November 14, 1999

A Sect's Political Rise Creates Uneasiness in Japan


OSAKA, Japan -- Forgoing anything so formal as a temple or church, four middle-age women meet each month in Kumiko Hashimoto's small dining room here to discuss Buddhist principles and to review the latest teachings of their spiritual master. After a session of eerily powerful chanting of their sect's principal mantra -- "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo," or, "Adore the lotus of the wonderful law" -- the four discuss their saddest experiences. In the end, though, theirs is mostly a light affair, punctuated with the laughter they say they have recovered since repairing their lives through the lessons of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization that says it has a presence in 8 million Japanese households.

"Before I joined Soka Gakkai, the words 'love' or 'progress' or 'courage' had no meaning to me," said one of the women, Ryoko Kunisue, 47, an assistant in an acupuncture clinic. "Since then, I have been able to reconcile with my husband and with his family, and I am confident and happy again."

Using simple themes of self-help and compassion, and building a disciplined nationwide organization through small neighborhood groups, Soka Gakkai -- which means Values Creation Society -- has repeatedly confounded political observers in Japan. Since its founding in 1930, it has risen from a small persecuted sect to one of the countless "new religions" that blossomed in the postwar era, becoming the most powerful religious movement here.

Its most dramatic step toward the mainstream came early last month when Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi named a new coalition cabinet, formally allying his long-governing Liberal Democratic Party with New Komeito, a political party created by Soka Gakkai in 1964.

Public opinion polls have shown widespread disapproval of New Komeito's entry into the government. For many Japanese, still shaken by the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subways by another once-obscure sect, Soka Gakkai has many of the markings of a cult, and crosses the strict divide between church and state established after World War II.

Many people uneasy about its rise regard both the religious group and the political party to be little more than the personal instruments of Soka Gakkai's longtime leader and now honorary chairman, Daisaku Ikeda. A deeply enigmatic figure who has called himself the "anti-authority" but clearly relishes meeting world leaders, Ikeda, 71, travels the world with his message of peace, even as his followers have sometimes used violence to deal with critics. His followers commonly call him sensei, or master, and often revere him openly as a man of almost unsurpassed wisdom.

Ikeda, who declined to be interviewed, is said to spend most of his time on spreading the faith to other countries, including the United States, where Soka Gakkai says it has 300,000 followers and has founded a university. His words are studied and cited as virtual scripture by members. His successor, Einosuke Akiya, who has formally led Soka Gakkai for two decades, said he consults Ikeda every day.

"What we are talking about are not open organizations or democratic structures, but something like a Communist Party or worse," said Seizaburo Sato, the deputy director of the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies. "We are dealing with a dictatorship built around the person of one man."

Soka Gakkai officials describe their organization in very different terms. For them, it is akin to a liberation movement and is an ardent promoter of social activism and human rights. They often describe their group as Buddhism's first Protestant movement, since its excommunication by Nichiren Shoshu, a Japanese strain of the faith, in 1991. In a movement without priests, Ikeda is part evangelical leader and part Dale Carnegie, telling his flock that Buddhism contains the solutions to life's problems.

Soka Gakkai was founded in 1930 as a lay offshoot of Nichiren Shoshu by a schoolteacher and educational reformer, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Makiguchi was later imprisoned for criticizing Shintoism, Japan's official religion at the time. He died in jail in 1944. A follower, Josei Toda, undertook the rapid expansion of the movement after the war ended in 1945, taking advantage of the lifting of religious restrictions during the U.S. occupation. Ikeda succeeded Toda as Soka Gakkai's third leader.

There is little agreement about the implications of the group's rise. Certainly, in his 40 years at, or just behind, the helm of his organization, Ikeda has proved himself to be an organizational genius. Through the political party, Soka Gakkai retains the allegiance of nearly 8 million voters, placing it among the most powerful parties in Japan. For years, detractors have warned that Soka Gakkai's long-range ambition is to govern Japan indirectly through the New Komeito Party, allowing it to establish its strain of Buddhism as an official religion. Obuchi has faced criticism for the coalition. The powerful former secretary-general of his Liberal Democrats, Koichi Kato, called the alliance with New Komeito a political misjudgment and echoed other longtime critics with a warning against a religious party's taking over the state.

Soka Gakkai officials say they have no ambition to see their type of Buddhism declared a state religion. Soka Gakkai's main purpose is "to pursue peace as an ideal," said Akiya, the president. New Komeito was created to "give voice to those elements in Japanese society who are very much underrepresented." Soka Gakkai became involved in politics, officials said, to guard against the persecution of members and to protect religious freedom. Since then, in keeping with its lower-middle-class base, the group has consistently advocated increased social-welfare benefits.

Critics point to the words of Toda, who once wrote, "Politics and Buddha's law should merge." Current writings by Ikeda speak more ambiguously of "setting in motion our goal of achieving a victory of the people in the 21st century."

Members of the group have used arson and a bomb threat against temples of rival Buddhist groups. Soka Gakkai has also tried to block the publication of critical books, and it was convicted of wiretapping the house of the Communist Party leader. A spokesman said the bomb threat and arson incidents involved "individuals with histories of mental illness" and denied that Soka Gakkai had ever ordered violence or harassment.

Ikeda has been the almost constant subject of a wide range of allegations that include financial and sexual abuses, but he was acquitted after his one formal indictment, on charges of violating electoral laws in 1957. When Yoshikatsu Takeiri, who resigned as leader of New Komeito in 1986, published a revealing memoir about the party and Ikeda's power last year, he became the object of a blistering and prolonged campaign of attacks in the party newspaper, Komei Shimbun, and in the Soka Gakkai-owned Seikyo Shimbun. He had written bluntly that "Komeito was subordinate to Soka Gakkai financially and organizationally."

Yet even some critics of Soka Gakkai said they believed that the organization represented no threat to secular society in Japan, where there is a long tradition of picking and choosing ceremonies from several religions. Indeed, although independent membership data do not exist, some experts said the group had been losing strength here and was working hard to moderate its behavior and image to avoid alienating potential recruits. "I do not feel worried by Soka Gakkai," said Nobutaka Inoue, a professor of religious sociology at Kokugakuin University. "Their original nature may have been very control oriented, like other sects. But in recent years, they have become much more socialized. They are more and more normal all the time."

Until the 1960s, Soka Gakkai pursued hard-sell proselytizing and was known to enter members' houses to smash relics from other faiths. New Komeito has recently begun writing to leaders of other religious groups seeking better relations and pledging to respect the church-state divide. Soka Gakkai's followers also now more accurately reflect Japanese society; the group no longer attracts just downtrodden rural migrants or the poorly educated, but also more upscale adherents.

What the group will do with this strength is what holds Japan in suspense. Ms. Hashimoto, 40, has her own answer. Separation of church and state, she said, must not mean a betrayal of the populist principles that New Komeito was formed to promote. At first she dismissed the alliance with the Liberal Democrats, she said, then realized it was a sign of New Komeito becoming "a very important player." But, she insisted, "Komeito must never forget its commitment to live with the people or die with the people. If they do, they will hear our voice."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company