Tokyo (AFP) – Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his cabinet on Wednesday in an apparent attempt to distance his administration from the conservative Unification Church. Because of her ties to assassinated leader Shinzo Abe and senior members of the ruling party.
The cabinet reshuffle, which ranked second in just 10 months since Kishida took office, came after his election victory in July that was expected to ensure long-term stability through 2025. The treasury has fallen.
Kishida said it is important to win people’s trust and that the new cabinet includes only those who have agreed to a strict review of their relations with the church and help victims of alleged fraudulent religious acts.
“We have to be careful about our relationship with an organization that has known social problems so as not to arouse suspicion among the public,” Kishida said.
A poll released Monday by NHK public television showed that support for the Kishida government fell to 46% from 59%.
Most respondents said they believed that politicians did not adequately explain their ties to the UC. Kishida’s plan to hold a state funeral for Abe also divided public opinion due to Abe’s conservative stance on national security and war history.
“The cabinet reshuffle was damage reduction” to divert public attention from the Unification Church scandal, political analyst Atsu Ito told the TBS talk show.
Abe was fatally shot while giving a campaign speech two days before the parliamentary elections. Police and media reports said the suspect targeted Abe over suspected links to the Unification Church, which the man hated because his mother’s huge financial donations to the church destroyed his family.
Abe, in his video message to the church’s World Peace Foundation, in September 2021, praised its work toward peace on the Korean Peninsula and its focus on family values. Some experts say Abe’s appearance in the video may have motivated the suspect.
The links between the church and Japan’s ruling party go back to Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister and shared the United States’ concerns about the spread of communism in Japan in the 1960s.
Since the 1980s, the church has faced accusations of crooked conscription and brainwashing of its followers into making huge donations. Critics say the church contributed votes to lift frontier candidates to electoral victories, while allegedly prompting their opposition to equal rights for women and sexual minorities to be reflected in government policies.
On Wednesday, Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the church, which now calls itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, said at a press conference that one of the groups associated with the church, called the Peace Federation, is more politically active and campaigning.
But he denied any “political interference” with certain parties, and said Kishida’s call for his party members to distance themselves from the church was “unfortunate.”
Tanaka said that the church and its affiliated groups naturally developed closer relations with conservatives in the LDP than others because of their common anti-communist stance.
“We worked with politicians who had clear anti-communist views to build a better country,” Tanaka said. “We continue to be active not only in Japan but as part of our global network against communism.”
Kishida denied the church’s “disproportionate influence” on government policies.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who retained his position, announced the new government, including five ministers who retained their positions, five reinstated and nine for the first time.
Seven priests who confessed to having ties to the church have been removed. They include Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, who said church followers were volunteers in his previous election campaigns, and Public Safety Committee Chairman Satoshi Ninoyo, who attended an event organized by a church-affiliated organization.
Several newly appointed ministers said they had made donations and had other connections to the church in the past, drawing criticism from opposition leaders.
Senior Japanese Communist Party deputy Akira Koike said the cabinet reshuffle failed to cover up relations with the Unification Church. “It just showed the LDP’s deep ties to the church because they can’t form a cabinet if they exclude church-related legislators.”
Kishida said the main purpose of the cabinet reshuffle is to “break through one of the biggest post-war crises” such as the coronavirus pandemic, inflation, rising tensions between China and the Taiwan-Russia war on Ukraine. He said enhancing Japan’s military capacity and spending is a top priority.
Kishi was replaced by former Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, and Taro Kono, who had previously served as the vaccination czar during the pandemic as well as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Defense, returned to the Cabinet as Digital Minister.
Besides Matsuno, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Economy Minister Daichiro Yamagiwa, Transportation Minister Tetsuo Saito and Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki also retained their jobs.
Economy and Trade Minister Koichi Hagiuda, who also has ties to the church, was transferred to head the party’s policy research committee and replaced by former Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura. Katsunobu Kato was appointed health minister for the third time, tasked with coronavirus measures.
The new cabinet suggested that Kishida task veterans with key positions such as diplomacy, defense, economic security and epidemic measures while carefully maintaining the balance of power between the party’s wings to promote unity amid growing speculation of a power struggle within Abe’s faction.
Despite criticism of Japanese politics being dominated by older men, the majority of cabinet members are still men over 60, with only two women.
They include Sana Takaichi, a conservative ultra-conservative close to Abe who was appointed minister of economic security, and Keiko Nagaoka, the first education minister replacing Shinsuke Suematsu, who also acknowledged his links to the Unification Church.
Gender Minister Seiko Noda, who admitted sending a message to an event for a church-related group in 2001 in the presence of her aide, was replaced by Masanobu Ogura in his first cabinet position.