Japan PM purges Cabinet after support falls over church ties

TOKYO (AP) — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his cabinet Wednesday in an apparent effort to distance his administration from the conservative Unification Church. about ties to slain leader Shinzo Abe and senior members of the ruling party.

The reshuffle, the second in just 10 months since Kishida took office, was expected to ensure long-term stability until 2025 after his July election victory. But Abe’s shock assassination on July 8 and its impact on politics added to uncertainty as Kishida gained public support. The cabinet sank.

Kishida said it was important to gain the public’s trust, and the new cabinet included only those who agreed to strictly review their relationship with the church and help victims of allegedly fraudulent religious businesses.

“We have to be careful about our relationship with an organization that is aware of social issues so that they don’t create suspicion among people,” Kishida said.

Support for Kishida’s cabinet fell from 59% to 46% in a poll released Monday by NHK public television.

Most respondents said they felt politicians had not made their relationship with the Unification Church clear enough. Kishida’s plan to give Abe a state funeral has also split public opinion due to Abe’s arch-conservative stance on national security and wartime history.

“The cabinet reshuffle was damage control” to divert public attention from the Unification Church scandal, political analyst Atsuo Ito told the TBS talk show.

Abe was shot while giving a campaign speech two days before parliamentary elections. Police and media reports said the suspect targeted Abe over suspected ties to the Unification Church, which the man hated because his mother’s large financial donations to the church ruined his family.

Abe, in a September 2021 video message to the church-affiliated Universal Peace Foundation, praised their work for peace on the Korean Peninsula and a focus on family values. Some experts say Abbey’s video appearance may have inspired the suspect.

The relationship between the church and Japan’s ruling party goes back to Abe’s grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister and shared US concerns about the spread of communism in Japan in the 1960s.

Since the 1980s the church has faced allegations of corrupt recruitment and brainwashing of its followers into large donations. Critics say the church has contributed votes to fringe candidates to win elections, and has allegedly pressured government policies to reflect their opposition to equal rights for women and gender minorities.

On Wednesday, the president of the church, Tomihiro Tanaka, who now calls himself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, told a news conference that one of his church-affiliated groups, which he calls the “Peace Federation,” is more politically active and involved in election campaigns.

But he denied any “political interference” in specific parties and said Kishida’s call to keep his party members away from the church was “regrettable”.

Tanaka said the church and its affiliated groups naturally developed close ties to the conservatives of the Liberal Democratic Party because of their shared anti-communist stance.

“We have worked together with clear-minded politicians against communism to build a better country,” Tanaka said. “We are doing activities not only in Japan, but as part of our global network against communism.”

Kishida denied that the church had “undue influence” on government policies.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno, who retained his post, announced the new cabinet, which includes five ministers who have retained their posts, five more who have been brought back and nine first-timers.

Seven ministers who admitted their ties to the church were fired. They included Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, Abe’s younger brother, who said church followers had volunteered in his previous election campaigns, and Public Security Commission Chairman Satoshi Ninoyu, who attended an event organized by a church-affiliated organization.

Several newly appointed ministers said they had made donations and had ties to the church in the past, drawing criticism from opposition leaders.

Senior Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Akira Koike said the reshuffle failed to cover unification church ties. “This only showed the LDP’s deep ties to the church because they could not form a cabinet if they excluded church-affiliated lawmakers.”

Kishida said the reshuffle was aimed at “breaking through one of the biggest post-war crises” such as the coronavirus pandemic, inflation, rising tensions between China and self-ruled Taiwan and Russia’s war on Ukraine. He said boosting Japan’s military capabilities and spending is a top priority.

Kishi was replaced by former defense minister Yasukazu Hamada, and Taro Kono, who previously served as vaccination czar during the pandemic as well as foreign and defense minister, returned to the cabinet as digital minister.

Along with Matsuno, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, Finance Minister Dashiro Yamagiwa, Transport Minister Tetsuo Saito, Finance Minister Shunichi Suzuki also kept their jobs.

Economy and Trade Minister Koisei Hagiuda, who has church ties, was moved to head the party’s Policy Research Committee and replaced by former Finance Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura. Katsunobu Kato was appointed as health minister for the third time, given responsibility for the coronavirus measures.

In the new cabinet, Kishida entrusted veterans with key portfolios such as diplomacy, defense, economic security and pandemic measures, suggesting a careful balance of power among the party’s wings to strengthen unity amid growing speculation of a power struggle within Abe’s faction.

Despite criticism that Japanese politics is dominated by older men, the majority of cabinet members are still men over the age of 60, with only two women.

They include Sane Takaichi, an ultra-conservative close to Abe who was named economic security minister, and Keiko Nagaoka, who became education minister and was replaced by Shinsuke Suematsu, who also acknowledged his Unification Church links.

Gender Minister Seiko Noda, who in 2001 admitted to sending messages to a church-affiliated group event attended by her aide, was replaced by Masanobu Ogura in his first cabinet post.

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