JAPAN: Japan’s threat to international religious freedom

By Aaron Rhodes

The Messenger Opinion (15.07.2023) – Japan has a well-earned reputation as a defender of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, known and admired for its lively, open politics and tolerance for dissent. But if the current government goes through with its threat to dissolve a minority religious group, it will not only deny religious freedom at home but show that liberal democracies may not be serious about defending principles they promote.

The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, better known as the Unification Church, has been under scrutiny by Japanese media, political parties and government bodies since Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was assassinated a year ago, on July 8, 2022. Tetsuya Yamagami, the man accused of shooting Abe with a homemade gun, reportedly held him responsible for the fact that Yamagami’s mother had given a substantial amount of money to the Unification Church.

Abe was not a member of the church but had taken part by video in a meeting organized by an international NGO, the Universal Peace Federation (UPF), founded by church leaders. Over the years, hundreds of others, including many national and international figures, have done the same thing.

The facts surrounding this tragedy have been documented by sociologist Dr. Massimo Introvigne, an expert on new religious movements. Prejudice against “cults” may have played a role. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, opponents of the church began a campaign in the media and on the internet, and some church members reportedly received death threats.

Leading this campaign was Japan’s Communist Party, exploiting the fact that several other members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) also had had contacts with the UPF. The Unification Church, founded by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who was jailed and tortured by the North Korean communist regime, has been fiercely anti-communist and socially conservative.

Other leading figures in the campaign against the church include lawyers who have denounced its fundraising practices and “de-programmers” who have earned money by persuading Unification Church followers to abandon the church. The “scandal” of political figures having had even tenuous connections with the church, and the danger of “cults” to Japanese society — including, to some, the Jehovah’s Witnesses — has been the main interest of mainstream Japanese media following Abe’s death. Some in the media and in the political class have laid blame on the church for his assassination.

Commentary from outside Japan has not been helpful. As Introvigne found, the U.S. government’s report on international religious freedom “gives equal coverage to the typical anti-cult position that the attack against the [Unification Church] and the Jehovah’s Witnesses ‘was not about religious freedom’ but about ‘harm’ caused to members and society.” The report, he concluded, showed the U.S. being “soft” on an ally.

Japan just earned a score of 96/100 for its respect for political rights and civil liberties from Freedom House, but that independent body sidestepped the government’s threat to religious freedom in its report.

This suggests that should the Japanese government act on the proposal to dissolve the church, reaction by the United States — Japan’s strongest ally and the champion of religious freedom around the world — and by the human rights community may be tepid. That would present a problem for religious minorities in Japan and potentially for others around the world.

Religious freedom is threatened by aggressive secularism in the developed Western world, but more acutely by rising authoritarianism and totalitarianism in China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and elsewhere.

If Japan, a supporter of the United Nations and international norms, dissolves a legally constituted religious group, undeterred by international human rights institutions and liberal democracies, authoritarian states may see a green light for further assaults on Christians, Muslims, minorities such as the Ahmadi Muslims, Jews, the Baha’i and others. And if any Western state raises alarm about such abuses, the abusers could point to Japan’s overlooked violations and call them hypocritical.

With so much at stake, human rights monitors and friends of Japan should help ensure that the principle of religious freedom is not corroded.

Aaron Rhodes is senior fellow in the Common Sense Society, whose council of trustees is chaired by Thomas Peterffy, an investor in The Messenger. Rhodes is also president of the Forum for Religious Freedom Europe and was executive director of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights from 1993-2007. He is the author of “The Debasement of Human Rights.”

Photo: Mourners hold a candlelight vigil to pay tribute to Japan’s late former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who was fatally shot during a campaign speech on July 8, 2022.Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images


Japan: Abduction and Deprivation of Freedom for the Purpose of Religious De-conversion Paperback – July 2, 2012

by  Human Rights Without Frontiers International  (Author), Mr Willy Fautre  (Editor, Contributor), & 3 more

See all formats and editions

This report by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), an independent nongovernmental organization, documents the abduction and confinement of Japanese citizens for the purpose of religious de-conversion, and the failure of Japanese police and judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute those responsible for such cases of domestic violence. The failure to provide the victims of such kidnappings with equal protection under the law, and the impunity of those responsible, constitute a serious violation of the Japanese people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights and the international human rights standards to which Japan is legally bound.


Further reading about FORB in Japan on HRWF website