Photo/Illutration Taro Kono, the consumer affairs minister, addresses the first online meeting of experts on Aug. 29 discussing how to deal with dubious transactions by the Unification Church. (Mihoko Terada)

Legal experts, in their first meeting concerning Unification Church activities, suggested various measures to restrict its shady business practices but noted that political will is needed to make a difference.

Taro Kono, the consumer affairs minister, addressed the Aug. 29 online meeting and asked members to frankly discuss not only what could be done within the framework of laws overseen by the agency but also what might be needed in a larger context requiring recommendations submitted to the government.

Complaints and criticism about the Unification Church’s business activities first emerged in Japan in the 1980s. The issue resurfaced after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot and killed by a suspect who held a grudge against the Unification Church.

The suspect’s life became difficult after his mother donated the family’s money to the Unification Church.

Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has long worked to help victims of the Unification Church’s “spiritual sales,” is among the eight members on the panel under the Consumer Affairs Agency.

The church changed its official name to the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification following the earlier wave of criticism about its spiritual sales practices, in which members were coerced into buying items at exorbitant prices from the group.

How the church collects donations will be a major point of discussion by the panel.

To crack down on such donations under the Consumer Contract Law, authorities will need to determine that such donations are made based on contracts normally used to sell products.

Tsuneo Matsumoto, a professor emeritus of consumer law at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo, said any claim by the Unification Church to eliminate curses placed by a follower’s ancestors in exchange for a donation could be designated as a service contract.

Matsumoto, who is not on the panel, added that a clear legal interpretation that such donations are provided as compensation for a service would make it easier to apply the Consumer Contract Law for such cases.

Another topic for the panel is how to deal with the church’s egregious efforts to force followers to provide donations.

“There is a need for rules that forbid acts that take advantage of people’s ignorance or fragility and may cause damage,” Shiori Kanno, a lawyer on the panel, said.

She said there was also a need for stronger measures, such as disbandment orders, against any religious corporation that repeatedly ignores such rules.

Another law that will be re-examined for its effectiveness against donations is the Specified Commercial Transactions Law.

The law was used by prefectural police in the 2000s to crack down on companies affiliated with the Unification Church by restricting certain actions, such as inappropriate solicitation of products.

The law has been used as the basis for seeking criminal charges or having the Consumer Affairs Agency issue administrative orders.

Lawyers who have represented former followers trying to recoup their money given to the church said that using the law to restrict egregious solicitations for donations would help to prevent such acts.

Although the law contains specific provisions about dealing with door-to-door, mail order or telemarketing sales, there is no clear section regarding solicitation of donations.

One panel member also raised what could become a tricky political issue.

Naoko Yoshino, a vice president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, called for an assessment of why such dubious practices by the Unification Church have continued for so long.

“Despite the long years of warnings about its activities, damage continues to be reported,” Yoshino said. “We must assess why that was allowed to happen.”

Abe’s suspected killer was quoted as saying he targeted the former prime minister because of his ties to the Unification Church.

The group has had a long relationship with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Connections have recently been uncovered between the church and members of the reshuffled Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other LDP lawmakers.

Those relations have raised doubts among the public that the LDP was sincerely addressing problems with the church.

Kito pointed out that in addition to the assessment by the Consumer Affairs Agency panel, an inter-ministry body led by the Justice Ministry was looking into how to deal with issues related to the Unification Church.

“If it turns out that even such a body will face difficulties in tackling the issue, there will be a need to deal with the problem by naming a state minister who would go beyond ministerial boundaries and charged specifically with handling the matter,” Kito said.

Matsumoto, the consumer law expert, said that, in the end, dealing with the church will depend on how serious the Kishida administration is about resolving the issue.

(This article was written by Mihoko Terada, Hiroki Koizumi and Suguru Takizawa.)