TOKYO - When Mr Sun Myung Moon, the Korean founder of the Unification Church, needed money for its extensive spiritual and business ventures, he would look to Japan, according to some former members.
"Senior officials would tell us he needed hundreds of millions of dollars, and that Japan had to pay," said Kanazawa University Professor Masaki Nakamasa, who was a member of the church for 11-and-a-half years until 1992.
Mr Moon, a self-proclaimed Messiah, died in 2012. His church's doctrine still urges its tens of thousands of Japanese members to make donations to atone for atrocities perpetrated during their country's 1910-1945 occupation of Korea.
According to church dogma, Japan is an Eve nation that, by consorting with the devil, betrayed Korea, portrayed as Adam.
Mr Kwak Chung Hwan, who was Mr Moon's deputy until the late 2000s, said the Unification Church treated its followers in Japan like "an economic army" to raise donations. He said the organisation should apologise for the excesses of its leadership in the country.
In a statement, the church dismissed Mr Kwak's comment, saying he had discredited the organisation and its followers.
Ties that bind
While dozens of ex-members in Japan have sued the church since the 1980s over its fundraising, many former followers have hesitated until now to discuss their experiences publicly due to social stigma and fear of repercussions from their families.
The assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in July, however, has opened a national debate in Japan over the Unification Church and has shone a spotlight on its close ties with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
The suspect in the killing, 41-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami, accused the church of impoverishing his family, according to police. In social media posts before the killing, he blamed Mr Abe for supporting the religious group.
Starting with Mr Abe's grandfather - ex-prime minister Nobusuke Kishi - the church openly cultivated relations with LDP leaders, based on their shared opposition to communism.
Mr Abe, like many other LDP lawmakers, spoke at church-related events, and his government removed the church from a list of organisations monitored by the Public Security Intelligence Agency.
Since Mr Abe's killing, Japanese media have detailed ties between the church and dozens of LDP lawmakers.
The party has acknowledged many individual lawmakers have ties to the church, but it said there was no organisational link to the LDP itself.
'Our lives were worth less than our votes'
Using information available on legislators' websites and sources, including videos posted online by the church, Reuters identified at least 65 LDP lawmakers - including Mr Abe and 23 from his right-wing faction - who attended church events, sent congratulatory messages, paid membership fees, accepted political donations from its affiliates, or received election help.
Reuters also spoke with seven former Unification Church followers who described how their families were burdened with heavy donations. Five of them said church officials instructed them to vote for LDP candidates at elections.
"Our lives were worth less than our votes," said one former church member, who said she was in hiding from her church-going mother and who posts online under the alias Keiko Kaburagi.
She said she did not condone Yamagami's actions but could "understand how he felt" toward the LDP.
The blogger, like four other former church members interviewed by Reuters, asked not to be identified to avoid possible harassment.
The Unification Church says it no longer accepts donations that cause financial hardship and has curtailed excessive "spiritual sales" of church goods after convictions for the practice a decade ago prompted its then-leader in Japan to resign.
The church says its political arm, the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), has courted lawmakers and most of them are from the LDP because of its ideological proximity, although it has no direct affiliation to the party.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's emphatic win in July's Upper House elections - days after Mr Abe's shooting - was supposed to tighten his grip on the LDP, still dominated by the ex-premier's supporters.
Instead, revelations over LDP links to the church and his decision to grant Mr Abe, Japan's longest-serving post war leader, a rare state funeral have triggered a crisis.
An opinion poll published by Japan's biggest daily, the Yomiuri, on Sept 5 showed that more than half of respondents opposed the funeral honours.
Five of the former followers interviewed by Reuters said the church directed its members to vote for LDP lawmakers who opposed LGBT rights and promoted traditional family values in line with church doctrine.
"Church leaders tell members at gatherings or through online messengers to vote for LDP candidates," said one second-generation member.
The church says that it does not give political guidance to members, which is done instead by the UPF.
Three current members interviewed by Reuters at its headquarters in Tokyo said they were encouraged to vote in the Upper House election for an LDP candidate, Mr Yoshiyuki Inoue, a former political affairs secretary to Mr Abe. Two of them said they did so.
Contacted by Reuters, Mr Inoue's office acknowledged that Unification Church members had supported him but denied the LDP had worked on his behalf to get that help.
Because of the proportional representation system used in Upper House elections - whereby voters can cast their ballot for a candidate anywhere in Japan - targeted church votes can make a difference in tight races.
Mr Kishida attempted to draw a line under the scandal with a Cabinet reshuffle on Aug 10 that purged senior figures with links to the church, including former trade and industry minister Koichi Hagiuda, a member of Mr Abe's faction.
At a news conference the same day, Mr Tomihiro Tanaka, the head of the Unification Church in Japan, said a push by Mr Kishida to sever ties with the church would be unfortunate.
Despite Mr Kishida's effort to turn the page, a poll by the left-leaning Mainichi Shimbun daily on Aug 22 showed that support for the government had fallen by 16 points from a month earlier to 36 per cent.
In a news conference on Aug 31, the prime minister went further, apologising for the LDP's ties to the church and promising to tackle them.
Yet, Unification Church-connected lawmakers remain in Mr Kishida's administration, some in his Cabinet and dozens more as junior ministers.
Any attempt by the prime minister at a deeper purge would risk upsetting a delicate political balance within the fractious LDP, political analysts say.
"He doesn't really want any more dirt to be revealed," said Professor Koichi Nakano, at Sophia University in Tokyo. "(Kishida) is trying to sort of lead people to think that what was in the past is in the past. The problem is it's in the present." REUTERS