TOKYO: Japan on Monday launched an expert commission to debate potential restrictions on “spiritual sales” tactics and solicitations for religious donations, after the killing of former prime minister Shinzo Abe fueled controversy over practices by groups like the Unification Church.
“I hope for discussions on whether the Consumer Affairs Agency was doing enough on this issue, and how we should react,” consumer affairs minister Taro Kono said at the commission’s inaugural meeting. He relayed instructions from Prime Minister Fumio Kishida for a “speedy response.”
Kono established the commission, which will meet online around once a week, to examine and improve the agency’s response to complaints regarding spiritual sales – cajoling consumers to buy items at exorbitant prices by taking advantage of their religious beliefs and anxieties – as well as solicitations for religious donations. The inquiry will not focus on any specific organisation, but is widely considered a response to the recent controversy surrounding the Unification Church.
Abe’s suspected killer told investigators that he held a grudge against the Unification Church because his mother’s financial contributions to the organisation drove his family to ruin. He said he believed Abe had ties to the church.
Spiritual sales by the Unification Church first came under the spotlight in the 1980s. A legal amendment in 2018 granted Japanese consumers an up to five-year window to cancel such purchases.
Still, the problem persists. The Unification Church was involved in over 30,000 incidents involving spiritual sales from 1987 to 2021, resulting in total damages of ¥123.7 billion (US$899 million), according to Japan’s National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales. About ¥2.3 billion of the sales occurred between 2019 and 2021, after the law was changed.
The number of complaints received by the Consumer Affairs Agency regarding spiritual sales has remained roughly flat in recent years, totalling around 1,400 in fiscal 2021. While the agency has a team of around 3,300 experts to help the victims, it focuses largely on helping them get out of existing contracts. The new commission will debate whether the agency should have done more to prevent the sales, as well as its future response.
In 2009, Japanese authorities pursued a case against a hanko seal seller believed to have close ties to the Unification Church. But unlike with spiritual sales, there is no law against soliciting religious donations, no matter how steep.
“It’s difficult to draw the line between [legitimate] donations” and illegal activity, Kono said. The commission will discuss whether the Consumer Affairs Agency can restrict excessive donations and support affected individuals under existing laws.