the Unification Church include LDP Upper House lawmaker Yoshiyuki Inoue, who told Kyodo News that he was an "informal member but not a religious follower of the church".
Mr Inoue, who was political affairs secretary to Mr Abe from 2006 to 2007, said the group had approved of his legislative policy ideas.
Education Minister Shinsuke Suematsu, who is a member of the Seiwakai, said church members had bought 40,000 yen worth of tickets at his fund-raising parties in 2020 and 2021, though he denied extending any favours.
Reports have also emerged of politicians from opposition parties, such as the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) and the Democratic Party for the People, having links to the church.
Experts describe the Unification Church as a "black hole" in Japanese politics, a taboo that few political scientists have done serious research into and one that journalists shy away from discussing publicly.
"Religious groups provide politicians with supporters who never free-ride nor betray," said Dr Sota Kato, a research director at The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research think-tank.
"Yet the average Japanese voter is sceptical of cult religions. Politicians want to keep relations with religions under the table... while religious groups disguise themselves as political groups," he added.
He pointed to how the Japanese arm of the International Federation For Victory Over Communism, which is supporting the LDP's push for constitutional revision, is connected to the Unification Church.
Reverend Tomihiro Tanaka, who leads the church's Japan branch, said this month: "No money has moved from the LDP to this entity, or from this entity to the LDP."
Yet political scientist Mikitaka Masuyama of the Tokyo-based National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies told The Straits Times that volunteer work, unlike political donations that must be reported by law, are not regulated.
This appears to have given rise to a quid pro quo, he said, with well-known politicians giving the Unification Church some form of legitimacy through event appearances that, in turn, can be seen as endorsements of the church that may help to attract new followers.
Dr Toru Yoshida, a political professor at Doshisha University in Kyoto, said the growing number of independent, unaffiliated voters is one reason behind the increasing reliance of politicians on organisations and associations to "mobilise money and votes".
He said that how close the LDP is to the Unification Church "stays an open question", though he noted that the church has "become a time bomb".