TOKYO (AP) — The Japan branch of South Korea’s Unification Church acknowledged Monday as its member the mother of the suspect in the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but denied that it demanded large donations from anyone.
Japanese media reports have cited large donations by the mother and her subsequent bankruptcy as a possible motive. Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the church, declined comment on the specifics of the donations, saying a police investigation was ongoing. Speaking in generalities, he confirmed some people had made generous donations, but stressed none were forced.
The reports that link Abe with the money woes say Tetsuya Yamagami, who was arrested Friday on-scene after the shooting, blamed the church for his family’s financial problems.
“Trying to understand how such hatred may have possibly led to the killing is totally perplexing,” Tanaka told reporters at a Tokyo hotel.
Yamagami was not a church member, and neither was Abe, Tanaka said. Abe merely supported the church’s efforts promoting peace, he added.
Although police have not identified the church, Japanese media reports pointed to the Unification Church in Japan, also known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, founded by the late Sun Myung Moon. Some reports, citing anonymous sources, said Yamagami saw Abe as linked to the church.
Tanaka brushed off Japanese media reports as speculation, stressing the motive was still unclear.
Abe was fatally shot in Nara, western Japan, while campaigning for Sunday’s nationwide parliamentary elections. Video and photos taken by the crowd showed Yamagami pulling out a homemade gun. Two smoke-filled blasts were fired. Abe collapsed and later died at a hospital.
“This is something that should never have happened, and I feel a deep outrage,” Tanaka said, bowing deeply. “My heart aches that Japan has lost a loved and respected leader.”
Such bows are part of Japanese protocol to express condolences and do not necessarily signify admission of guilt.
Tanaka wasted no time in distancing his church from the assassination, stressing there were no records of Yamagami ever having attended a service or event, although he could possibly have come with his mother as a child.
Yamagami’s mother, who joined the church in the late 1990s, had been taking part in church events about once a month lately. There were many years in between during which she did not come at all, according to Tanaka’s account.
Although the church has had scandals related to donations, compliance measures were set up in 2009, and there have not been any major troubles since then, Tanaka said.
“The amount of donations is up to each individual,” he said. “We are grateful to those who give large donations, but nothing is required.”
The news conference, to which only select media were invited, started with Tanaka bowing in a solemn moment of prayer.
The Associated Press was not invited, despite putting in a request. The news conference was livestreamed by Japanese media company Abema, and parts of it were carried on Japanese TV broadcasts.
“As a religious leader, I take this extremely seriously,” Tanaka said of Abe’s assassination.
Japanese media reports say Yamagami's mother declared bankruptcy in 2002, but records dating back 20 years couldn’t be confirmed and Tanaka said details were unknown.
Yamagami is under custody and not available for comment.
The Unification Church has been embroiled in some controversy over the years. Since its founding in 1954, Moon built a business empire with hundreds of ventures in more than a half-dozen countries, from hospitals and universities to newspapers and a ballet troupe.
Prominent among the controversial practices are the mass weddings, or arranged marriages, often pairing followers from different countries, allegedly aimed at building a multicultural religious world. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the site for a mass wedding.
In Japan, celebrity actresses have joined the church, while politicians courted friendly ties because of the church's influence. The Japan branch was founded in 1959. Church spokesperson Ahn Ho-yeul said the church has 300,000 believers in Japan and 150,000-200,000 in South Korea.
The church's beliefs are based on the idea that love in marriage and family is what God wants for world peace and harmony.
The majority of Japanese people adhere to a mix of Shinto and Buddhism as their spirituality and folklore.
Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yurikageyama
Yuri Kageyama, The Associated Press