Photo/Illutration This building in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward houses the offices of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, more widely known as the Unification Church. (Eishi Kado)

With all the controversy now raging in Japan about the Unification Church and its connection with the political establishment, a major question on the minds of many people is why the name change in 2015 to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unifiction.

Under the Religious Corporations Law, groups that operate facilities in different prefectures are obliged to submit an application for a name change to the education minister.

The administrative procedure is undertaken by the Religious Affairs Division, an arm of the Agency for Cultural Affairs.

According to division officials, the Unification Church submitted its application for the name change in June 2015. The application was formally accepted the following month and the application was certified that August.

When an application is submitted, an assessment is made to confirm the reason for the change and whether the application conforms to legal standards.

Because the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, a division official said “applications are in principle automatically certified as long as they conform to the conditions laid out under the law.”

The official explained that this is “because the procedure is different from one in which the administrative branch formally approves and licenses an organization.”

A bureaucrat in the division currently handling such matters noted there was an awareness at the time that the church had faced stinging public criticism over its activities.

However, the official said “there was no option but to certify the application” as long as it conformed with the provisions of the law.

The Unification Church applied for the name change while Shinzo Abe was midway through his long second stint as prime minister.

Abe was gunned down July 8 by a man who held a grudge against the Unification Church and thought Abe had ties to the organization.

Bureaucrats in the Religious Affairs Division reported to Hakubun Shimomura, who then served as education minister, when the application was submitted and again when it was certified, sources said.

Ordinarily, reports on an application for a name change are not made to the education minister, but the bureaucrats decided to make an exception that time because it was an issue of “high social interest,” according to the sources.

Shimomura tweeted July 13 that after confirming with the Agency for Cultural Affairs, he found out that such reports are not normally made to the education minister.

When asked by reporters about the name change on July 21, Shimomura said, “(I) was never involved with it.”

But he did acknowledge having received reports from the bureaucrats after the application was certified.

At a July 29 news conference, Shinsuke Suematsu, the current education minister, said, “I have been informed that no specific politician lobbied” on behalf of the church.

The bureaucrat who certified the application said, “A lot of time has passed so my memory is ambiguous and I have no documents from that time.”


But another former education ministry official cast doubt on the certification of the name change.

In 1997, Kihei Maekawa served as head of the Religious Affairs Division under the Agency for Cultural Affairs. When the name change was certified in 2015, he was serving as senior deputy minister, the second highest bureaucratic post. Maekawa would later become administrative vice minister.

According to Maekawa, the Unification Church consulted with division officials about a possible name change in 1997. At the time, the church was embroiled in a number of civil lawsuits over its so-called spiritual sales tactics that left members feeling so harassed they ended up purchasing expensive items to fill the churchs coffers.

“Changing the name could lead to covering up the true nature (of the church),” Maekawa said. “I had my subordinates inform the church that the application would not be certified if it was submitted because there was no change in its teachings or social recognition of it.”

Maekawa was informed by the head of the Religious Affairs Division in 2015 when the name change application was submitted.

Maekawa said he could not recall if that report included the reason for the name change or if any politicians were involved.

But he added: “Bureaucrats tend to follow precedent and would not normally totally reverse a past decision. One can only surmise that some form of instruction was given by a politician.”

Division officials said they were still looking into what, if any, exchanges regarding a name change occurred with the Unification Church after 1997. They also said the church apparently submitted the application for the name change in 2015 after deciding the time was right.

A group called the National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales that got involved in helping people who felt they had been taken advantage of by the Unification Church submitted a document to Shimomura in March 2015 asking him not to certify any name change application submitted by the church.

That request was ignored and the application was approved five months later.

“Few people realize that the Unification Church and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification are one and the same,” said Yasuo Kawai, secretary-general of the network. “I believe the name change was one factor for the continuing issues” emanating from the church’s activities.

The church, in a statement issued in late July, said, “Talk about the name being changed to counter criticism from society is nothing more than baseless prejudice.”

Church officials said consultations with the Religious Affairs Division took place from 2000 and denied any involvement by Shimomura in the matters.