Japan’s government infiltrated by Unification Church. Religious group now sets sights on influencing US.

The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Korean evangelist, gestures dramatically as he speaks at New York's Madison Square Garden. His chief associate, Col. Bo Hi Park, (right) translates the evangelist's Korean to English. The Reverend Moon said that God had told him to bring his message to America.

It was 11.29 a.m. beneath pewter skies in Japan’s southern city of Nara when Shinzo Abe was handed the microphone. The nation’s former prime minister, wearing a navy blue jacket and crisp white shirt, stepped atop the small, red dias outside Yamato-Saidaiji railway station to muted applause. Some 15 meters away stood Tetsuya Yamagami, face mask slung below his nostrils, hands on hips, looking disinterested. As Abe began his campaign speech in support of his local Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) colleague, Yamagami drifted away, only to reappear seconds later directly behind the entourage. Some two minutes and 25 seconds after Abe had picked up the mic, a gunshot rang out, blanketing the scene in thick white smoke. Abe looked around in confusion. Another shot three seconds later caught Abe in the neck and chest. He collapsed. Yamagami was tackled by security and arrested. A homemade firearm was recovered from the street.

The facts of July 8, 2022, are as indisputable as they are shocking. Abe was taken by medical helicopter to Nara Medical University Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Yamagami, 41 at the time, has been charged with his murder and awaits trial later this year. He claims that he was motivated by Abe’s support for the controversial Unification Church, which by extorting over 100 million yen ($670,000) in donations from his mother drove his family into bankruptcy and destitution. “In some ways, this young man is a victim rather than an aggressor,” says Tark Ji-Il, a professor and expert on the Unification Church at Busan Presbyterian University.

In the months following Abe’s assassination, an internal investigation revealed that half of LDP lawmakers had ties to the church, prompting a slew of resignations from the highest levels of the Japanese government. But why did a religious curiosity—cutely dubbed the “Moonies” and best known for mass weddings and anticommunist fervor—spark such murderous rage? And how did it burrow so deep into the governing elite of the then world’s third-largest economy that a purge was necessary?

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe lies on the ground after a shooting during an election campaign in Nara, Japan on July 8, 2022.

The truth of the Unification Church goes far deeper than one assassination and Japan. It is a web of political and business interests that sprawls over every continent, claiming some two million members (although that figure is highly disputed) and over $1 billion in assets. It owns the Washington Times newspaper, the UPI news wire, the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, a ballet company, and True World Foods, the single largest supplier of fresh fish to the American sushi industry. It has third-world coups. It courts leading Republicans and Democrats with events promoting conservative causes. U.S. presidents including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump have been outspoken supporters.

The Unification Church was founded in 1954 by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who preached that Jesus had entrusted him as the second messiah to complete the task of establishing God’s kingdom on Earth and bringing about world peace. Moon’s theology rests on the notion that Eve was seduced by Satan in the Garden of Eden before sleeping with Adam. Followers could cleanse this “original sin” bloodline by marrying a spouse of his choosing and engaging in a series of , including having sex in a variety of preordained positions beneath portraits of Moon in a room liberally sprinkled with salt. 

Such peculiarities, alongside a focus on a single leader with divine pretensions and an aggressive harvesting of money, have fed accusations that the Unification Church is a cult. Moon cast himself as the “perfect Adam,” and Korea the “Adam nation,” which with assistance from “archangel” nation America would help humankind reclaim its prelapsarian purity. Japan, meanwhile, was cast as the “Eve nation,” which is required to pay for sins committed during the nation’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. “They believe all the assets of the Japanese have to be returned to Korea,” says Takashi Yamaguchi, a lawyer who has represented many former church members in Japan. “That is the way to salvation.”

Ministers bow to Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as they leave from a photo session at Kishida's residence in Tokyo, Aug. 10, 2022. Kishida reshuffled his cabinet on this day to rid his administration of any links to Unification Church, following a low approval rating.

Today, however, the church is struggling to save itself. It’s become a crucible of infighting, tragedy, and sociopathic palace intrigue worthy of the HBO hit Succession. As the church has gotten richer, feuding over its assets has become more bitter and rancorous. Speaking to TIME, Moon’s youngest son, Sean, put the blame for Abe’s murder firmly at the door of his estranged mother, Hak Ja Han, who wrested control of Unification Church after Moon’s death in 2012. “It’s the hammer of judgment upon an organization that has betrayed the Lord and returning Jesus,” says Sean, who set up his own gun-toting splinter Sanctuary Church in rural Pennsylvania and was tear-gassed among the pro-Trump mob outside the Capitol on Jan. 6. “The idolatrous and heretical direction … brought a curse upon that organization.”

Certainly, the death of Abe presents an existential challenge. On Oct. 13, the Japanese government requested a court strip the Unification Church of its status as a religious corporation and thus exemptions from corporate and property taxes. An estimated 70% of the church’s worldwide funding comes from Japan, where in addition to coercing donations, it sells overpriced “psychic” ginseng tea and marble vases that supposedly “appease” ancestral spirits. According to a survey conducted by Japan’s National Network of Lawyers Against Spiritual Sales, there were 34,537 cases reported to bar associations and consumer centers across Japan from 1987 to 2021, amounting to over $850 million in damages. “They basically use Japan as their ATM,” says Sarah Hightower, a researcher on cults.

With that revenue stream now under threat, the Unification Church has shifted its focus to the U.S., where aggressive fundraising tactics are shielded by the First Amendment. In October, Hak Ja Han returned to the U.S. for the first time in four years to hold “special workshops” to “understand True Mother’s heart” in Las Vegas. The event billed for 17-to-40-year-olds was dominated by the need to increase financial donations to supplement falling revenue from Japan. A leaked email obtained by TIME instructed American followers to send $100 dollar bills to an address in Schaumburg, Illinois “to let True Mother know how much we appreciate her,” with further instructions to “do not say cash on the document.”

A separate from Sept. 26 hosted by Rev. Demian Dunkley, president of the Unification Church’s U.S. wing, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification International (FFWPUI), outlined various crises the organization was facing and urged pastors to triple tithing from American members to make up for the drop from Japan. “Start with the highest donor and work down,” Dunkley said. The “main objective” going forward is “membership growth” and “financial growth