Photo/Illutration Koichi Hagiuda, policy chief of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, talks to reporters about his relationship with the Unification Church in Tokyo on Aug. 18. (Koichi Ueda)

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida apologized for the relationships that have been exposed between ruling party lawmakers and the Unification Church, but many politicians continue to deny knowing anything about their ties to the religious group.

The Diet members’ connections to the Unification Church have often been formed through its affiliated groups, and lawmakers say they were unaware of the affiliation.

But that claim has been challenged by a group of lawyers as well as a former follower of the Unification Church.

The use of the many groups, the critics say, has given the politicians a convenient shield to obfuscate their relationship with the church.

Koichi Hagiuda, chairman of the LDP’s Policy Research Council, visited a facility of the church before the July 10 Upper House election.

Hagiuda, however, said those in attendance were members of the Women’s Federation for World Peace. He insisted he was unaware the facility belongs to the church, which is now formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

Hagiuda also said he has paid fees to the Women’s Federation for World Peace on multiple occasions. “The name of the group is very similar to (the church’s) but I chose not to report it,” he said.

The Unification Church told The Asahi Shimbun that it has at least 24 related groups, including the Women’s Federation for World Peace.

They were all established by Sun Myung Moon, the founder of the church, and are each defined as “an organization that shares the same vision” with the church.

The word “peace” often appears in the name of the groups.

One of them, the Universal Peace Foundation, hosted an event in September 2021, to which former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a message.

The man suspected of murdering Abe in July this year has mentioned that speech and Abe’s ties to the Unification Church during questioning by investigators.

His mother’s large donations to the church that financially ruined his family are believed to have been behind his attack on Abe.

After the shooting, Tomihiro Tanaka, chairman of the Japanese arm of the church, told an Aug. 10 news conference that the related groups “deploy independent activities,” and that the purpose of these groups “is not to obtain new members (for the church) nor to collect funds.”

But the controversy over the donations and the church’s “spiritual sales” prompted Kishida to try to distance the party from the church.

“As the president of the LDP, I apologize without any reservation” over the church’s connections to party members, Kishida said at a news conference on Aug. 31.

He said he has instructed Toshimitsu Motegi, secretary-general of the LDP, to make “cutting ties with the group in question” a key principle of the party for full implementation among LDP lawmakers.

If the principle applies to affiliated groups of the church, the list of LDP lawmakers affected could be substantial.

The Federation for World Peace, for example, has supported Yoshifumi Miyajima, a former LDP Upper House member, in an election.

Daishiro Yamagiwa, the state minister for economic revitalization, participated in an event believed to have been hosted by the church-affiliated Ambassadors for Peace.

Some Diet members have paid fees to the International Federation for Victory over Communism.

A man in the Kanto region who was a Unification Church member up until a few years ago said he played an active role for the International Federation for Victory over Communism in the mid-2000s.

He said a senior official of the church told him through the Line messaging app, “There is a political event happening.” The man said he ended up handing out leaflets of a Diet member.

“The members of the church and its related groups overlap,” he said. “I was told not to give out the name of the church, but the politician involved knew I was a follower of the church.”

Representatives of each of these related groups told The Asahi Shimbun that they operate independently of the Unification Church.

Shinsuke Okuno, a Lower House member of the LDP who has paid fees to the Federation for World Peace, has followed the lines of the group’s explanation and denied ties to the Unification Church.

“It is the Federation for World Peace that I have a relationship with, not the former Unification Church,” he told The Asahi Shimbun.

When told that the group is related to the church, Okuno repeatedly said: “They are different groups with different leaders. Do some more research.”

The National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, an organization that has long criticized the Unification Church and helps former followers recoup their donations, has reacted to the politicians’ denials.

On Aug. 24, its website listed more than 70 groups that are tied to the church, including those confirmed by the church. The list also includes the names of events and publications that are connected to the church.

The politicians, the lawyers group said, can simply check the list to determine if a relationship exists.

Yasuo Kawai, a lawyer in the organization, said the list is based on information gathered from the publications and websites of the church and its related groups.

Some of the listed groups are now believed to be inactive, Kawai said.

“The church uses these related groups to make it difficult for people to see its identity and to achieve its goal of penetrating society and politics,” Kawai said. “It is possible that some politicians are using these groups to deny their ties with the church.”