November 20, 1995 Volume 146, No. 21
THE POWER OF SOKA GAKKAI
GROWING REVELATIONS ABOUT THE COMPLICATED AND SINISTER NEXUS OF POLITICS AND RELIGION
EDWARD W. DESMOND/TOKYO REPORTED BY IRENE M. KUNII/TOKYO
On Sept. 1, Akiyo Asaki, 50, a local assemblywoman from Higashi Murayama, a city on the western outskirts of Tokyo, walked out of her office without explanation and without taking any identification. According to police, a few hours later she climbed the external stairs of a nearby office building to the fifth floor, scaled a 1.2-m-high wall and jumped to her death. Police concluded that Asaki had taken her own life--until her family protested. "She was not the type to commit suicide," says a close friend and fellow assembly member, Hozumi Yano. "She was always cheerful, even though she knew she was up against a powerful organization."
That organization is Soka Gakkai, Japan's most powerful Buddhist sect. It has at least 8.12 million members; assets estimated to be as high as $100 billion; and a political offshoot, the Komeito (Clean Government Party), that has long been a force in the Diet and in regional assemblies throughout the country. In Asaki's view, Soka Gakkai (Value-creating Society) was becoming a bit too forceful. She was helping ex-Soka Gakkai members who were being harassed for quitting, and based on her own investigations, she had accused Komeito politicians of using their clout to give local government contracts to Soka Gakkai members. In recent months she had received anonymous death threats on the phone.
No one in authority has suggested that Soka Gakkai had a role in Asaki's death, and the group has categorically denied any connection with the mysterious incident. The sect filed a criminal defamation law suit against Shukan Gendai, a national weekly, for publishing a story in which Asaki's husband and daughter alleged that Soka Gakkai was responsible for her death. The National Police Agency has since instructed local law-enforcement officials to investigate the incident "carefully." And a member of the Liberal Democratic Party has raised the case in a special committee hearing in the Lower House of the Diet that began two weeks ago to review the freedoms enjoyed by religious groups. Other party legislators are preparing to bring up the Asaki incident in similar Upper House hearings due to begin later this month. At issue is not a single unexplained death but growing revelations about the complicated, sometimes sinister nexus of religion and politics in modern Japan. The outcome of the debates in the Diet will have a profound effect on religious freedom, as well as on the volatile world of politics.
The hearings center on a proposal to revise the 1951 Religious Corporations Law, which grants broad freedom from official scrutiny and taxation to thousands of officially recognized religious groups. The Lower House special committee approved the revisions last week and, following several weeks of debate in the Upper House, the proposed changes are almost certain to be approved by both chambers next month. Put forward by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama's administration, the revisions would introduce more government oversight. In the past such a tightening would have sparked an outcry against authoritarianism, but polls today show that more than 80% of Japanese are ready to put out the watchdog.
In large part, that change of mood is a reaction to Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic cult whose leader, Shoko Asahara, will soon stand trial for ordering the March 20 sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. Almost as shocking as the 11 deaths that day was the realization that Aum and all other national religious groups face virtually no official scrutiny. As a result, Aum members allegedly were able to carry out a string of serious crimes, including the murder of dissident members and troublesome critics, without attracting much police attention--until the subway attack.
Asahara's lethal, comic-book conspiracy to take over the government did not come close to success, but it left Japanese wondering what other madness might be lurking in the wings. No one was reassured to learn that the police habitually turn a blind eye to the activities of religious groups, in part because they fear being tarred as "oppressors." Fifty years ago, Japan's secret police locked up anyone who opposed "state Shinto," the religion of Emperor worship that lost its official status only when Japan was defeated in World War II. After the war, Japan righted the wrong by granting almost boundless freedom to religious groups.
As a result, a tiny, extreme group like Aum Shinrikyo prospered, as did far more powerful, mainstream Buddhist organizations, such as Soka Gakkai. They face no taxation on activities generously defined as religious and benefit from cut-rate taxes on their extensive business operations. Not only Soka Gakkai but also other large Buddhist sects cultivate politicians; many political leaders proudly associate themselves with Buddhist and Shinto religious organizations.
No group is quite so disciplined, determined or focused on political power as Soka Gakkai, which is well positioned to wield immense influence over national affairs. For years its members have constituted a vast army of volunteer canvassers and fund raisers for Komeito, which until recently had 52 seats in the powerful 511-member Lower House, as well as a strong position in many city and prefectural assemblies. Last year Komeito merged with Shinshinto, the main opposition party.
Shinshinto's chief rival, the L.D.P., like most parties in Japan, has been badly weakened by the political turmoil of the past two years and is terrified by the prospect of a showdown with Soka Gakkai, given its tacit support for Shinshinto. The Liberal Democrats' fears are well grounded: Shinshinto officials admit that in a July Upper House election, Soka Gakkai was responsible for about half the party's 12.5 million votes, the best showing by any political faction.
If Prime Minister Murayama's Liberal Democratic-led coalition loses out in elections expected over the coming six months, Shinshinto could form the next government and ex-Komeito members would emerge in many Cabinet posts. Komeito previously had seats in two short-lived Cabinets without scandal, but some fear that Soka Gakkai would use Komeito members to shield the sect and its leader, Daisaku Ikeda, from investigation, promote its militant Buddhist tradition or abuse power in other ways. Says independent legislator Keigo Ouchi, Health Minister in the 1993-94 coalition Cabinet that included Komeito: "Their [Komeito politicians'] loyalty is to Ikeda first and the country second. That is frightening." What also raises suspicions is the sect's strict internal discipline and followers' well-documented allegations of violent intimidation tactics against critics and ex-members. Says Shizuka Kamei, a right-wing Liberal Democratic legislator, former police official and anti-Soka Gakkai campaigner: "Japan is finished if Soka Gakkai takes over. State Shinto will look good by comparison."
The sect's spokesmen deny that Soka Gakkai is interested in political power and point out that it severed formal ties with Komeito in 1970. That contention is not widely accepted in Japan; nearly all Komeito legislators were Soka Gakkai faithful before the merger with Shinshinto and presumably still are, although they typically insist they are nothing more than religious men with a political calling. Asks Masao Akamatsu, a former Komeito member and now a Shinshinto legislator: "What's so strange about having a religious group behind a political party? All we do is chant our prayer."
Not quite. They also look to the leadership of Ikeda, 67, the enigmatic figure who is the sect's honorary president and unquestioned commander. At a closed meeting of top officials last August at a Soka Gakkai facility in Karuizawa, a small resort town in the Japan Alps, Ikeda showed his hand. According to a member who was present, he said, "This time, not the next time, [the election] is going to be about winning or losing. We cannot hesitate. We must conquer the country with one stroke."
For some Liberal Democrats, tightening the Religious Corporations Law is one way to head off the Soka Gakkai challenge to the L.D.P., as well as help prevent another Aum incident. The new legislation would place nationally based groups under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, one of the most conservative institutions in the country, and force them to disclose to tax authorities and their membership all details of their financial transactions. The aim is to get more leverage over groups, including Soka Gakkai, whose members sometimes act as though they are above the law.
Junko Ando, 38, tells a not untypical story. The piano teacher says she joined Soka Gakkai eight years ago because "I had no religion of my own. I wasn't unhappy, but I found a lot of fulfillment in the teachings of Buddha and Nichiren,"a 13th century Japanese monk. She became disillusioned because of sect officials' emphasis on fund raising, election activities and what she calls "the Ikeda personality-cult tendency." She quit and helped more than 30 others leave as well. That move led to threats and eventually an attack in which a man she recognized as a sect member twisted her arm and took away a camera she was carrying. Shaken but unhurt, she jotted down the license plate of his car as it drove away and complained to the police. But as often happens in cases involving religious groups, the authorities did not investigate fully, explaining that there was insufficient evidence to track down the suspect.
Soka Gakkai opposes the religious-law changes, as do most other religious groups to varying degrees, with the exception of Reiyukai, a major Buddhist group, and the Association of Shinto Shrines. Most opponents point to the Liberal Democrats' obvious political motive. "The L.D.P. has openly stated that the proposed legislation revision is intended to rein in our activities," says Einosuke Akiya, president of Soka Gakkai. "This is sinister indeed." Shinshinto's chief, Ichiro Ozawa, is similarly indignant: "It's an appalling piece of legislation. It's reminiscent of the prewar years."
Critics also point out that the real issue, at least in the case of Aum Shinrikyo, was the failure of the police, not an excess of religious freedoms. The Roman Catholic bishops' conference issued a statement warning that the proposed changes "open the way to guidance and direction by government agencies and make it possible that the 'separation of church and state' may be denied."
In the eyes of Soka Gakkai members, there is considerable reason to fear state authority. The sect was founded in 1930 as the lay arm of the Nichiren Shoshu, one of 38 Buddhist organizations that claim to represent the teachings of Nichiren. Soka Gakkai's founder, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, was eager to reform the school system to include Nichiren's teachings, but the very idea was enough to land him in prison in 1943 for opposing state-ordered Emperor worship. Makiguchi died behind bars, but his disciple Josei Toda survived imprisonment to lead the group after the war. Toda believed political influence was the key to protecting Soka Gakkai from persecution, and the sect began putting up its own candidates for local elections in 1955.
Two years after Toda's death in 1958, Ikeda, a longtime Soka Gakkai official, assumed the presidency and accelerated efforts to gain political influence for the sect. Toshimitsu Ryu, Soka Gokkai's first political strategist and a senior official until he quit the sect in 1991, helped design a plan in the 1960s aimed at winning office in Tokyo and then other major cities. In 1965 Komeito gained 23 seats in the then 120-seat Tokyo assembly, and ever since has been the fulcrum of power in the fragmented chamber. Says Ryu, a former Komeito Tokyo assembly member: "They have used their position to gain influence over city officials and the Tokyo city budget, particularly the police budget."
According to Ryu, it was Ikeda who transformed Soka Gakkai's strategy of self-protection into a bid for political power. In 1964 Ikeda formed Komeito, and it made its debut in national politics a year later by winning 25 seats in the Lower House of the Diet. In 1970, after a scandal in which Komeito leaders tried to persuade retailers not to sell a book critical of Soka Gakkai, Ikeda announced that the sect would stay out of politics and Komeito would be independent. But Soka Gakkai is still widely thought to be calling the shots behind the scenes. "It's a lie," says Ryu. "On the surface we pretended that Komeito was separate, but it was always the political arm of the organization."
To most Soka Gakkai members, the world of politics is far away. They see the sect as a source of community and spiritual comfort. It teaches a variant of Mahayana Buddhism developed by Nichiren. He taught that followers could attain salvation by chanting every day the simple words, "I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra." The Lotus Sutra, one of the most widely venerated scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism, teaches that there is only one path to enlightenment and it is accessible to everyone.
Soka Gakkai followers are taught to chant and recite passages from the Lotus Sutra in front of a small altar that holds the Gohonzon, a copy of a small scroll inscribed with Chinese characters that symbolizes the Lotus Sutra. They fervently believe their prayers bring them good fortune in this life as well as the next one. Japan's rapid economic growth through the end of the 1980s was the best recruiting agent Soka Gakkai could have desired. Says Masao Okkotsu, a former member who has written extensively on the organization: "As Japan entered an era of high economic growth, people moved from rural areas to industrial centers. They were lonely, poor and cut off. Soka Gakkai offered companionship, easy loans and an ideology to fill the gap." Nichiren taught that chanting makes Buddhists better people and that that in turn improves society as a whole.
Most members get their news from the daily Seikyo Shimbun (circ. 5.5 million), the sect's official publication, and many send their children to Soka Gakkai--sponsored schools. The best go on to Tokyo's highly competitive Soka University. Near the group's nondescript headquarters in Shinanomachi, Tokyo, the sect owns many surrounding buildings, and security is a major worry. Members in blue blazers with walkie-talkies stand on street corners for blocks around. Last year, according to a leaked police report, Aum Shinrikyo allegedly tried to kill Ikeda.
Dedicated members--housewives are the biggest group--immerse themselves in raising money, making converts and canvassing for political causes. Their persistence is well known: they call neighbors repeatedly before elections, and then afterward to ask how they voted. Most members are quite ready to hand over a significant part of their earnings to the group--anywhere from $100 a year to tens of thousands of dollars. "Soka Gakkai followers believe they will be compensated in their own lifetimes," says Yoshiyuki Wakamatsu, 52, a Tokyo factory worker. "The more you give, the more you receive." Soka Gakkai's yearly fund drives raise an estimated $2 billion in cash.
At the center of this universe is Ikeda, a balding, stocky man whose appearance at rallies makes people burst into tears of joy because he is revered as a great teacher who has shown his flock the way to happiness and fulfillment. Says Chie Sunada, 22: "[Ikeda] teaches us the basics of how we should live. He is really a great master."
Soka Gakkai's greatest vulnerability is its dark side. Nichiren was deeply intolerant of other Buddhist sects. He insisted that all Zen followers are devils, and he justified militancy and even violence to defend his sect and to repress rival organizations. The government under the Kamakura shogunate exiled him twice for predicting disasters and foreign invasions if the country's leaders did not stamp out competing sects. Soka Gakkai shares Nichiren's militant aspect. It is openly hostile to other creeds, and members, especially important ones, run a frightening gauntlet if they try to quit.
According to ex-followers, Soka Gakkai spies on its own ranks, trailing and intimidating those who are unsure of their commitment. Shuichi Sanuki, editor of a biweekly newspaper for the 10,000 members of the Soka Gakkai Victims Association, claims to have overseen, among other activities, the sect's alleged spying apparatus in Tokyo. He quit, along with many other disenchanted members, in 1991 when the Nichiren Shoshu, which provided the sect's priesthood, grew angry over Ikeda's attempts to take over the religious wing and excommunicated him. Sanuki says he received death threats over the phone, and members of the Soka Gakkai Housewives' Association even contacted his wife and urged her to divorce him. Says he: "I know what the group does to people whom it regards as its enemies. It's not safe for anyone who dares to criticize it." For its part, Soka Gakkai resolutely denies any involvement in such harassment.
So do Komeito legislators, who claim to stand against corruption and pacifism. Yet the party had long-standing back-room ties with the most corrupt faction in the l.d.p., the group formed around the late Kakuei Tanaka. Though Liberal Democrats denounce Soka Gakkai today, the sect has been helpful in the past, most notably supporting the l.d.p. on the passage of a controversial 1992 law that permitted Japan to send troops overseas on U.N. peacekeeping missions for the first time. In return, admitted the late Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe in a 1993 magazine interview, the l.d.p. government quashed a tax case aimed at the sect.
Last year 64 Komeito members of the Upper and Lower houses of the Diet merged with Ozawa's Shinshinto in a move to improve their chances in the next national elections. Ozawa could not resist the temptation to win the backing of Soka Gakkai's grass-roots activists. Shinshinto denies that it receives any funds from Soka Gakkai and insists that Shinshinto is in the driver's seat. Says Hajime Funada, a Shinshinto legislator who is not a member of Soka Gakkai: "As long as they have no more than 50% of political power, it's all right. But we do need to take care to keep their influence in check."
The debate about Soka Gakkai's intentions leads back to Ikeda, whose favorite phrase when exhorting his senior followers is Tenka o toru (conquer the country). In his rare public interviews, Ikeda presents himself as a moderate who has been miscast by the press. "I am an ordinary and serious man," he told the BBC in an interview this year. "The mass media, with the exception of the bbc, make up this image of me as a dictator and so forth. This troubles me very much."
Whatever his political ambitions, Ikeda enjoys the limelight on his own terms. Like many wealthy, would-be world figures, he seeks chances to meet international celebrities such as Margaret Thatcher or, just this year, Nelson Mandela, in order to enhance his stature among the followers. He has also built up a pricey art collection for Soka Gakkai, including two Renoirs, sometimes buying numerous paintings at a time from a single gallery and having aides pay for the works with suitcases of cash that they carry on trips.
To his followers he is irresistible, the pinnacle of the organization that means so much to them. But on the rare occasion when he appears in public, like at a 1993 meeting of Soka Gakkai International in California, Ikeda comes off as surprisingly voluble and erratic. On that occasion, he repeatedly pounded the table with both hands and mocked President Bill Clinton. Former close associates like Ryu insist that Ikeda is not very religious.
Whatever Ikeda's strengths or failings, the spotlight is on Soka Gakkai, and the sect is determined to prove it is a benign if not benevolent force in society. President Akiya has declared the sect will drop its antagonistic views toward other groups. Says former Komeito member Akamatsu: "I can understand why the l.d.p. is saying that Ikeda is intent on seizing political power. In the past, Komeito wanted to spread the Nichiren prayer for the good of the people. But those days are over." In the view of the Liberal Democrats, however, Soka Gakkai's past leaves too many questions unanswered. Says Koichi Kato, L.D.P. secretary-general: "If Shinshinto wins the next election, it will be thanks to the Soka Gakkai engine. So, of course, Soka Gakkai can exert influence over the government. I don't think that will be a good thing." In the end, the voters can decide for themselves.
--Reported by Irene M. Kunii/Tokyo
Copyright © 1995 Time Inc. All rights reserved.