Religious Politics, Japanese Style
This spring, Soka Gakkai, the largest
“new religious movement” in Japan, made one of its occasional splashes in
the Japanese news media.
April 15, the major daily Asahi Shinbun ran a front page article
describing an April 11 meeting at Soka Gakkai headquarters between Soka
Gakkai President Akiya Einosuke and Ichiro Ozawa, the newly elected head of
Japan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The
Asahi speculated that Ozawa was seeking to get New Komeito—the Soka
Gakkai-backed political party that is currently the junior party in the
governing coalition—to switch allegiance to the DPJ.
Meanwhile, the Asahi rival Yomiuri Shinbun published a
comprehensive eight-part series focusing on the Soka Gakkai/New Komeito
relationship. The series made clear that while Soka Gakkai has not sought to
use New Komeito to advance a narrowly religious agenda, the party pursues a
set of policies that are generally aligned with Soka Gakkai principles. And
although Soka Gakkai members are not the only citizens who vote for New
Komeito, they constitute its activist base, providing advocacy and rounding
up support at election time.
Religion as such is
rarely covered by Japan’s mainstream media, but Soka Gakkai is something of
an exception because it is a force to be reckoned with in Japanese politics.
How, in a country that seems well protected from the winds of religious
politics blowing elsewhere in the world, has it come to be so?
Soka Gakkai (literally “Society for the Creation of Value”) follows the form
of Buddhism established by a 13th century Japanese monk named Nichiren.
Adherents believe that through individual transformation, or “human
revolution,” they can work to transform society by applying their religious
beliefs to their activities in daily life. Under the three-fold banner of
peace, culture, and education, the organization aims to promote harmony,
tolerance, and mutual understanding of all peoples.
if the members of Soka Gakkai resemble liberal Protestants in their
socio-religious outlook, they are evangelical in their commitment to
proselytizing and—though the parallel with American evangelicals is far from
exact—in their readiness to see one political party as the repository of
their values. (To be sure, they will support a candidate from another party
when New Komeito does not field one in a particular district.)
Soka Gakkai was founded in 1930 by an educator named Tsunesaburo Makiguchi
in order to promote social reform and what he called “value-creating
education.” In the 1930s, militaristic nationalism and government-enforced
Shinto ideology led to the persecution of dissenters, and Makiguchi and his
disciple Josei Toda were arrested. Makiguchi died in prison in 1944 and
today is held up by Soka Gakkai as a martyr who fought against repressive
the immediate postwar period, the Allied Occupation introduced new laws
proscribing government interference in religious matters and establishing
strict separation of religion and state in reaction to the prewar status
quo. Many new religious movements flourished, and while some devoted
themselves to helping ordinary people in the postwar chaos, others were
simply fronts for business scams that tried to make use of tax breaks
available for religions. Their rise was widely covered by the news media,
which took a negative view of religion in general and new religious
movements in particular.
After being released from prison in 1945, Toda struggled to rebuild Soka
Gakkai, starting with a handful of former members. He shifted the emphasis
away from Makiguchi’s educational ideas to focus on the religious teachings
of Nichiren (although Makiguchi’s ideas remain to this day in the Soka
educational system). From 1951, when he became the Soka Gakkai’s second
president, until his death in 1958, Toda spearheaded a major proselytizing
campaign that saw its ranks swell to 750,000 households.
This was by far the most remarkable growth of any religious group in Japan
in the postwar period, and while it solidified the foundations of the
organization, widespread criticism in the media over its conversion
methods—and over its supposed exclusivism and intolerance—contributed to the
formation of negative opinion that to a certain extent still endures.
Currently, the organization counts more than eight million members in Japan.
Article 20 of the postwar Constitution prohibits religious organizations
from receiving special treatment from the state or exercising any political
authority, and forbids requiring anyone to take part in a religious act,
celebration, rite, or practice. But there is nothing to prevent a religious
organization from participating in politics, and in fact some new religions
began to involve themselves in politics shortly after the war, first
supporting candidates singly, and then collectively, as part of the
Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan (established in 1951).
Part of the reason for this political involvement was because by the late
1940s it was clear that the Occupation authorities, who had worked to
protect religious freedom, were planning to withdraw from Japan. Reactionary
political forces, including those who had been engaged in the push for
prewar State Shinto, were gathering force and these new religious groups
felt the need to use the political arena to protect themselves from
Soka Gakkai started fielding its own candidates in local elections in 1955,
and in national elections the following year. (The organization is active in
many other countries, but has stated categorically that it will not become
involved in politics outside Japan.)
the wake of public backlash against revision of the U.S.-Japan Security
Treaty in 1960, the dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) began looking
for support from new religions other than Soka Gakkai, which formed a
powerful voting bloc in its own right. In 1964, Soka Gakkai established the
Komeito (“Clean Government Party”), and by 1967 it had become the third
largest opposition party.
1969, Soka Gakkai came under fire for attempting to obstruct publication of
a highly critical academic study that claimed the organization pulled the
Komeito’s strings. The book was published, a media furor over freedom of the
press and freedom of speech ensued, and Soka Gakkai’s then President,
Daisaku Ikeda, issued a public apology.
following year, Soka Gakkai declared itself financially and administratively
separate from Komeito, and from then until November 1998, according to the
Yomiuri Shinbun series, officials of the organization avoided
attending Komeito meetings.
1993, after years in opposition, the Komeito joined other opposition parties
in the short-lived ruling coalition that ended the unbroken succession of
LDP-led governments since the end of World War II. The result was a new
flurry of concern over Soka Gakkai’s political power—raised in part by those
LDP members who enjoyed the support of members of other new religious
Then, in March of 1995, Japanese society was thrown into turmoil by the
gassing of the Tokyo subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo religious group. As
the extent of Aum’s crimes over a number of years became apparent, the
Japanese media produced a steady stream of stories not only about Aum, but
also about the role of religion generally in Japanese politics.
With the LDP back in power, some LDP politicians now seized the opportunity
to intensely criticize Soka Gakkai, which was then supporting the opposition
New Frontier Party (NFP). That they themselves were receiving support from
other new religions suggests that the danger posed by politically active
religious groups to parliamentary democracy was not their foremost concern.
Soka Gakkai’s President Akiya eventually appeared in parliament to answer
questions concerning the organization’s political position. In the
subsequent political jostling that occurred, the New Frontier Party
dissolved, and in 1998 a “New Komeito” was established. Since that time,
according to the Yomiuri Shinbun series, senior officials of the Soka
Gakkai have attended periodic meetings with New Komeito representatives to
discuss the political situation.
Meanwhile, in 1999, LDP Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi brought the New Komeito
into the ruling coalition. It has been an uneasy alliance.
With its concerns for education, welfare, peace, and health issues, New
Komeito might thus pass for the new religious left that is struggling to be
born in the U.S. Within the governing coalition, it has thus far sought to
counteract the increasingly right-wing tendencies of the LDP.
Yomiuri Shinbun quoted Soka Gakkai representative Koji Harada as saying that the
organization uses its influence to get New Komeito to “step on the
accelerator” and “apply the brakes” in terms of government policy. Thus, New
Komeito has managed to increase the welfare budget while holding up
proposals to elevate the Defense Agency to a fully fledged government
ministry and to include a passage on “patriotism” in the Fundamental Law on
it is in the matter of the Yasukuni Shrine that New Komeito’s braking
ability will be most interesting to watch. The shrine is a private religious
institution dedicated to the spirits of the war dead, including a number of
Class A war criminals. Since 2001, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has paid
repeated visits to Yasukuni in the face of strong foreign opposition,
particularly from China.
Soka Gakkai has long fostered cultural and educational ties with China, and
continued visits to Yasukuni by Koizumi and other politicians will only
widen the rift between New Komeito and the LDP.
Shinbun’s April 15 article stated that some New Komeito members were
unable to “hide their displeasure” with the party’s continued participation
in the ruling coalition. On May 17, Yomiuri Shinbun reported that
some party officials were saying that New Komeito had paid too high a price
for its participation:
“Over the past five years, the party has endorsed the dispatch of Maritime
Self-Defense Force personnel to the Indian Ocean and Air and Ground SDF
personnel to Iraq, causing concerns among Soka Gakkai members, saying that
the nature of ‘the party of peace’ had changed.”
When the popular Koizumi leaves office in September, New Komeito may have
the occasion it needs to switch alliances. As the religious right in America
has discovered, when you’re in power, the course of “values politics” rarely