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Title Soka Gakkai International/Formerly: Nichirin Shoshu of America (NSA) - JAPAN: Support, at a Price
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Soka Gakkai International/Formerly: Nichirin Shoshu of America (NSA) - JAPAN: Support, at a Price He has been called the most powerful man in Japanese politics, yet he is not even a politician. Daisaku Ikeda is the spiritual leader of the Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist group that can muster nearly 7 million votes a tenth of Japan s voting population (and a fifth of those who turn out in most elections). The Soka Gakkai s political arm, the New Komeito, is the second-largest opposition party in the Diet (parliament) and is notably influential in the upper house. That is a measure of Mr. Ikeda s power. Now he is about to have more. On June 28th, the prime minister, Keizo Obuchu, took the first steps to get the New Komeito to join his coalition government. Since January, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has governed with the help of Ichiro Ozawa s small right-wing group, the Liberals. But though the coalition has a majority in the lower house of the Diet, it is nine seats shy in the upper house, making it difficult to pass controversial legislation. With its 52 members in the lower house and 24 in the upper house, the New Komeito would give Mr. Obuchi a comfortable margin in both chambers and, in the process, allow him to ignore Mr. Ozawa s hectoring demands. On paper, the deal makes sense for the LDP. But many within his party are queasy about Mr. Obuchi s willingness to team up with the Buddhists. The last time the Komeito tasted power during a brief (non-LDP) coalition government headed by Morihiro Hosokawa in 1993 it was quick to block efforts to enforce the separation of church and state, as required by the constitution. Set up in 1930 by teachers who believed in value creation (soka) theories of education, much is made of the society s record of protecting minorities against oppression. The group s founder, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, died in prison during the second world war after being persecuted for his opposition to state shintoism. After the war, the group transformed itself into a lay religious organisation, adopting the name Soka Gakkai (Value-Creation Society), and embracing the faith of the 700-year-old Nichiren Shoshu sect. It won a wide following for offering practical and moral help to people who were coming off the land and out of the armed forces and trying to find work, food and a place to sleep in Japan s bombed-out cities. In 1952, the society was adopted by Nichiren Shoshu, with the job of propagating the religion and converting people to the faith. The Soka Gakkai was then little more than a Buddhist-equivalent of the Salvation Army. Nowadays, however, the Soka Gakkai realises that it went too far in 1991 when it allowed 300 of its young zealots to storm a temple in Fukuoka and beat up a worshipper and a priest who had criticised the group. That was the start of a war between the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu, which later severed its ties with the Soka Gakkai and excommunicated Mr. Ikeda. Having lost its main purpose, the Soka Gakkai now stresses its good works around the world. It gives generously to charities and campaigns for peace, culture and education . Mr. Ikeda took over the leadership in 1960 and soon formed the Komeito (Clean Government Party). He built the Soka Gakkai into the power it is today. Few demands, other than pecuniary ones, are made on Soka Gakkai s followers, who are taught to attain enlightenment and prosperity through chanting sacred phrases handed down from a 13th-century monk called Nichiren. A popular pastime is watching videos of Mr. Ikeda mingling with the good, the great and the occasionally despotic, such as Cuba s Fidel Castro. Clearly, the society provides an attractive support system for people in need. It has around 9 million members (mostly housewives), almost 1.3 million of whom are abroad. It is particularly strong in Osaka and Tokyo. Well-informed outsiders put the group s wealth at more than 10 trillion yen ($82 billion). The money comes from donations, the sale of burial plots, rent from property, and its newspaper, Seikyo Shimbun, whose circulation is 5.5 million. But, like many organisations that have grown fat and lost sight of their original purpose, the Soka Gakkai protects its interests with a ruthlessness that has frightened off critics and cowed the Japanese mainstream media into silence. It tolerates no criticism whatsoever of Mr. Ikeda, who elevated himself to honorary chairman after a series of scandals in the 1970s. Detractors claim that the organisation acts like a cult, threatening people with hell and damnation if they try to leave. In inviting the New Komeito into the coalition, Mr. Obuchi may find he has more on his hands than the couple of dozen upper-house votes he bargained for.