Panel meets to address questionable activities of Unification Church
The legal experts, in their first meeting regarding the activities of the Unification Church, suggested various measures to curb its shady business practices, but noted that political will is needed to make a difference.
Taro Kono, the Minister of Consumer Affairs, addressed the August 29 online meeting and asked members to frankly discuss not only what could be done under the laws overseen by the agency, but also what might be needed in a broader context requiring recommendations submitted to the government.
Complaints and criticism of the business activities of the Unification Church first emerged in Japan in the 1980s. The issue resurfaced after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot and killed by a suspect who had a grudge against the Unification Church.
The suspect’s life became difficult after his mother donated the family’s money to the Unification Church.
Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has long worked to help victims of the Unification Church’s “spiritual sales”, is one of eight members of the Consumer Affairs Agency’s panel.
The church changed its official name to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification following the previous wave of criticism over its spiritual sales practices, in which members were coerced into buying items at exorbitant to the group.
How the church collects donations will be a major point of discussion by the panel.
To crack down on these gifts under consumer contract law, authorities will need to determine that these gifts are made on the basis of contracts normally used to sell products.
Tsuneo Matsumoto, professor emeritus of consumer law at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, said any request from the Unification Church to remove curses placed by a follower’s ancestors in exchange for a donation could be referred to as a service contract.
Matsumoto, who is not on the panel, added that a clear legal interpretation that such gifts are provided as compensation for a service would make it easier to apply consumer contract law in such cases.
Another topic for the panel is how to handle the church’s blatant efforts to coerce congregants into donating.
“We need rules that prohibit acts that take advantage of people’s ignorance or frailty and that can cause harm,” said Shiori Kanno, a lawyer on the panel.
She said there was also a need for tougher action, such as dissolution orders, against any religious society that repeatedly ignores these rules.
Another law that will be reviewed for its effectiveness against donations is the Specified Commercial Transactions Act.
The law was used by prefectural police in the 2000s to crack down on businesses affiliated with the Unification Church by restricting certain actions, such as inappropriate solicitation of products.
The law has been used as the basis for seeking criminal prosecutions or asking the Consumer Agency to issue administrative orders.
Lawyers who have represented former congregants trying to recover their money given to the church said using the law to restrict blatant solicitations for donations would help prevent such acts.
Although the law contains specific provisions on door-to-door sales, mail-order sales or telemarketing, there is no clear article concerning the solicitation of donations.
A panel member also raised what could become a tricky political issue.
Naoko Yoshino, vice president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, called for an assessment of why such questionable practices by the Unification Church have continued for so long.
“Despite the long years of warnings about its activities, damage continues to be reported,” Yoshino said. “We need to assess why this was allowed to happen.”
Abe’s alleged killer reportedly said he targeted the former prime minister because of his Unification Church ties.
The group has a long-standing relationship with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Links have recently been uncovered between the church and members of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s revamped Cabinet and other LDP lawmakers.
These relationships raised doubts among the public that the LDP was sincerely addressing issues with the church.
Kito pointed out that in addition to the Consumer Agency panel’s assessment, an interdepartmental body headed by the Justice Department is examining how to handle issues related to the Unification Church.
“If it turns out that even such a body will have difficulty in resolving the problem, it will be necessary to deal with the problem by appointing a Minister of State who would go beyond ministerial limits and be specifically responsible for dealing with the matter” , said Kito. .
Matsumoto, the consumer law expert, said ultimately dealing with the church will depend on how seriously the Kishida administration is committed to addressing the issue.
(This article was written by Mihoko Terada, Hiroki Koizumi, and Suguru Takizawa.)