The Proposed Freezing of Assets of Religious Corporations the Government Seeks to Dissolve: A Danger for All Faiths in Japan

Parliament of Japan

by Bitter Winter — The proposed law immediately targets the Unification Church, based on controversial data about “victims” and “damages,” but establishes an unfair general principle with ominous implications for the future.

We sign this urgent statement to express our concern about the possibility that a new law may be passed in Japan allowing the assets of religious corporations for which a request of dissolution has been filed to be “preserved” or frozen, and a trustee appointed to manage them, without even waiting for the outcome of the court dissolution case. The law targets the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, formerly known as the Unification Church, which the government is trying to dissolve as a religious corporation in Japan through a lawsuit.

We have known the Family Federation for many years and are aware of its problems in Japan. We understand that some Japanese members of the Family Federation were accused of having exerted in the past an undue pressure on other devotees, and the public in general, to make donations or purchase certain artifacts.

We are also aware that the Family Federation in Japan sincerely tried to correct past problems, with some success. Before the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the number of complaints for events that happened in the 2010s and the 2020s had significantly declined with respect to those dating back to previous decades.

We are also aware that similar problems exist among both old and new religious traditions. Almost all churches and religions have been accused in some countries or stages of their history of being excessively aggressive in asking for monetary contributions in one way or the other.

Proponents of the asset-freezing law claim that it is needed to preserve the interests of the “victims,” which may otherwise never be refunded. We understand, however, that hundreds of cases have already been settled and that, notwithstanding folk statistics circulated in the media, and even without considering that some claims refer to the events that allegedly happened decades ago, the number of pending cases is comparatively limited. It is also without proportion with the scope of the proposed measure.

It seems that, rather than protecting the alleged victims, the measure is aimed at putting the Family Federation immediately out of business in Japan and preventing it from organizing an effective defense against the liquidation suit by depriving it of the necessary resources. It also proves that the claim that the Family Federation, once dissolved, will continue to enjoy religious liberty and will “only” be deprived of its tax-exempt status as a religious corporation is false. In fact, the request to freeze the assets and appoint a trustee shows that the real intent of the opponents is to prevent the Family Federation from continuing its normal activities in Japan.

Liquidating the Family Federation and freezing its assets would open the way to similar actions against dozens of other religious movements that are not popular with the media or with some lawyers or political groups. We already hear voices in Japan accusing other religious groups and calling for similar measures against them.

Diet of Japan

Japan’s Parliament, the National Diet, where the new law proposal will be discussed. Credits.

Scholars have studied how campaigns against religion start by targeting comparatively small and unpopular groups. Measures against them are supported by the media and applauded by public opinion (whose ideas about these groups are, of course, largely shaped by the same media). However, these measures become precedents and establish general principles soon applied against dozens of other religions.

We have seen this process at work in Russia and China, which both started targeting the Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of other religions regarded as “anti-social,” but gradually extended their repression to all religionists the regimes saw as potential dissidents.

We have certainly no intention of comparing Japan and its beautiful democracy to these totalitarian and oppressive regimes. However, our experience demonstrates that ideologies that are in power in these regimes, including Communism, are often also at work in democratic countries. That the opposition to the Unification Church in Japan had one of its political roots in Communist campaigns targeting its conservative ideas and activism has been acknowledged by scholars who have studied the issue.

We call on Japanese politicians and courts to reject the proposed law allowing the assets of religious corporations against which a dissolution lawsuit has been filed to be frozen, and to reconsider the dissolution request, acknowledging the dangerous far-reaching implications of these measures and the permanent stains they would create on the international image of Japan as a democratic country respectful of human rights.

We call on the democratic allies of Japan and the United Nations to make their voice heard as a voice of reason, freedom of religion or belief, and human rights.

We call on all churches and religions that have a presence in Japan to speak out against the new asset-freezing law and the dissolution. No matter how much they can disagree with the Family Federation on many subjects, the new law and a precedent allowing for dissolution of religious organizations that only lost civil as opposed to criminal cases would threaten them as well.

Remaining silent hoping to be spared by campaigns whose final aim is to impose severe limitations affecting all religions would place them in the position of the average timid German clergyman during the Nazi years, captured in the famous poem by Lutheran pastor and dissident Martin Niemöller. “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

October 29, 2023

Marco Respinti, Director-in-charge, “Bitter Winter,” a daily magazine on freedom of religion and human rights

Thierry Valle, President, CAP-LC – Coordination des Associations et des Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience

Massimo Introvigne, Co-founder and Managing Director, CESNUR – Center for Studies on New Religions

Eric Roux, Chairman, EIFRF – European Inter-Religious Forum for Religious Freedom

Francesco Curto, Co-founder, Fedinsieme [Faiths Together]

Alessandro Amicarelli, President, FOB – European Federation for Freedom of Belief

Aaron Rhodes, President, FOREF – Forum for Religious Freedom Europe

Hans Noot, Director, Gerard Noodt Foundation for Freedom of Religion or Belief

Willy Fautré, Co-founder and Director, HRWF – Human Rights Without Frontiers

Ambassador Sam Brownback, Co-Chair, International Religious Freedom Summit

Katrina Lantos Swett, Co-Chair, International Religious Freedom Summit

Raffaella Di Marzio, Managing Director, LIREC – Center for Studies on Freedom of Religion, Belief, and Conscience

Rosita Šorytė, President, ORLIR – International Observatory of Religious Liberty of Refugees

Camelia Marin, Deputy Director, Soteria International