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Editorial: Japan PM is evading hard question of party ties to Unification Church

We have to wonder if the administration of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida intends to seriously address the Unification Church issue. Our doubts stem from the prime minister's answers concerning the church, known formally as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, during a recent House of Representatives Budget Committee meeting.

    Kishida has instructed Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Keiko Nagaoka to investigate the Unification Church under the provisions of the Religious Corporations Act in connection with the group's alleged harmful activities including massive donations and "spiritual sales" -- selling items purported to bring spiritual benefits.

    Launching the probe should have been a serious decision made with an eye to asking a court to order the religious organization's dissolution. And yet, when asked at the Budget Committee what the standards would be to take that step, the prime minister's attitude wavered. Initially, he had stated that the church's actions violating the Civil Code would not be considered as factors affecting the government's decision to request a court order, but just a day later he said that they could be considered.

    The culture ministry had been cautious to move on the Unification Church because the only two previous times court orders were issued, including on the AUM Shinrikyo cult, the target groups had committed criminal acts. On the other hand, a Consumer Affairs Agency expert panel, which is considering measures to help the church's victims, pointed to civil case rulings against the group as sufficient grounds for an investigation.

    Kishida revised his initial answer, which seemed to narrow down the investigative options, after it was lambasted for being backward-looking, as opposed to revealing the present situation. It is likely that the prime minister's instruction to the culture minister came without any coordination within his government.

    We also have lingering concerns about the answers from the Cabinet minister in charge of the issue. Nagaoka simply read out hypothetical questions and answers prepared by bureaucrats, and they clashed noticeably with what she was actually being asked by lawmakers at the Budget Committee meeting.

    It is unacceptable for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) to deflect criticism over its connections to the Unification Church by launching an investigation, and thus sweep those connections under the rug.

    All Kishida has said, repeatedly, about his party's close relationship with the church is that "it is important to sever all ties going forward," showing no resolve to do the work needed to truly expose the truth. He has also continued to refuse to investigate former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's and lower house Speaker Hiroyuki Hosoda's suspected deep ties to the religious group.

    Meanwhile, Kishida has failed to address issues within his own Cabinet. For example, we have seen constantly shifting explanations from economic revitalization minister Daishiro Yamagiwa whenever new ties between him and the Unification Church are discovered. Opposition party calls for his resignation are entirely unsurprising after he said, "We may be seeing new findings (about myself and the church) in the future," as if he was not taking the issue seriously, and the prime minister's responsibility for appointing him in the first place is being questioned.

    The circumstances surrounding the Unification Church's rebranding as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, which was certified under the second Abe administration, have also yet to be clarified.

    What the public is demanding, along with relief for victims, is a reckoning over the long-standing relationship between the LDP and the church. Any perfunctory response will fail to dispel the people's distrust of Japan's politics.

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