Shinzo Abe’s ties to the Unification Church may have cost him his life

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The July 8th assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe came as a huge shock to Japan, a country with a particularly low incidence of gun violence. Abe was campaigning on behalf of a fellow Liberal Democratic Party politician in the city of Nara ahead of the July 10 House of Councillors elections.

Abe has been internationally lauded for his statesmanship and economic and foreign policy achievements. But political retrospectives have given far less attention to Abe’s ultranationalist agenda and reported connections to far-right and conservative religious groups.

What have we learned about Tetsuya Yamagami, the unemployed man who reportedly confessed to the shooting? Media accounts center on Yamagami’s confession to police that he killed Abe with a handmade weapon — and his claims that there was no political motivation for the assassination. The media portrayal of the 41-year-old from Nara reflects cautious cooperation in that they did not reveal his ultimate target.

Initial reports stated that Yamagami resented an “unnamed” religious organization — and was upset that his family became bankrupt after his mother made large donations to the group. Yamagami, apparently convinced that Abe was linked to the group, reportedly targeted the Japanese politician after the religious group’s leadership proved difficult to access.

Abe’s assassination has now turned a spotlight on some of the darker corners and surprising connections between Japanese politics and religious groups. My research helps explain how these came about, as Japan’s postwar effort to construct homogeneity from a diverse population created unexpected affiliations.

Shinzo Abe gave Japan far more than ‘Abenomics’

How did Japan construct homogeneity?

Abe’s party has dominated postwar Japan and maintains official rhetoric and notions of unique homogeneity where concepts of nation, language, race and culture are near-synonymous. Japan has pursued a modern narrative of an ethnically homogenous nation in an effort to bond a disparate populace.

This vision belies the presence of Japan’s historic minorities and increasing diversity from foreign residents. “Invisible” minorities include approximately 24,000 Indigenous Ainu, 1 million Okinawans, 3 million Burakumin (descendants of feudal-era outcast groups) and 600,000 Zainichi Koreans (descendants of Japan’s colonial annexation). In 2019, Japan had 281,266 special permanent residents with Korean nationality, as well as Taiwanese former imperial subjects and their descendants.

A modernizing Japan in the 19th century regarded Indigenous peoples and outcasts as premodern and subordinate. Expansionism promoted a multiethnic empire with Japanese people as hierarchically superior, while denigrating other Asians as inferior. With Japan’s World War II defeat and the end of the empire, and the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, Japan began to “unmix” and deprived former colonial subjects of Japanese nationality. The country reembraced the idea of Japanese homogeneity. And both U.S. and Japanese authorities encouraged strict border controls to thwart the perceived communist threat from Korea and China.

From 1990 to 2019, Japan created immigration “side doors” for officially banned unskilled foreign labor. The country added heterogeneity with visible “newcomers” from Asia, Latin America and Africa — including often-exploited “trainee” laborers, co-ethnics, asylum seekers and the undocumented.

What Shinzo Abe’s assassination means for Japanese politics

In 2018, Abe announced plans to dramatically increase unskilled foreign workers, yet declared this move was not an immigration policy. The foreign-resident population in 2019 was 2.32 percent, with growing numbers of international marriages and mixed-race Japanese children. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, appears likely to continue to expand Japan’s immigration regime but it’s unclear whether the government has a robust plan to more fully incorporate and include migrants in Japanese society.

How the Unification Church fits into the picture

As the questions continued over Abe’s assassination, government sources bowed to pressure from Japanese tabloids and foreign media. Sources named the Unification Church as the group in question — and the church confirmed the member ship of Yamagami’s mother. Media accounts continue to characterize Yamagami as an ordinary Japanese, an ex-soldier and an unemployed, frustrated loner.

But some dubbed Yamagami a second-generation victim of a new religion and its outsized influence. The Unification Church was founded in South Korea in 1954 by the fervently anti-communist Sun Myung Moon, who saw himself as the new messiah. The church’s alliances with Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party — including Abe’s grandfather, Kishi Nobusuke — began in the 1950s during the regional fight against communism. Japanese financial and political support increased as the Unification Church expanded.

Abe does not appear to have been a member of the Unification Church, although he did give a prerecorded speech last September at a church-related event and has praised the organization’s Korean Peninsula peace efforts and “family values.” Promoting ultranationalistic anti-Korean sentiment while simultaneously supporting the Korea-based Unification Church might seem an odd mix. But despite the Unification Church’s waning influence, conservative politicians in Japan have used it and other religious groups to mobilize consensus on conservative values, invoking themes of xenophobia and racism.

Japan has a discrimination problem

Japan’s homogeneity narrative leaves little room for minorities or difference — yet the country maintains that discrimination is not a serious problem. Article 14 of the Japanese constitution prohibits discrimination based on race, creed, sex, social status or family origin, but nothing in Japanese law makes discrimination illegal. Following the United States, in 1995 Japan became a signatory to the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

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Although the government officially recognized the Ainu people in 2008, the Ainu and other historically sidelined groups continue to face social and economic marginalization. A 2006 United Nations report on racism and discrimination in Japan was largely ignored by the Japanese media and faced harsh criticism from Japan’s right wing. In 2017, Japan’s first national survey of foreign residents’ human rights reported discrimination in employment and housing, racist taunts, hate speech and Japanese-only recruitment. Since the mid-2000s, contentious demonstrations occur between far-right anti-Korean and anti-racist pro-Korean movements. Hate speech has become prominent on social media, targeting both older and newer groups.

One irony of Abe’s and LDP tenure, despite their mobilization of anti-Korean ultranationalism, is that they were quiet allies with the Korea-based Unification Church. Those ties may have cost Abe his life, and now bring inadvertent public attention to his party’s unusual alliances.

Xenophobic nationalism can help win elections, but can also undermine democratic values and promote discrimination. In that sense, Abe’s assassination may become a weather vane for Japan. The coming weeks and months will show whether the political winds blow toward more transparent and inclusive liberal democracy, or opaque and illiberal exclusionism.

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Michael Orlando Sharpe is an associate professor of political science at York College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and an adjunct research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of “Postcolonial Citizens and Ethnic Migration: the Netherlands and Japan in the Age of Globalization” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and “The Politics of Racism and Antiracism in Japan” (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

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