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Families praise Unification Church probe as 'step forward,' but question sincerity

Tatsuo Hashida, the ex-husband of a Unification Church follower, speaks at a news conference after listing to a session of the House of Representative Budget Committee, at the Diet on the afternoon of Oct. 17, 2022. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

Family members of followers of the Unification Church and so-called second-generation believers have described Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's recent pledge to launch a probe into the religious group as a "step forward," while stressing that they don't want it to be merely "performative."

    During a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee on Oct. 17, Kishida said he took it seriously that relief for those who had suffered because of the religious group had not progressed, and stressed that the investigation into the church's activities needed to proceed firmly. Depending on the results of that investigation, the group, now formally known as the Family Federation of World Peace and Unification, could be ordered to dissolve.

    Tatsuo Hashida, a 64-year-old man from Kochi Prefecture whose ex-wife was a Unification Church follower, says his family was destroyed by the large sums she donated to the group. Listening to the proceedings in the Diet, he said the probe was "a step forward," but noted that Kishida didn't provide any specifics on the timing or the outlook for the future. "I didn't feel any energy," he lamented.

    According to Hashida, his ex-wife became a follower about 30 years ago. He said that after she was told that there were "evil spirits" in a rice field they owned, they sold it. Then she donated about 100 million yen (about $670,000 at today's rate), including money from the sale, to the Unification Church.

    Hashida divorced his wife about 10 years ago. His eldest son, who had stopped attending school at one stage, took his own life at the age of 36. Hashida said he shed tears while observing the Oct. 17 Diet session, and told reporters, "If it weren't for that religion, I think life would have been better. I ended up thinking about my child." Meanwhile, Hashida revealed that on Oct. 16, Hideyuki Teshigawara, head of the Unification Church's reform promotion task force, had come to his home and told him, "I don't want you appearing in front of the media."

    Separately, a so-called "second-generation follower" whose parents are apparently Unification Church believers and who goes by the name Miyuki Takahashi said of the Kishida administration's probe, "I appreciate that they decided to respond the way they should, but I don't want it to end up as a performance with just their low approval ratings in mind."

    Takahashi has been involved in calls to prevent religious beliefs from being forced on children. Takahashi's parents got married in a Unification Church mass wedding, and donations to the group left the family poor. Moreover, Takahashi was forbidden from dating freely.

    The Unification Church came under intense scrutiny in Japan after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was fatally shot by the angry relative of a Unification Church member, because he believed Abe was a supporter.

    "Since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot, a long string of the group's problematic activities has been uncovered. Normally, there should have been an investigation right away," Takahashi said, adding that the government "might have changed their position because there was no holding back the public's anger."

    At the same time, Takahashi expressed hope that the probe would produce real results, commenting, "When there have been problems in the past, the church has always shifted the blame onto others, saying, 'The followers did this and that of their own accord.' I want them to make it clear that the group has been systematically encouraging illegal acts and human rights violations."

    Another 66-year-old woman living in Japan's Kanto region says that she is fighting the Unification Church for the return of a large sum donated by her mother.

    "I wonder if the (Kishida) administration can conduct a serious investigation when it continues to appoint ministers whose connections with the group have been exposed," she said. "I want them to think about relief for followers who have lost their assets and their jobs, and eventually request a (court) order for the group to disband."

    -- Fearing destruction of evidence

    The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales on Oct. 17 hailed the probe as "an important step in eliminating damage," but it called for an order for the group's dissolution to be requested quickly, saying, "Exercising the right to question (the group) at this stage will consume time, and there are concerns that the damage will increase in the meantime." Attorney Hiroshi Yamaguchi, a representative of the lawyers' network, commented, "Even if an investigation is conducted, they (the Unification Church) will probably never admit that they are systematically forcing people to make donations. The group has repeatedly tried to 'put out the fire.' It's possible that they will try to conceal evidence or trivialize the facts."

    A Unification Church public relations representative commented, "This (investigation) is a first and we're perplexed." They added, "We don't know what will happen next, but if there are requests during the investigation, we would like to respond sincerely." Regarding the request for Hashida not to appear before the media, they said, "It was because there are discrepancies between his and (his ex-wife's) accounts. Our intent was to ask him not to speak one-sidedly."

    (Japanese original by Hiroyuki Oba and Shota Harumashi, Tokyo City News Department; and Yuki Noguchi and Saori Moriguchi, Osaka City News Department)

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