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Japan gov't prepares Unification Church investigation; eyes dissolution order

Japan Cultural Affairs Agency deputy chief Tetsuo Goda, standing at center, greets expert panel members, foreground, at the start of the panel's first meeting regarding a probe into the Unification Church, in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Oct. 25, 2022. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

TOKYO -- Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs began procedures for its probe into the Unification Church on Oct. 25, as it eyes an unprecedented order to dissolve the religious group for violations of the Civil Code.

    The agency, an external bureau of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, will for the first time exercise its authority to question the church under the provisions of the Religious Corporations Act. A first expert panel meeting was held on Oct. 25 to discuss the framework of the investigation and the scope of the agency's writ regarding the Unification Church, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

    According to the agency, there were no objections to beginning its investigations by the end of the year in line with the central government's goals, or to the government's assertion that violations of the Civil Code qualify as criteria for a religious group's formal dissolution. A clearer picture on the standards for the probe is set to be revealed during the next meeting on Nov. 8, while the agency is also planning to begin collecting information in advance.

    The expert panel consists of 19 members, including religious leaders as well as religious and legal scholars, who are also members of the "religious corporations council," an advisory body to the culture minister.

    Provisions allowing the Cultural Affairs Agency to question religious groups were included in Religious Corporations Act revisions implemented in 1996. In cases where a religious corporation is suspected of committing illegal acts warranting a dissolution order, authorities can request that corporation to submit written reports and interrogate its executives and others.

    However, as this will be the first case that this right of interrogation will be exercised, there is no fixed investigative framework. The Cultural Affairs Agency decided to hold discussions at the dedicated expert panel to ensure that the freedom of religion guaranteed under Japan's Constitution is respected.

    The first meeting was held behind closed doors. Due to the pressing issue of followers' huge donations to the Unification Church, the agency demanded that the panel members discuss criteria promptly. The agency emphasized that the government was seeking to begin formal questioning of church figures by the end of the year, and there were reportedly no objections from the panel members.

    Only two religious groups in Japan have ever been hit with dissolution orders based on the Religious Corporations Act, the AUM Shinrikyo cult, and Myokakuji in Wakayama Prefecture. In both cases, top group officials were facing criminal charges. As for the Unification Church, civil courts have ruled it responsible for illegal activities as an organization. However, there have been no court verdicts recognizing the criminal accountability of the group's top representatives.

    However, expert panel attendees expressed views supporting Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's novel assertion that not just criminal acts but Civil Code violations can trigger a religious body's dissolution "in cases where the organizational nature of these actions, their maliciousness and continuity are recognized." Some panelists also apparently called for investigators to be mindful of freedom of religion.

    After the probe's parameters are set, the Cultural Affairs Agency will consult with the culture ministry's religious corporations council on what exactly to ask the Unification Church and its officials. If the probe confirms that the Unification Church should be disbanded in Japan, a dissolution order request will be filed with the court. If the court approves it, the Unification Church will lose its corporate status and be ineligible for tax and other privileges accorded to religious organizations in the country. The church will not be banned from private activities.

    (Japanese original by Yongho Lee and Seiho Akimaru, Tokyo City News Department)

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