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The alleged assassin of Shinzo Abe may have been driven by a grudge against 'Moonies'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The investigation continues into the assassination of Japan's former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, this month. It's drawn attention to the relationship between the suspected killer's family, Japanese politicians and the Unification Church. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The king of kings and the officiators for the...

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The Unification Church has been known for its mass wedding ceremonies...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Reverend Dr. Sun Myung Moon...

KUHN: ...And its former leader, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, self-proclaimed messiah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH CHORUS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

(APPLAUSE)

KUHN: Japanese and foreign politicians, including ex-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, have recorded messages of support for the church.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHVIED RECORDING)

SHINZO ABE: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "In honoring Dr. Hak Ja Han Moon and all of you," he said, "I would like to express my profound thanks for your tireless efforts in resolving disputes in the world."

Hak Ja Han Moon is the church's current leader and the widow of Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who founded the church in South Korea in 1954. Japanese media report that the suspected assassin decided to kill Abe after watching his videotaped message. Forty-one-year-old Tetsuya Yamagami said he held a two-decade-long grudge against the church. He claims his mother donated more than $700,000 to it, bankrupting his family. The church was quick to distance itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOMIHIRO TANAKA: (Through interpreter) As for the motive for suspect Yamagami's crime and the donation issue reported by the media, we'd like to refrain from discussing it, as the case is under police investigation.

KUHN: Tomihiro Tanaka, president of the Japan branch of the church, told the press that Yamagami wasn't a church member, but his mother was.

Ties between the Unification Church and Japanese politicians go back decades. Abe's grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who was prime minister in the late 1950s, helped to set up the Japanese branch of an anti-communist group with links to the church.

HIROMI SHIMADA: (Through interpreter) They established a federation for victory over communism, and Kishi supported it. And this situation laid the foundation for Abe's assassination.

KUHN: Hiromi Shimada is an expert on religion at Tokyo Women's Christian University. He says that the church has long provided volunteers to help Abe's Liberal Democratic Party at election time. Although Abe himself was not a member, he has praised the church's work. Many of his party's politicians, Shimada says, have turned a blind eye to allegations against the church.

FUMIAKI TADA: (Through interpreter) They plant fear in you, saying that you're full of sin and corrupted, you'll end up in hell and your family will face a similar fate.

KUHN: This former member writes under the pen name of Fumiaki Tada because he says the church targets its critics. He claims the church duped him into joining, brainwashed him and conned him out of money. In addition to the sins of Adam and Eve, Tada says, church members are taught about the sins of Japan's colonial rule over Korea in the early 20th century.

TADA: (Through interpreter) We were told that we must make up for it with money. So for the church's South Korean headquarters, the Japan branch is their wallet.

KUHN: Tada won his lawsuit against the church. That helped him come to grips with his ordeal and share his experiences with fellow plaintiffs, but he said that's an outlet Abe's suspected killer never had.

TADA: (Through interpreter) He was the child of a believer, and he had nobody to talk to. This is one of the reasons he committed the crime, and I feel sorry for that.

KUHN: Prosecutors will seek a mental evaluation to see whether Yamagami can be held criminally responsible for his actions. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.