Christian Education

Shinzo Abe’s Assassin and Japan’s Complicated Spirituality

The murder of former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe on July 8 sent shock waves across Japan and the world. Even after stepping down as prime minister in the summer of 2020 due to ill health, Abe was the rarest presence on the Japanese political scene: an internationally recognizable face, even a celebrity. His warmongering conservatism has divided Japan and infuriated many leaders in the region, but endeared him to others, including Donald Trump. And, as the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, he has remained, in many ways, the face of the country to the world.

The brazen daylight shooting, days before a major national election, at first seemed, to many, like a case of political violence. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said, “We must stand for free and fair elections, which are the basis of democracy”, and said Japan would “never give in to violence”. The sentiment was echoed and amplified by other political parties, which explicitly called the shooting an act of “terrorism”. That narrative began to crumble when police released a statement that the shooter, Tetsuya Yamagami, a forty-one-year-old Nara resident, said he had no problem with Abe’s politics. Instead, it seems, he had been motivated by a grudge against a religious group with which he considered Abe to be associated. Yamagami blamed the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, otherwise known as the Unification Church, for destroying his family. Her mother had donated more than one hundred million yen over the years since she joined the church in 1998, plunging the family into dire poverty. After a series of attempted attacks on church members and facilities, the suspected assassin had zeroed in on Abe.

The ties 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 established the Federation for Victory over Communism, a political wing of the Unification Church, in 1968. During the Cold War, he used the Church’s influence to gain inroads with world leaders, including including Japanese. Moon’s ties to the Abe family go back three generations. Former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi – Abe’s grandfather – and his allies praised Moon and his followers, and Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, often relied on volunteer labor and a bloc of votes from Moon supporters to support his campaigns. These included those of Abe’s father, Shintaro, who was first elected to the Diet in 1958 and was a leading contender for prime minister in the 1980s, before a scandal derail his ambitions. Abe’s personal ties to the Unification Church surfaced in 2006, when the press reported that he sent a congratulatory message to attendees of 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, organized under the auspices of Moon’s widow, Hak Ja Han Moon. “The inspiration they’ve caused for the entire planet is incredible,” Abe said of the Moon family.

The revelation of the church connection added another layer of weirdness to Abe’s killing, as Japan is not widely associated with religious extremism or gun violence. Japan’s constitution, drawn up by the occupying American forces and promulgated in 1947, stipulates that “the state and its organs shall abstain from any religious education or any other religious activity”. Yamagami’s makeshift weapon is a testament to how difficult it is to get hold of a gun. But his alleged crime also highlights the fact that Japan is not as secular a nation as many, including its own citizens, think.

Japan regularly features on lists of the least religious countries. Still, there are more Shinto shrines on Japan’s islands than there are convenience stores, and special occasions such as New Year’s Day bring much of the population to celebrate at shrines. According to statistics released last year by the Japanese government agency for cultural affairs, 180,000 groups are officially registered as religious corporations. Together, these groups claim over one hundred and eighty million followers – a surprising number, considering Japan’s population of one hundred and twenty-six million. In an accompanying report, the agency says the number of followers was inflated by citizens’ “low sense of religious affiliation”, meaning respondents felt comfortable claiming a relationship with several denominations simultaneously. Even so, survey after survey, some seventy to eighty percent of citizens say they have no religious beliefs.

The Japanese translation of the term “religion”, shukyo, is of surprisingly recent origin, dating from the end of the 19th century. It’s not that Japan lacks a spiritual side. The 8th-century “Kojiki,” the oldest extant literary work in the country, refers to eight million kami, or spiritual presences, a number that is less a firm accounting than a measure of incommensurability. The kami form the basis of the faith of Shintoism, which has long coexisted with imported Buddhism and the tradition of shugendō, a domestic ascetic discipline that incorporates aspects of both. As priests, monks, and nuns specialize in one tradition or another, ordinary people will drift among them. This flexibility in choosing spiritual traditions according to the occasion is summed up in a popular aphorism: “Born a Shinto, marry a Christian, and die a Buddhist.”

After Japan’s ports were opened to the world in 1858, many saw how “hodgepodge” spirituality, as one Japanese religious leader called it, contrasted with the organized evangelical religions of the West, where faith rested on a contract between pious and almighty God. This absolutism puzzled Japanese polytheists. Scholars of the time tackled ‘religion’ alongside other new concepts, such as ‘freedom’, ‘individual’, ‘constitution’ and ‘banking’. The idea of shukyo effectively contrasted the agrarian spiritual traditions of Japan, and by extension Japan itself, with the ascendant industrial West. In books and lectures, critics fiercely argued over whether Shintoism and Buddhism represented shukyo or something completely different.

In 1613, the shogun had banned Christianity for fear of foreign interference in local politics, a brutal persecution described in Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence”. But, with the opening of Japanese ports, Western powers successfully lobbied for the age-old ban to be lifted. Partly to curb the expected influx of Christian missionaries, the imperial authorities took a drastic and divisive decision in 1868: Japan would henceforth officially recognize a single faith, Shinto, as the “national virtue” and enthrone the emperor as its head. , making him alternately a ruler and a living kami. This forced rationalization of Japanese spirituality solved nothing and helped pave the way for nationalism, imperialism and militarism. The right of Japanese citizens to freely practice their religion only became a reality after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Postwar freedom of worship reinvigorated long-dormant local spiritual traditions. But it has also fueled the rise of entirely new forms of religious practice, some created within the country, others coming from abroad. The Japanese called these newcomers shin shukyo, or “new religions”. Some were benign reinterpretations of existing religions or imports with traditions established abroad. Other new religions represented marginal presences even in their home countries, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, from America, or the Unification Church, from South Korea.

New religions make up less than 10% of groups listed by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, reflecting a wider decline in professed religious beliefs of all kinds in Japanese society, and the number of adherents has been steadily declining since the late eighties. Even so, the new religions caused disproportionate turmoil in Japanese society. The most infamous case is that of Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that launched a deadly nerve gas attack on Japan’s subway system in 1995. Today, the horrors of Aum are virtually synonymous with shin shukyo in Japan, and a major reason why many Japanese citizens may be hesitant to identify with shukyo of any shape. But it was the Unification Church that first brought the term into the Japanese spotlight.