Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida reshuffled his cabinet on Wednesday, removing some ministers with links to the Unification Church after a growing backlash over the ruling party’s ties to the controversial group triggered a slump in public support.
Kishida announced his new government team in a shake-up that came earlier than analysts had expected, underscoring how lawmakers’ ties to the church have become a liability for the premier less than a year after he came to power.
Some key cabinet members, such as the foreign and finance ministers, held on to their posts. But other high-profile ministers were removed, including the younger brother of slain former premier Shinzo Abe, Nobuo Kishi, who was replaced as defense minister.
Abe’s suspected killer has said his mother was a Unification Church member bankrupted by donating to it, and blamed Abe for promoting the group.
In the latest survey, Kishida’s support had fallen to 46% from 59% just three weeks ago, public broadcaster NHK said on Monday, the lowest rating since he became prime minister.
“Criticism over the Unification Church caused a big drop in public support for the administration and stopping that decline was a big reason for bringing forward the reshuffle of the cabinet and major party positions,” said Shigenobu Tamura, a political commentator who previously worked for the LDP.
In all, seven ministers who had disclosed ties to the church were reshuffled, Tamura said. The industry minister, Koichi Hagiuda, was among them, taking up a key position in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) instead.
The religious group itself separately held a rare news conference with the foreign media on Wednesday, where its local head, Tomihiro Tanaka, said the group does not seek donations from members that they cannot afford.
Kishida, who has said he himself has no ties with the Unification Church, said on Tuesday that new cabinet members and party officials will have to “thoroughly review” their links to the group, a sign he wanted to take a strict line.
He, and other ministers, will give news conferences later on Wednesday.
But Minoru Terada, appointed Internal Affairs Minister in the reshuffle, had given money to a Unification Church-affiliated group, the Asahi Shimbun daily paper reported. It also said Economy Minister Daishiro Yamagiwa — who will remain in his post — had also made a contribution to a church-related group.
Terada was quoted in the paper as saying he was not aware the group to which he gave money had connections to the Unification Church and would have no further dealings with it. Yamagiwa’s office was quoted as saying he would explain his contribution later on Wednesday.
“The roots of the (Unification) Church are deep,” said political commentator Joji Harano.
“Given that they're dealing with potentially explosive issues, party unity and reconciliation may remain something distant.”