Japan's government is seeking the dissolution of the Unification Church in the country.
The move comes after the assassination of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe in 2022.
The church has escalated its calls for member donations, leading some second-gen to fear extreme action.
The Japanese government voted to dissolve the country's branch of the Unification Church in October, signaling a major setback for the controversial religious movement that has faced accusations of being a cult.
The decision comes following the assassination of Shinzo Abe, Japan's former prime minister. On July 8, 2022, Abe was shot dead by a man who later told authorities he was motivated by hatred toward the Unification Church. The suspect told police his mother went bankrupt after donating money to the church and blamed Abe for promoting the group.
The church has vowed to protect their Japanese branch. In September, TV Asahi News reported that the church's current leader Hak Ja Han Moon called for more than 6,000 Japanese members to become "the special attack unit that will save Japan." A leaked meeting also showed the church escalate its calls for member donations.
Ex-members told Insider they fear how the church will respond to the dissolution attempt. "It's checkmate now," ex-member Teddy Hose said. "This is when cults do really extreme things."
'A perpetuation of colonization'
The Unification Church was founded in South Korea by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in 1954, and became infamous for its high-pressure fundraising activities and mass weddings called Blessings, which were arranged by Moon himself.
Japan has played a crucial role in both the church's founding doctrine and its day-to-day operations since. According to Moon, who was born during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Japan is the "Eve nation" and is responsible for the fall of Korea, the "Adam nation."
"Korea needed to evangelize Japan so that it would be in the position to be the senior partner in the bilateral relationship," Moon wrote in his autobiography, "As a Peace-Loving Global Citizen."
In practice, that meant that Japanese members of the Unification Church were treated unequally, and were conditioned to feel like they had to atone for the occupation, former members of the church told Insider. Japanese members pay 700,000 yen, or just over $5,000 USD, to "liberate" their ancestors' spirits — a common practice in the church. By contrast, US members pay $700.
"The church is a perpetuation of colonization, because Moon is a product of colonization," Hose, who grew up in the Unification Church and left when he was 18, said.
Deep ties to Japan
Abe's assassination sparked complicated feelings among many second-gen — a term for those who were born into the church, like Hose.
"I wish someone didn't get murdered, but I'm also glad there's a change," Hose told Insider. "We all knew it had to be a tremendous incident for something to happen."
The Unification Church has had deep ties to Japanese politics since the late 1950s, when Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi was prime minister. Kishi and Moon developed a friendship that was instrumental in advancing the church's presence in Japan, as well as the political power of Kishi's Liberal Democratic Party faction, which Abe took over in 2006. In 2021, Abe himself delivered a speech at an event hosted by an organization affiliated with the church.
The Japanese branch of the church did not respond to a request for comment from Insider.
Some second-gen said they empathized with the resentment Abe's shooter felt, who, like them, had grown up in what they felt was an abusive and controlling environment.
"The hand of the state combined with this religious group ruined his life and his family's lives — have taken their money, their livelihood, their loved ones. His anger is understood. It makes people do irrational things sometimes when you've been abused to that point," Alisa Mahjoub, a second-gen who left the movement when she was 17 years old, told Insider.
Signs of waning
Since Moon's death in 2012, the Unification Church has begun showing signs of decline. More disillusioned second-gen have left the movement. The church, which has long relied on hefty donations and fundraising from members, has sold properties that once served as the Moon family's estate and church gathering spots, including a 260-acre property in Barrytown, New York, and the Sheraton National Hotel in Arlington, Virginia.
The church estimates their worldwide membership at over 2 million people, according to a spokesperson for the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the official name for the church.
"We have a strong base of second-generation Unificationists across the world," the spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. "Faith is a highly personal experience. Whether someone chooses to stay in this faith community or not is a personal decision that we respect."
Moon's death also left a power vacuum in the church. His wife, Hak Ja Han, took over the group.
His two sons started their own splinter groups, including the far-right, gun-centric Rod of Iron Ministries church. In 2019, its founder, Sean Moon, sued his mother, arguing he was the rightful heir to Moon. The case was dismissed in the district court in 2019 and again by the Supreme Court in 2021.
Previously in 2011, the church sued her other son, Preston Moon and his offshoot corporation, the Unification Church International, over the organization's assets. All remaining claims were dismissed in June this year.
An existential crisis
After Abe's assassination and its ties to the Unification Church were revealed, the church vowed to reform its recruitment and donation practices.
On Tuesday, the church announced they would be setting aside up to $67 million to cover compensation to those seeking damages. This announcement follows a Japanese investigation into the fundraising practices employed by the church following the murder of former Prime Minister Abe. The investigation concluded that the church used manipulative fundraising tactics to sow fear in members.
But some second-gen, who continue to keep tabs on church activities despite leaving the movement, said the church has escalated its demands in recent months as it faces an existential crisis.
In October, the Unification Church publicly slammed the Japanese government's move to dissolve the Japanese branch of the church, arguing that it violates freedom of religion.
Internally, the church has instructed members to pray all night and increased its calls for donations. In a leaked September 26 meeting posted online, Demian Dunkley, regional president of the Unification Church's Asia Pacific branch, named the "Japanese Church Dissolution Attempt" as the first item under a presentation slide titled "Crisis List."
In the meeting, Dunkley revealed the church has insiders within the Japanese government, saying, "Our people, the parliamentarians that like us, are giving us inside information, saying there is probably no way to escape that the church gets dissolved."
To combat the "crisis," Dunkley said the church is "trying to influence the prime minister, of course," through means like the Washington Times, the conservative newspaper owned by the Unification Church, and called on members to sign a petition against the proposed dissolution.
"The situation of our sister church in Japan is a crisis because of the religious persecution they are enduring," the church's spokesperson said in a statement to Insider. "We are working with those on all levels of society who support religious freedom and the right to believe."
Dunkley then showed a spreadsheet categorically breaking down the 815 tithing members in New Jersey and New York, and exhorted members to increase their donations now that their main source of money — Japan — has been cut off.
"If you're wondering if I'm asking you to do this, I'm not. I'm requiring you to do this," Dunkley said of tithing, a practice where members pay 10% of their income to the church.
"All non-profits rely on the generosity of others. Many churches in the US are assessing their resources in this difficult economic time. Our church is no different," the church spokesperson said.
At the end of his presentation, Dunkley displayed a picture of Han. "Mother is coming," he said. "Be ready for Mother."
A potential tinderbox
As the Unification Church intensifies its calls on members, some second-gen are worried that the religious movement could turn to drastic measures as it begins to feel the squeeze.
In September, Japanese outlet TV Asahi News reported that Han addressed more than 6,000 Japanese second-gen in the church's Cheongpyeong headquarters in Korea, calling on them to become "the special attack unit that will save Japan." The use of the term "special attack unit" or "tokkōtai" may refer to the Japanese military's use of suicide attack units during World War II.
Eito Suzuki, the pseudonym of a reporter known for his articles investigating the Unification Church, also published a tweet claiming that the Unification Church hosted an event called Japan Top Gun 2023, bringing together 6,000 Japanese second-gen. The Unification Church did not answer Insider's questions about whether such a gathering occurred or about Han's reported speech.
Still, many second-gen told Insider that they had often heard the church use violent rhetoric, and the reports referencing Japan's "special attack units" were worrying. The language used by the church, coupled with its history of supporting death squads in Latin America, has many second-gen fearing that the pressure on the movement's members will only worsen to the point of extremism.
"When you have a movement that demonizes any kind of mental health or emotional issues, it means that people who need help aren't getting help," Jen Kiaba, a second-gen who left the church, said. "It creates a tinderbox that unfortunately resulted in the assassination of Shinzo Abe."
Kiaba said the current situation in Japan "plays into the history of persecution that the church has experienced, whether we perceive it as rightfully so," adding that she fears this could lead to even more closed systems within the church.
"These closed systems are the places where radicalization can happen," Kiaba said.
Cautious hopes for the future
Despite these fears, many second-gen are hopeful that Japan's decision to dissolve the Unification Church signals a much-needed change. But that requires a lot of work from stakeholders around the world, especially given the group's reach.
"There's so much work to be done because this is not isolated to Japan by any means," Mahjoub told Insider. "It's something that's worldwide at this point."
For example, former US president Donald Trump and Mike Pence gave speeches at a church-organized conference in 2021, when Trump praised the church for "the inspiration that they have caused the entire planet." In 2022, Trump and Mike Pompeo appeared at another Unification Church-affiliated event.
Trump was paid around $2 million from the Universal Peace Federation, a Unification Church-affiliated group, for his appearances, a personal financial disclosure filing from 2023 revealed.
Neither the Universal Peace Federation nor a representative for Trump responded to requests for comment from Insider.
Kiaba said she has felt a "larger frustration" about the outside systems that help keep the church in power, particularly politicians in Japan, the US, and other countries.
"They can't be unaware of the problems within the Unification Church, the way in which members are being treated," Kiaba said. "People in these positions of power are directly benefiting from the subjugation of members."
More awareness and social support systems for people exiting groups like the Unification Church — those "who have been financially, socially dependent on an authoritarian group that tells them what to think, how to live, who to marry," according to Kiaba — are becoming increasingly important.
"It's inspiring to know there's this possibility, but I think the work is just getting started," Mahjoub said.
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