TOKYO (AP) — Japan’s economy minister tendered his resignation on Monday over his ties to the Unification Church after facing mounting criticism in a growing controversy involving dozens of party lawmakers in power.
Daishiro Yamagiwa’s resignation is another blow to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government, which has been rocked by his party’s close ties to the controversial South Korea-based church following the assassination of the former leader Shinzo Abe in July.
Yamagiwa faced growing demands from opposition lawmakers for his resignation after he repeatedly said he had no recollection of his past attendance at church meetings while traveling abroad and that he had posed for group photos with church leader Hak Ja Han Moon and other leaders.
Kishida on Tuesday appointed former health minister Shigeyuki Goto to replace Yamagiwa as economy minister.
Kishida said Goto is a seasoned politician who is “very good at explaining” and has a “passion” for economic and social reform. Kishida said he expected him to play a central role in coordinating and achieving key policy goals, including a major economic package that Kishida plans to announce later this week. Goto’s appointment is to be made official after a ceremony at the palace later on Tuesday.
Kishida’s government support ratings have plunged over its handling of the scandal and for holding a highly unusual state funeral for Abe, one of Japan’s most controversial leaders, who is now seen as a key link between the Ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Church. Abe sent a video message in 2021 praising Hak Ja Han Moon at a meeting of the Universal Peace Federation-affiliated church.
Since the 1980s, the church has been accused of underhanded business and recruiting tactics, including brainwashing members into paying it huge portions of their salaries.
“I just tendered my resignation” to Kishida, Yamagiwa told reporters on Monday. He said he regularly threw away documents and therefore could not clearly verify past contact with the church and only offered explanations after reports of his past ties to the church surfaced. “As a result, I ended up causing trouble for the administration,” Yamagiwa said. “I have attended church meetings many times and it has given credibility to the group, and I deeply regret that.” He pledged to stay away from the church in the future.
A ruling party survey in September found nearly half of its roughly 400 lawmakers had church ties, including cabinet ministers, many of whom shared the church’s conservative views and sent messages or attended church meetings, but not as followers of church theology. Kishida has pledged to cut all such ties and recently said he has asked the government to probe the church, with the option of revoking its legal status. Media surveys show that many Japanese want a clearer explanation of how the church may have influenced party policies.
Kishida said he had accepted Yamagiwa’s resignation because “as prime minister, I must prioritize our work to advance economic measures, a supplementary budget and support for victims of church issues.” .
Yamagiwa, who has come under fire for clinging to his post and stalling parliamentary sessions due to questioning by opposition lawmakers, was seen as having been forced to resign. He said he had no intention of resigning as a lawmaker because he had broken no laws.
Former Prime Minister Abe was shot dead during an outdoor campaign speech in July. The suspect, Tetsuya Yamagami, told police he killed Abe because of his apparent connection to a religious group he hated. A letter and social media posts attributed to Yamagami said her mother’s large donations to the Unification Church bankrupted her family and ruined her life.
The church, founded in South Korea in 1954 by Sun Myung Moon, was granted religious organization status in Japan in 1968 amid an anti-communist movement backed by Abe’s grandfather, the former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi.
The group acknowledged that there had been instances in which it had received “excessive” donations. He says the problems have eased since he passed tougher compliance measures in 2009 and promised further reforms.
The police investigation into Abe’s murder led to revelations of widespread ties between the church and members of the ruling party, including Abe, over their shared interests in conservative causes. The case has also brought to light the suffering of relatives of adherents, some of whom say they were forced to join the church or left impoverished or neglected due to the devotion of their parents.
Many critics regard the church as a cult due to problems with worshipers and their families, including financial and mental difficulties.