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Unification Church's local cleaning efforts lauded on local gov't-approved sign in Japan

A sign indicating the Unification Church's cleaning activities, left, and the same sign wrapped in tape to hide the description, are respectively seen in the city of Matsubara, Osaka Prefecture, on Aug. 9, 2022, and Aug. 12, 2022. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Tamaki)
A sign indicating the Unification Church's cleaning activities is seen in the city of Matsubara, Osaka Prefecture, on Aug. 9, 2022. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Tamaki)

MATSUBARA, Osaka -- A sign erected by Osaka Prefecture along a road here and trumpeting the Unification Church's community cleaning work has raised questions over whether the religious group should be officially recognized on public signage.

    The church has been implicated in extracting enormous cash donations from believers and fraudulent "spiritual sales" of high-priced items. Its activities have come under increasingly intense scrutiny since the man accused of assassinating former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told police he was motivated by ferocious resentment of the church for "ruining" his family.

    The sign along National Route No. 309, which is managed by the prefecture, reads, "The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification engages in cleaning efforts for this sidewalk," referring to the Unification Church's current name and recognizing its volunteer "Adopt a Road" activities, cleaning pavements, roadside shrubberies, and other areas about once a month. "Osaka Prefectural Tondabayashi civil engineering office" and "Matsubara city hall" were also printed on the bottom of the sign.

    According to the Osaka Prefectural Government's road environment section, organizations wishing to join cleaning activities apply to their local prefectural civil engineering office. They are then screened based on 14 criteria, including that the organization's beautification efforts do not have commercial purposes and that they will not cause traffic safety problems. The Unification Church was certified as a cleaning member in September 2021, and the sign was set up in April 2022 following an agreement among the group, the prefecture, and the city of Matsubara.

    The prefectural government's Tondabayashi civil engineering office said that though it received reports from the Unification Church that it carried out cleaning every month until June 2022, the group has apparently informed the office it will "refrain from cleaning for a while" and has paused activities since Abe's July assassination.

    The Osaka Prefectural Government wrapped tape over the sign to hide the description, with the consent of the Unification Church, following the Mainichi Shimbun's inquiries. Meanwhile, a similar sign was set up in the prefectural city of Tondabayashi in July 2016, after the Unification Church was recognized as a volunteer group. However, it is thought that the group has not partaken in any activities since August 2017, and the prefecture removed the sign on Aug. 11 this year.

    As of June 2022, 429 groups in Osaka were official community cleaning activity members, most of them neighborhood associations and private firms. The number also includes other religious groups.

    Osaka Prefecture's road environment section explained, "As we have based our screenings on points such as the cleaning efforts' effectiveness, it doesn't matter whether it's done by a religious group. Though we don't plan to reexamine these standards, as the agreement dictates that any doubts or issues that arise should be discussed among the three parties, there may be cases where we consult about the Unification Church."

    Officials said that the sign will be removed if the group terminates its cleaning activities.

    (Japanese original by Tatsuya Tamaki, Osaka Bureau)

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