TOKYO — The brazen assassination of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a homemade firearm has shocked a nation unaccustomed to high-level political violence.
But there was another surprise in the weeks after the murder as details emerged of an alleged killer who was well off until his mother’s huge donations to the controversial Unification Church left him. poor, neglected and filled with rage.
Some Japanese have expressed understanding, even sympathy, for the 41-year-old suspect, especially those of the same age who may feel pangs of recognition related to their own suffering during three decades of economic malaise and social unrest.
There have been suggestions on social media that care packages should be sent to suspect Tetsuya Yamagami’s detention center to cheer him up. And more than 7,000 people have signed a petition asking for leniency in the prosecution for Yamagami, who told police he killed Abe, one of Japan’s most powerful and controversial politicians, because of his ties to an anonymous religious group widely believed to be the Unification Church.
Experts say the case has also brought to light the plight of thousands of other children of church worshipers who have been victims of abuse and neglect.
“If he hadn’t allegedly committed the crime, Mr. Yamagami would deserve a lot of sympathy. There are many others who are also suffering” because of the faith of their parents, said Kimiaki Nishida, professor of psychology at Rissho University and an expert in cult studies.
There have also been serious political implications for Japan’s ruling party, which has kept close ties to the church despite controversies and a series of legal disputes.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s popularity has plunged since the murder and he has reshuffled his cabinet to purge members with links to the religious group. On Thursday, the national police chief tendered his resignation to take responsibility for Abe’s assassination.
Yamagami, who is being held for mental evaluation until the end of November, has previously expressed hatred on social media for the Unification Church, which was founded in South Korea in 1954 and since the 1980s has made facing accusations of underhanded recruitment practices and brainwashing adherents into making huge donations.
In a letter seen by The Associated Press and tweets believed to be his own, Yamagami said his family and his life had been destroyed by the church because of his mother’s huge donations. Police confirmed that a draft of Yamagami’s letter was found in a computer confiscated from his one-room apartment.
“After my mother joined the church (in the 1990s), my whole teenage years disappeared, with some 100 million yen ($735,000) wasted,” he wrote in the typed letter, which he sent to a blogger in western Japan the day before. he allegedly murdered Abe during a July 8 campaign speech in Nara, western Japan. “It’s no exaggeration to say that my experience during this period has distorted my entire life.”
Yamagami was four years old when his father, an executive of a company founded by the suspect’s grandfather, committed suicide. After her mother joined the Unification Church, she began making large donations which ruined the family and shattered Yamagami’s hope of going to college. His brother later committed suicide. After a three-year stint in the Navy, Yamagami was until recently a factory worker.
Yamagami’s uncle, in media interviews, said Yamagami’s mother donated 60 million yen ($440,000) within months of joining the church. When her father died in the late 1990s, she sold the business property worth 40 million yen ($293,000), putting the family out of business in 2002. The uncle said that he had to stop giving money for food and school to the Yamagami children because the mother had given it to the church, not her children.
When Yamagami attempted suicide in 2005, his mother failed to return from a trip to South Korea, where the church was founded, his uncle said.
Yamagami’s mother reportedly told prosecutors she was sorry for troubling the church about her son’s alleged crime. Her uncle said she looked devastated but remained a church follower. Authorities and the local bar declined to comment. Repeated attempts to contact Yamagami, his mother, his uncle and their lawyers were unsuccessful.
Beginning in October 2019, Yamagami, who allegedly tweeted as “Silent Hill 333”, wrote about the church, its painful past and its political issues.
In December 2019, he tweeted that his grandfather blamed Yamagami’s mother for the family’s problems and even tried to kill her. “What’s most heartbreaking is that my grandfather was right. But I wanted to believe my mother.”
Part of the reason Yamagami’s case has struck a chord is that he is part of what Japanese media have called a “lost generation” who have been stuck with low-paying contract jobs. He graduated from high school in 1999 during the “employment ice age” that followed the implosion of the country’s 1980s bubble economy.
Despite being the world’s third-largest economy, Japan has faced three decades of economic turmoil and social disparity, and many of those who grew up during those years are unmarried and stuck with unstable jobs and feelings of isolation and unease.
Some high-profile crimes of recent years, such as massacres in Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics district in 2008 and a fatal arson attack on Kyoto Animation in 2016, have allegedly involved “lost generation” attackers with family backgrounds and troubled professionals.
Yamagami’s case also shed light on the children of Unification Church adherents. Many are neglected, experts say, and there has been little help because government and school officials tend to resist interference on religious freedom grounds.
“If our society had paid more attention to the issues over the past decades, the (Yamagami) attack could have been avoided,” said Mafumi Usui, a professor of social psychology at Niigata Seiryo University and a cult expert. .
More than 55,000 people have joined a petition calling for legal protection for ‘second generation’ worshipers who say they were forced to join the church.
Abe, in a September 2021 video message, praised the church’s work for peace on the Korean Peninsula and its emphasis on family values. Her video appearance may have motivated Yamagami, said Nishida, the psychology professor.
Yamagami reportedly told police he had planned to kill the church founder’s wife, Hak Ja Han Moon, who has led the church since Moon’s death in 2012, but changed the target as it was unlikely that she travels to Japan during the pandemic.
“Although I am bitter, Abe is not my real enemy. He is only one of the most influential supporters of the Unification Church,” Yamagami wrote in his letter. already lost the mental space to think about the political meanings or consequences that Abe’s death will bring.”
The case drew attention to ties between the church, which arrived in Japan in 1964, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party which ruled Japan almost continuously after World War II.
A ruling lawmaker, Shigeharu Aoyama, said last month that a party faction leader told him how church votes could help candidates who lack organizational support.
Tomihiro Tanaka, head of the church’s Japanese branch, denied “political interference” with any particular party, but said the church had developed closer ties with ruling party lawmakers than with others because of their common anti-communist stance.
Members of the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, which for decades has provided legal assistance to people in financial disputes with the church, say they have received 34,000 complaints about lost money exceeding a total of 120 billion yen ($900 million).
Tanaka accused lawyers and the media of “persecuting” church worshippers.
A former adherent in her 40s told a recent press conference that she and two sisters were forced to join the church while in high school after their mother became a follower.
After two failed church-arranged marriages, she said she woke up from “mind control” and returned to Japan in 2013.
As a second-generation victim “who saw my life destroyed by the church, I can understand (Yamagami’s) pain, even though what he did was wrong,” she said.