TAKING MEDIA TO TASK FOR BIASED COVERAGE OF LDP-UNIFICATION CHURCH TIES
In its September 13 edition, The Asahi Shimbun carried a front-page article entitled “Approval Rating for Kishida Cabinet Lowest at 41%”, noting that more respondents (47%) in a recent poll turned their thumbs down on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for the first time since he came to power last October 4. The liberal daily attributed this reversal in public support level to: 1) Kishida’s decision to hold a national funeral for assassinated former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and 2) poor handling of matters relating to the probe into the ties his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has had with the Unification Church over the decades.
Brushing aside as insufficient the explanations Kishida gave at the Diet, the Asahi asserted that the LDP probe failed to dispel “serious doubts” about the relationships between the church and a number of LDP members, including Abe.
The article reminded me of the frenzied series of pieces the daily put out in reporting on the three scandals that hit Abe, abbreviated as “Mori, Kake, and Sakura.” (The first two involved allegations of cronyism in 2017, when Abe allegedly did favors for two schools—Moritomo Gakuen and Kake Gakuen. The third had to do with the cherry blossom parties Abe hosted annually as prime minister, when he was accused of having misused state funds.) No matter how hard Abe tried to explain the incidents at the Diet to prove he had done nothing illegal in these cases, the Asahi insisted his words were “unconvincing” and “inadequate.” I personally think that, if the daily and other liberal news outlets as well had covered these incidents with a little fairer and more objective insight in the first place, society would have regarded them more dispassionately. That is why I believe it is incumbent on the Asahi to closely double-check its past pages before criticizing Kishida—and delve into and report accurately on the facts that constituted the offenses allegedly committed by the Unification Church.
Abe, who was cut down before being able to realize his life’s goals, has become the prime victim of the media’s biased reporting. Instead of mourning his death, the Asahi has turned to heartlessly reporting on Abe and his purported dark connection with the Unification Church. Without citing concrete evidence, a host of popular commentators also accuse Abe and his LDP itself of having had a “special relationship” with the church (Commentator Kenji Goto in “The Weekly Diamond” September 10).
Allow me to stress once more: the Japanese media, starting with the Asahi, must rigorously investigate if the church is still committing the anti-social crimes today for which it was once notorious, such as its “spiritual sales.” If that is the case, the daily will definitely have to fulfill its responsibility by reporting on the reality based strictly on facts. I believe such investigative reporting must at least date back to September 2006, when the first Abe administration got under way, and cover the period under the Fukuda/Aso administrations (September 2007-August 2009), the Democratic administration that followed (September 2009-August 2011), and the eight years from the start of the second Abe administration in December 2012 (when he made a comeback from illness) through July 8 this year, when he was gunned down. The assassin reportedly held a grudge against Abe and the church, which reportedly bankrupted his family by compelling his mother, a follower, to make exorbitant donations.
But the big media in Japan can hardly be expected to conduct such basic research. So I decided to do the investigation on my own into the church’s crimes by following back related news, selecting six major dailies (the Asahi, the Mainichi, the Yomiuri, the Nikkei, the Sankei, and the Tokyo/Chunichi) in an effort to find out what they reported during the above period in terms of the church’s crimes.
To determine how many articles on the church’s crimes these dailies carried during these dozen years, I extracted appropriate pieces by using keywords like “The Unification Church,” “The Family Federation for World Peace and Unification,” “spiritual sales,” and “huge donations.” I made sure to eliminate cases that did not appear directly linked with the church’s anti-social crimes or sales contract troubles that affected unsuspecting church followers.
Negligible Number of Related Articles Until Recently
In 2007, when a kidnap-for-ransom incident occurred in Paraguay involving Unification Church followers, the dailies carried quite a number of pieces on the unfolding drama. Once the case was resolved, however, articles on incidents involving the church’s spiritual sales forcing church members to buy expensive goods, such as personal seals, increased significantly between 2009 and 2010. Incidentally, that was when the short-lived Democratic administration was in power.
In 2011, the dailies carried occasional news on courts handing down judgments ordering the Unification Church to compensate victims for damages inflicted by its illicit marketing practices, but the total number of church-related articles decreased drastically.
It is an entirely different story today. Commentators on TV talk shows rant wildly about the alleged relationship between Abe and the Unification Church. But anyone who observes the extremely small number of articles related to the church for nearly ten years between December 26, 2012, when the second Abe administration was formed, and July 8 this year when he was murdered, will be surprised: the media was so silent one would have thought there were no problems at all with the church.
In 2012, three of the six dailies carried a total of 4 related articles—two by the Sankei and one each by the Yomiuri and the Asahi. In 2013, only the Tokyo/Chunichi carried a single piece. The following year, the Yomiuri and the Asahi were the only dailies carrying one article each. In 2015, the Mainichi and the Asahi carried one piece each, with the Sankei, the Yomiuri, and the Asahi carrying two pieces each in 2016. The next year, the Asahi, the Yomiuri, the Tokyo/Chunichi ran one piece each. The six dailies then carried no news related to the church for two straight years —2018 and 2019. In 2020, the Sankei was the only daily with just one piece, and in 2021, the Yomiuri was the only one that carried a piece about the church. From then on until the day Abe was assassinated, the six dailies carried absolutely no church-related pieces.
In 2018, the Consumer Contract Act was revised to reinforce the measures to enable consumers to recover defrauded money. Spiritual sales were incorporated into the revision as a clear target of the crackdown. That presumably contributed to the decline in major crimes in the church’s illicit marketing operations: in point of fact, there were no church-related articles in any of the six dailies published in 2018 or 2019. In 2020 and 2021, the Sankei and the Yomiuri carried only one related piece respectively, but there were none afterwards—until July this year when Abe was shot dead.
TV talk shows daily leak “news” about the topic without restraint, assuming a posture of viewing the Unification Church and its affiliates as evil and blaming politicians for any form of relationships they have or once had with these entities. But there is something fundamentally wrong with this mindset. If these groups are as problematical as the media maintain, why have they left the church and its affiliates almost unreported over the past ten years or so? More to the point, what made them refrain from reporting on them almost altogether?
I suspect it is because the media themselves actually see nothing wrong with the Unification Church and its related groups today―if not in the past. That is why I am convinced that the media have the responsibility to dig deep into―and tell the truth about—the reality of the church’s activities across Japan today.
Common Election Tactics
Needless to say, cult-like marketing and extortion of huge sums of donations are absolutely unacceptable. But haven’t these antisocial activities diminished over the years now that the church was punished by the law? I presume that was the reason the media chose not to report on the church. That being the case, politicians like Koichi Hagiuda, who serves as head of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, should not be to blame for having had contact with the Women’s Federation for World Peace, a church-affiliated group recognized by the United Nations as an authentic NGO.
Some critics also point out that the LDP is inescapably dependent on the Unification Church for votes. The church is believed to have between 60,000 and 70,000 votes at its disposal. In the upper house election in July, the LDP garnered over 18,250,000 votes in the proportional representation component of the contest. (Each voter casts two votes, one for candidates within their district and one for at-large candidates; the at-large seats are then proportionately allocated based on the number of votes garnered.)
I believe roughly 60,000 votes steered from a supporting group would be enough for the LDP to secure one Diet seat. But I take issue with the view that the LDP is at the mercy of the votes the church is dangling before it. In the combined September 25/October 2 issue of The Sunday Mainichi Weekly, commentator Soichiro Tahara accused Abe of “managing the allocation of Unification Church votes as additional votes to go to LDP candidates to secure Diet seats.”
As the veteran journalist notes, any political party allocates votes as part of its election tactics. For instance, the minority Japan Communist Party (JCP) instructs its members to vote for Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP) candidates, well aware that the two parties have fundamental differences over thoughts and beliefs, including the long-term vision for the nation’s future. Meanwhile, the top echelon of the Constitutional Democratic Party (CDP), which depends on votes from Rengo, Japan’s largest national trade union, discuss with its representatives how its votes should be allocated. It is a very natural part of the election tactics political leaders resort to: they are counted on by their supporting organizations to precisely predict and allocate votes.
Opposition parties, including the CDP, are objecting to the state funeral for Abe on September 27, claiming that the event is unconstitutional because it is based only on a cabinet decision with no legal foundation. But journalist Rui Abiru, an editorial writer for the Sankei, has this to say about these objections :
“The government has been conducting a series of important ceremonies over the years on the basis only of cabinet approval with no further legal foundation. This includes: the annual August 15 Memorial Service for War Dead; the 10th Anniversary Memorial Service for the Victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake held in 2021; the Commemorative Ceremony Marking the 30th Anniversary of Emperor Naruhito’s Accession to the Throne held in 2019; various banquets for foreign dignitaries visiting as state guests; and the Ceremony Marking the 50th Anniversary of Okinawa’s return from US Rule in 2022. There’s nothing unconstitutional about them, I must point out.” (“Genron TV” September 9, 2022)
Will CDP politicians still insist that they will not attend these and other government functions going forward because they purportedly lack a legal foundation, having been approved only by the cabinet?
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,016 in the September 22, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)