Tetsuya Yamagami, the suspected assassin of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, initially had his eyes set on a different target, police have learned.
Following his arrest on Friday, the 41-year-old has told officials that he was originally aiming to kill Hak Ja Han, the head of the Unification Church, a religious movement that began in South Korea.
But because he couldn’t visit South Korea due to restrictions on global travel during the COVID-19 pandemic, Yamagami chose a victim closer to home—Shinzo Abe.
“I knew that if I aimed and shot at former Prime Minister Abe, I might die, but I just couldn't forgive the Unification Church, so I shot him with a shotgun,” Yamagami said in police interviews, the local news channel All-Nippon News Network (ANN) reported.
The Unification Church has been the center of much public attention after Yamagami confessed to police that he’s long held a grudge against a “certain group” since he was in his teens. Yamagami did not name the group, but said he aimed to kill the leader of the Unification Church, which has also admitted that Yamagami’s mother is a member.
Officially called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the church is known for its mass weddings and its relationships with conservative politicians around the world. Ex-followers have described it as a cult motivated by financial gain and have scrutinized its recruiting and money-making practices, which they say involve coercion. Yamagami himself has blamed the church for bankrupting his mother in 2002, thus souring family relations.
Though officials haven’t confirmed Yamagami’s motives or how they relate to the religious group, Abe was known to be affiliated with the Unification Church. He spoke at past public events praising the organization for its work toward peace between the Koreas. The church has held a press conference acknowledging Yamagami’s mother is a longtime member, but it denied accusations that it coerces members—also known as Moonies—into paying large sums of money.
Takaya Kawase, a professor who studies history and contemporary religion at Kyoto Prefectural University, said it was historically common for Japanese politicians to develop relationships with religious groups that shared the same values for votes. This is especially true for conservative parties, like Abe’s Liberal Democratic party, Kawase said.
“From the 60s to the 80s, the Unification Church and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) had the same shared value of anti-Communism,” he told VICE World News. The group also centers itself on traditional family values, like rigid gender roles and the hetereosexual family, which the LDP supports, Kawase added.
Yusuke Suzumura, an associate professor of political history at Meijo University, said the Unification Church also helped provide young and mid-career politicians with campaign workers during elections, he told VICE World News.
According to interviews with the police, Yamagami first developed his grudge against the church when his mother went bankrupt about 20 years ago. He would wander around the neighborhood where the church was holding meetings with a knife, aiming to kill Hak Ja Han, who was the wife of the church’s late religious leader Sun Myung Moon, according to ANN.
Three years ago, the suspect took a Molotov cocktail to Aichi prefecture, where the Unification Church’s Han was visiting at the time. But only church members were allowed inside the venue and Yamagami wasn’t able to enter.
Yamagami then reportedly turned his focus on Abe, who was the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, Japan’s prime minister from 1957 to 1960 and whom Yamagami blamed for bringing the church to Japan. However, it was unlikely that Kishi played a role in introducing the church to Japan, Kawase of Kyoto Prefectural University said.