Yamagami Tetsuya’s Revenge

Prime Minister's Office of Japan/The State Funeral of Abe Shinzo

One July morning, after years of careful planning, drawing up lists of possible targets, and tinkering with gunpowder and plumbing supplies, Yamagami Tetsuya put his plan into motion. He loaded a homemade shotgun into a bag and boarded the Kintetsu Nara Line, bound for Yamato-Saidaiji Station, where he knew his target would soon arrive by motorcade. 

Abe Shinzo had not been his first choice. The leadership of the Unification Church was higher on his list. They were the target of his rage—for bankrupting his family, for helping drive his brother to suicide, for stealing his future. But they were too well-protected and too hard to track. Abe would do just fine: he was the highest profile ally of the group, he was the grandson of the man that had welcomed them to the country, and, most importantly, he was vulnerable. It was easy enough to find out that he would be in town to campaign for a local Liberal Democratic Party councilor.

Dressed in an unassuming uniform of a slim-fit polo and ten-pocket khakis made in Vietnam, Yamagami blended into his surroundings. He circled the makeshift stage on the north side of the station, where Abe was extolling the virtues of local LDP hack Sato Kei. Even as Yamagami strode toward the former Prime Minister, Abe’s security seemed not to notice him.

The first blast from Yamagami’s gun missed Abe by inches. Neither man was shaken from their tasks. Abe went on speaking. Yamagami closed the distance and fired again. One of the improvised rounds from Tetsuya’s gun opened a subclavian artery in Abe’s neck, and Yamagami was hauled to the ground by one of Abe’s agents.

And both men lay on the pavement, awaiting their fates. Within hours, Abe’s life had slipped from his wounded body and Yamagami was in jail, now facing murder charges.

The Death of a Salaryman

The simple version of the story is that of an unhinged man taking revenge on a politician. But the events that led up to it were set in motion two generations earlier by Abe’s own family, and were bound up in the very foundations of the new Japanese political order imposed by the U.S. after the Second World War. 

Kishi Nobusuke, Abe’s maternal grandfather, was lifted out of Sugamo Prison in 1948. He had shared a cell with other ultranationalist war profiteers Kodama Yoshio and Sasakawa Ryoichi, and the two would go on to join him in leading both above-ground and underworld politics in the 1950s. Kishi went into the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), whose grip on the state was hegemonic. Sasakawa went into business, while Kodama was the go-between for the Central Intelligence Agency and the criminal underworld. What linked their activities was their mutual connection to a burgeoning movement called the Unification Church, which they had welcomed to operate in Japan. 

It might seem odd for Japanese ultranationalists to conspire with a Korean religious organization, but they were working toward the same goals, and occasionally for the same paymasters. The Unification Church was a collaboration between charismatic preacher Sun Myung Moon and South Korea’s CIA. Built on Moon’s eclectic version of Christianity in which he was a new messiah, the group became renowned for its mass weddings between couples whose matches had been arranged by Moon himself. Moon’s personal rolodex could serve as a who’s-who of the twentieth century: he had personal relationships with the Bush and Nixon families, Nation of Islam boss Louis Farrakhan, North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

The church’s political backers intended it to serve as a domestic political tool, a manipulable reservoir for evangelical energy. By expanding membership around the world, the group became wealthy and powerful enough to provide cover for global activities under the banner of Cold War anti-communism. At this height of its anti-communist activities, the Unification Church front-group CAUSA operated as CIA proxies in Nicaragua, delivering money and supplies to Contra rebels even after Congress had barred formal collaboration following the Iran-Contra scandal. Religious devotees proved useful operatives around the world.

For Kishi, Sasakawa, and Kodama, the Unification Church served some of the same purposes. While evangelicals were less numerous in Japan than Korea, the Unification Church was unleashed on campuses to divert young radicals from becoming agents of the Soviet Union and Maoist China. Collaboration between the Unification Church, organized crime, intelligence agencies, and the LDP on international political action was carried out through a World Anti-Communist League subsidiary called the International Federation for Victory over Communism. The LDP’s relationship was lucrative too, since politicians at many levels could expect payoffs for looking the other way on donations and “spiritual sales” of religious collectibles.

These were the men that built Japan as we know it, from top to bottom. On the surface, it worked just fine. The electoral system was rigged in favor of single-party domination, and it was not in the interest of the LDP to change things. They built the developmentalist state with enough state control that liberal maverick and perennial LDP leadership contender Kono Taro referred to Japan as “the last socialist country on the planet.” Abe Shintaro inherited the business from his father-in-law when he married Kishi’s daughter. Abe Shinzo, Shintaro’s son, would be next in line.

Although much lower down than Kishi or Abe the Elder, Yamagami Tetsuya’s father was one of the patriarchs of the same order. He went from the Faculty of Engineering at the elite Kyoto University to a well-compensated position in one of the innumerable construction firms tasked by the LDP with covering the nation in concrete. Such firms were part of the wide network involved in making sure state funds disbursed in the countryside got to the right people. Yamagami’s father divided his efforts between building tunnels and moving slush funds

Like many men too busy with careers to socialize outside of work, he met a woman of complementary background through a matchmaking service, married, and got down to building a family. There were two boys first—an older brother, then Tetsuya—and a daughter. Work kept him away from home. That was normal. He drank too much. That was normal, too. This is the deal that the Japanese salaryman still makes: give your daylight hours to your company, the evening to after-hours boozing, and, even if you never see them, you can guarantee your family a good life. 

He opted out of the deal. In 1984, when Yamagami Tetsuya was four years old, his elder brother five, and his sister not yet born, their father killed himself. Less creative than his son, he chose to jump off a building.

Japan’s New Religious Spring

Japan’s peculiar arrangement was that of a powerful state run by an organizationally weak party that was heavily restricted by the postwar legal system. That arrangement meant that other powers had to be tapped by the LDP to get certain things done. Kishi, Sasakawa, and Kodama had needed the Unification Church for the same reason that they needed the Yakuza—to do things beyond the law. But in doing so, they began to unleash forces that would ultimately spiral beyond the control of their successors.

Layers below the corporate and political elite, the system was hollow. Careerism and middle-class industriousness had their outlets in a regimented corporate society and the culture industries. Even anti-social elements found their place in the system, managed by LDP allies in organized crime, which controlled rackets ranging from games of chance, pornography, and recreational drugs to ultranationalist societies and the quasi-legal commercial sex industry. 

But the more positive kind of social energy—the urge to organize to make the nation a better place, or to make oneself a better person—was harder to deal with. Political idealism didn’t mix well with national prosperity so firmly built on cold, bureaucratic realpolitik. The nationalist fringes that maintained loyalty to the imperial legacy also largely turned pro-U.S. and maintained ties with the establishment. Meanwhile, the radical socialist and labor movements that attracted large numbers of students began to implode by the early 1970s. The official system was stitched up tight. With no political answers for building a better world, an array of new movements began to propose spiritual revolutions instead.

The Unification Church was far from the only group offering a new form of salvation to devotees starved of idealism. In the decades after the war, tens of millions joined an array of groups categorized as “new religious movements” by the Japanese government. 

It was an era of spiritual consumerism. One seeker might be attracted by Tenrikyo, founded by a living goddess for the promise of spiritual liberation through good deeds; another might be swayed by Agonshu’s impressive rituals, conceived by a former Yokohama bootlegger. On the fringes, one could find Happy Science, founded in 1986 by Okawa Ryuho, a charismatic former securities trader and reincarnated Buddha, who began to amass a fortune through donations, real estate deals, and rallies that promised contact with the dead. Even further out were groups like Asahara Shoko’s Aum Shinrikyo. Along with psychedelic initiation rituals and an apocalyptic vision of Buddhism, it recruited followers willing to commit mass murder with sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system in 1994. Among the most successful groups was the Nichiren sect Soka Gakkai, with a message of humanistic commitment, creative reinterpretations of Buddhist doctrine, and a strong sense of community. 

During the 1970s and ‘80s, many of these movements managed to fully establish themselves as tolerated—if not entirely accepted—institutions. But the market for spiritual guidance was about to have a boom. Though he couldn’t have known it, the senior Yamagami had ended his life at the very end of Japan’s years of prosperity. Just a few years later, the country entered the first of several lost decades in the 1990s.

That collapse fueled spikes in membership and popularity for a number of the new religious movements—the same wave that Yamagami Tetsuya’s mother was caught up in. As a result, money came pouring in. Everyone got in on the action: Happy Science expanded their offerings of VIP classes, while Soka Gakkai scooped up discounted real estate to build a portfolio that is now estimated in the tens of billions. Their bond market investments became enough to shift the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Even Aum Shinrikyo found time and money to fill a safe with gold bars, buy a Soviet surplus helicopter, and build a headquarters in Aoyama in between their acts of terrorism.

Unless Unification Church records are opened to the public, nobody will ever be completely sure how or precisely when Yamagami’s mother came in contact with the group. Her brother guessed in an interview that she may have been a member since the 1980s, but she started making massive donations starting in 1991, seven years after her husband’s suicide, when she had returned to Nara with her children.

For the Unification Church, the renewed demand for spiritual guidance meant door-to-door spiritual sales tactics. Representatives, cloaking their affiliation at first, would sell Korean goods and divination services, eventually charging for advice on how to overcome ancestral trauma. For many Japanese who had the salaryman deal ripped away from them—and for a grieving widow like Yamagami’s mother—it seemed like a literal godsend. She funneled her husband’s life insurance policy into the purchase of blessed trinkets and holy books.

In 1998, when the life insurance policy was gone, she sold the house she inherited from her father to keep paying off the Unification Church. When she declared bankruptcy four years later, she disclosed donations to the organization of nearly a million U.S. dollars.

Yamagami Tetsuya’s Rabbit Hole

The wreckage of his father’s death and his mother’s religion marked Yamagami deeply. The young man muddled through life. Without money for college, he did a brief stint with Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, leaving in 2005 to begin drifting between short-term jobs. When his elder brother took his own life in 2015, the darkness seemed overwhelming.

In the midst of that abyss, he began to try and understand just how his mother’s church held such power over his life and Japanese society more broadly. He began accessing information posted online by activists among the children of Unification Church members. The search led him down a rabbit hole that unveiled just how deep the Unification Church’s ties with the Japanese state had become.

The turn had begun in 1993, when the LDP was knocked out of power for the first time in thirty-eight years. The rival coalition included Soka Gakkai’s allied political party, Komeito. (Today, the two are no longer formally linked, but that distinction is a convenient fiction, intended to avoid bumping up against legal restrictions on the separation of religion and politics). The LDP learned its lesson from the defeat—the era of keeping religion to the backrooms of anti-communist politics was over. Around the same time, the Unification Church was entering a new phase of outreach, rebranding itself the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. It was a perfect match. The LDP tapped the new religious movements to provide the support that they lacked, which was necessary to win elections under the competitive new system created by electoral reform.

The result was a deepening Unification Church presence in the campaigns and careers of rising LDP politicians. Those ranks included Abe Shinzo, who went from ordinary representative to filling various cabinet roles and then became Prime Minister in 2006. During Abe’s years of ascendency, Unification Church personnel helped staff his electoral campaigns and local office in the city of Shimonoseki, where he had inherited his father’s power base. The Unification Church’s local office stood directly across from the one occupied by Abe himself, and members came and went freely. When it came election time, Unification Church members manned phone banks.

As Abe climbed the political ladder, the Unification Church stayed by his side: the eighty-thousand votes that the group guaranteed in 2006 propelled him to the office of Prime Minister. Documents from the Unification Church seem to confirm this, recording Sun Myung Moon personally dispatching his staffers to make contact with key Abe faction members.

Meanwhile, the mainstream media in Japan was largely unwilling to run stories linking politicians to the Unification Church. When Yamagami and others wanted to find information, they were limited to informal networks gathering data online. Only after the killing would Japan’s tight-lipped leaders begin to murmur publicly about the Unification Church; one leading member of Abe’s LDP faction described the ties as “deep relations” extending back to “ancient times.”

The reality was that the Unification Church was a willing and active partner in the LDP’s overall political strategy. This support became pivotal to the LDP as the party clawed its way back into power. The Unification Church branched out beyond a handful of powerful factions in national politics to support even peripheral municipal politicians. When Yamagami’s actions finally raised questions about LDP-Unification Church relations in 2022, half of the LDP members sitting in the House of Representatives turned out to have connections to the group.

In exchange for election wins, the church received the vocal, public support of LDP lawmakers, including Abe, who addressed Unification Church gatherings and flew out to events hosted by the group. They began to wield influence or sometimes direct control over public policy, advocating a socially conservative agenda and confrontation with China. These policy suggestions were carried out in sometimes contradictory ways: although the LDP paid lip service to the traditional family, Abe also vowed to send women into the workforce; the LDP resisted proposals from the opposition to legalize same-sex marriage, but tolerated civil partnerships sealed by local governments; and despite LDP governments occasionally ratcheting up tension with China, as in the disputes over the Senkaku Islands, they also strengthened economic and cultural ties.

The LDP played the other side of the religious fence, too. The party eventually brought the Soka Gakkai party Komeito into a coalition, despite its more liberal, vocally anti-war views. This has led to some strange politics in recent years: the LDP staggers forward, jerked from both sides. The party serves as a platform for Abe’s faction and their provocative foreign policy—which included sending the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq—but cannot ever amend the U.S.-imposed constitution because Komeito will force them to back down. Conservative nationalists share power with neo-Buddhist pacifists, with the only logic being to keep everyone in government. As a result of these fragile, mixed alliances, the possibility of a strong leadership figure from within the LDP has become all but impossible. What matters is keeping the ship upright, not getting to any particular destination.

This was the rabbit hole Yamagami went down. The more he learned, the more he was determined to change things—if not for the country, then at least for himself. If he couldn’t hit a member of the Unification Church directly, he decided, the next best option would be their political proxy. All of the thwarted ingenuity and hope found some kind of direction, and he went to work building bombs and guns.

In the end, Abe got a state funeral, while Yamagami sits in a tiny detention facility in Osaka. Having been judged mentally competent to stand trial, he could face the death penalty.

Can a Cult Save Japan?

As condemnations and condolences poured in from world leaders, the assassination was celebrated in some quarters of Japan itself. A thinly-veiled heroic depiction of Yamagami’s story is at the center of left-wing radical filmmaker Adachi Masao’s latest picture, which was rushed into production to open the same week as Abe’s controversial state funeral.

Yagamami invoked no broader ideological agenda, which has made it easy for sympathizers to focus on his personal story of revenge against the Unification Church and its patrons. The basic narrative of Yagamami’s sympathizers is one of catharsis and revenge: those who have run the country into the ground have faced consequences for their actions. Petitions have come in for leniency. At the detention facility, Yamagami has received a steady stream of cash donations to fight his case.

To the extent that Yamagami’s case generates sympathy, it is largely because he embodies the slow decay of the Japanese social order: the failed son of a despairing salaryman, his inheritance siphoned away by one of the nation’s most powerful organizations. As society decays and Yamagami’s enemies tighten their grip, there are fewer and fewer ways for people like him to improve their state. The Japanese family is evaporating, along with the future generations of the Japanese population—a problem now common to Asia and much of the rest of the world. The LDP’s hold on power is a signal that this status quo is only set to continue.

In practical terms, the aftermath of the assassination is unlikely to see much change. While politicians are discussing tentative steps toward ending the predatory solicitation of donations, these will almost certainly be left with loopholes. Some LDP politicians have had links with the Unification Church exposed, but the most powerful will not face any consequences. A lone gunman rarely shifts the course of history.

But a movement with sufficient organization might. The decayed political order that exists in Japan is the same that was established by the Americans after 1945; that same order was renegotiated in the conservative revival and economic freeze that began in the early 1990s. The question, then, is whether or not any of the new religious groups and their adjacent political movements are capable of decisively turning the country in a new direction. With the LDP currently mired in factional duels and fights between special interest groups, and with no organized secular opposition to speak of, the new religious movements seem to be the only option.

If Japan is transformed, it is unlikely to be the Unification Church that does it. Like the LDP, they are the product of the post-1945 order. Without any challenger on the horizon, that leaves Soka Gakkai and their Komeito party. Unlike other challengers, headquartered in foreign capitals or indebted to outside interests, they are a born-and-bred Japanese organization. Their program of Buddhist democracy is not radical, but it represents a break from the order that ossified under the LDP. They have effective leadership and no shortage of members and cash.

The odds are against any rival. On net, it is unlikely that Soka Gakkai currently has this level of political ambition. But any actor who does will have to attain at least the same level of organization and ideological sovereignty. A more likely scenario is that as the Japanese social order decays without replacement, groups like the Unification Church and Soka Gakkai will benefit ever more from their disproportionate organization, wealth, and ability to command loyalty from their members.

The blow Yamagami struck has served as little more than personal vengeance. But if he dodges the noose, it is likely that he will grow old in a society ever more governed by the new religious movements that ruined his life. 

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.