The killing of the former Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, on July 8th, sent shock waves rippling across Japan and the globe. Even after stepping down as Prime Minister, in the summer of 2020, owing to health issues, Abe was that rarest of presences on the Japanese political scene: an internationally recognizable face, even a celebrity. His hawkish brand of conservatism divided Japan and infuriated many leaders in the region, but endeared him to others, most famously Donald Trump. And, as the single longest-serving prime minister in Japan’s history, he remained, in many ways, the country’s face to the world.
The brazen daylight shooting, days before a major national election, initially seemed, to many, like a case of political violence. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida declared, “We must defend free and just elections, which are the basis of democracy,” and said that Japan would “never yield to violence.” The sentiment was echoed and amplified by other political parties, who explicitly framed the shooting as an act of “terrorism.” This narrative began to crumble when the police released a statement that the gunman, Tetsuya Yamagami, a forty-one-year-old Nara resident, professed no issues with Abe’s politics. Instead, it seemed, he had been motivated by a grudge against a religious group that he considered Abe to be associated with. Yamagami blamed the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, otherwise known as the Unification Church, for destroying his family. His mother had donated more than a hundred million yen over the years, since joining the church, in 1998, plunging the family into dire poverty. After a series of attempts to attack church members and facilities, the alleged assassin had switched his focus to Abe.
The connections between Abe’s family and Sun Myung Moon, the Korean religious leader who founded the Unification Church, are little discussed in mainstream Japanese media but well documented. Moon created the Federation for Victory Over Communism, a political wing of the Unification Church, in 1968. During the Cold War, he used church influence to forge inroads with world leaders, including Japanese ones. Moon’s ties to the Abe family extend back three generations. The former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi—Abe’s grandfather—and his allies spoke highly of Moon and his adherents, and Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, often counted on volunteer labor and a bloc of votes from Moon’s followers in support of its campaigns. These included those of Abe’s father, Shintaro, who was first elected to the Diet in 1958 and who was a leading candidate to become Prime Minister in the nineteen-eighties, before a scandal derailed his ambitions. Abe’s personal connections to the Unification Church surfaced in 2006, when the press reported that he had sent a congratulatory message to the participants at a church-affiliated event being held in Fukuoka. Last September, Abe made an appearance, along with Donald Trump, at the Unification Church’s digital Rally of Hope, convened under the auspices of Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han Moon. “The inspiration that they have caused for the entire planet is unbelievable,” Abe said of the Moon family.
The revelation of the church connection added yet another layer of strangeness to Abe’s assassination, for Japan is not widely associated with religious extremism or gun violence. The Japanese constitution, framed by American occupying forces and enacted in 1947, stipulates that “the State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.” Yamagami’s makeshift weapon testifies to how difficult it is to procure a gun. But his alleged crime also sheds light on the fact that Japan isn’t nearly as secular a nation as many, including its own citizens, believe it to be.
Japan regularly appears on lists of the least religious countries. Yet there are more Shinto shrines on the islands of Japan than there are convenience stores, and special occasions such as the New Year bring out large portions of the population to celebrate at holy spots. According to statistics published last year by the Japanese government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, a hundred and eighty thousand groups are officially registered as religious corporations. Together, these groups claim more than a hundred and eighty million followers—a startling figure, given Japan’s population of a hundred and twenty-six million. In an accompanying report, the agency says that the numbers of followers were inflated by citizens’ “weak sense of religious belonging,” meaning that respondents felt comfortable claiming a relationship with multiple faiths simultaneously. Even so, in survey after survey, some seventy to eighty per cent of citizens profess to having no religious beliefs at all.
The Japanese translation of the term “religion,” shukyo, is of surprisingly recent origin, dating to the late nineteenth century. It’s not that Japan lacks a spiritual side. The eighth-century “Kojiki,” the nation’s oldest extant literary work, refers to eight million kami, or spiritual presences, a number that is less a firm accounting than a measure of immeasurability. The kami form the basis for the faith of Shinto, which has long coexisted alongside imported Buddhism and the tradition of Shugendō, a domestic ascetic discipline that incorporates aspects of both. While priests, monks, and nuns specialize in one tradition or another, average folk will drift among them. This flexibility in choosing spiritual traditions to suit the occasion is summed up by a popular aphorism: “Born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.”
After Japan’s ports were opened to the world, in 1858, many there saw how the “hodgepodge” spirituality, as one Japanese religious leader called it, stood in contrast to the organized, evangelical religions of the West, where faith hinged on a contract between the devout and an almighty God. This absolutism perplexed the polytheistic Japanese. Scholars of the time grappled with “religion” alongside other new concepts, such as “liberty,” “individual,” “constitution,” and “bank.” The idea of shukyo effectively pitted Japan’s agrarian spiritual traditions, and by extension Japan itself, against the ascendant industrial West. In books and lectures, critics argued fiercely about whether Shinto and Buddhism represented shukyo or something altogether different.
In 1613, the shogun had banned Christianity over fears of foreign interference in local politics, a brutal persecution famously portrayed in Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence.” But, with the opening of Japanese ports, Western powers successfully lobbied to get the centuries-old prohibition lifted. Partly to blunt the expected influx of Christian missionaries, imperial authorities made a sweeping and divisive decision in 1868: Japan would henceforth officially recognize a single faith, Shinto, as the “national virtue” and enthrone the emperor at its head, making him by turns a ruler and a living kami. This forcible streamlining of Japan’s spirituality didn’t solve anything, and helped pave the way for nationalism, imperialism, and militarism. The right of Japanese citizens to freely practice religion didn’t become a reality until Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.
Freedom to worship in the postwar era reinvigorated long-dormant local spiritual traditions. But it also fuelled the rise of entirely new forms of religious practice, some created at home, others arriving from abroad. The Japanese called these newcomers shin shukyo, or “new religions.” Some were benign reinterpretations of existing faiths, or imports with established traditions overseas. Other new religions represented fringe presences even in their home countries, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, from America, or the Unification Church, from South Korea.
New religions account for less than ten per cent of the groups tallied by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, mirroring a broader drop-off in professed religious belief of all kinds in Japanese society, and the numbers of adherents have been in steady decline since the late eighties. Even so, new religions have caused a disproportionate amount of turmoil in Japanese society. The most infamous case is that of Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that launched a deadly nerve-gas attack on the Japanese subway system, in 1995. Today, the horrors of Aum are practically synonymous with shin shukyo in Japan, and a major reason why many Japanese citizens may feel a reluctance to identify with shukyo in any form. But it was the Unification Church that first brought the term into the Japanese spotlight.