TOKYO – The Unification Church in Japan on Monday (July 11) said the mother of the gunman who last week assassinated former prime minister Shinzo Abe is a member of the church.
The gunman, Tetsuya Yamagami, 41, told police after the assassination that he had targeted Mr Abe in his belief that the former PM was linked to a "religious group" that his mother had joined. Yamagami claimed that his mother paid the group exorbitant dues that left his family bankrupt and broken.
Police have not identified the religious group, and Reverend Tomihiro Tanaka, who leads the Japan branch of the Unification Church, told a news conference that he did not want to get drawn into speculation over whether it was the religious group that Yamagami had said he held a grudge against.
But Rev Tanaka said that Yamagami’s mother joined the church – known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification – around the late 1990s.
She was still attending events about once every month and her last attendance was two months ago, he said.
The church said neither Mr Abe nor Yamagami was a member of the church. Mr Abe was also not an adviser to the church, the reverend added.
The church said Mr Abe had, among other things, offered video messages to an affiliated organisation. It also acknowledged links with Mr Abe’s grandfather, the late prime minister Nobusuke Kishi.
Rev Tanaka said that Mr Abe had “expressed his support for the world peace movement led by our leader”.
The church said there were different types of donations, but that it was ultimately up to the members to decide on what or how much they wanted to donate.
It denied ever coercing members into paying any dues, and declined to comment on Yamagami’s mother’s donations, citing the ongoing police investigation.
But Rev Tanaka said that while the church was aware that Yamagami’s mother declared bankruptcy around 2002, it “did not know the circumstances” behind her financial ruin.
“We have asked our colleagues in Nara and there was nobody who knew what happened then. They knew only that his mother declared bankruptcy. After that, there were no records of the church asking for large donations from the family,” he added.
Rev Tanaka had started the news conference, which was open to only select domestic media outlets but was streamed online, with a silent prayer.
“Such an act of barbarism should never have happened. I feel a strong sense of resentment,” he said. “The loss of a great leader whom the Japanese people respect and love is very heartbreaking.”
The reverend added that he decided to call a news conference to “dispel rumours” after some fringe media organisations reported “as fact” that the Unification Church’s practices had led to the tragedy.
Mr Abe, Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, died after he was gunned down last Friday during a stump speech for a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) candidate in the western city of Nara.
The crime scene was a five-minute walk from the Unification Church’s branch in Nara. Police are investigating what appeared to be bullet holes at the entrance of the church, local media said on Monday.
The Unification Church was founded in South Korea in the 1950s by Rev Sun Myung Moon, a divisive figure who was convicted of tax fraud in New York in 1984 and died in 2012.
The organisation was banned in Singapore in 1982 – two years after it was set up – on the grounds that it was a cult. A Ministry of Home Affairs statement at the time said its activities were “prejudicial to public welfare and good order”.