Japan fears another religious sect

San Francisco Chronicle/December 27, 1995
By Michelle Magee

Tokyo. When police zeroed in on the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth) cult after the deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system this March, the bizarre group seemed to pose the ultimate threat to Japanese society. Aum's mission, after all, was to build an army, equipped with Russian tanks and biological weapons, for an eventual Armageddon that would be preceded by a war between Japan and the United States. But the cult that dominated the airwaves only a few months ago now gets second billing to another religious outfit.

Today the focus of alarm is Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society) --a much less sinister but far more powerful organization that has been around for decades, has its own political party and claims 8 million members in Japan and 300,000 in the United States.

Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist group with $100 billion in assets, has been accused of heavy-handed fund raising and proselytizing, as well as intimidating its foes and trying to grab political power. It has recently made headlines by becoming the primary focus of a parliamentary debate over revising Japan's law governing religions, an effort originally spurred by public outrage over Aum's activities.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) summoned Soka Gakkai leaders before the Diet in a twofold mission -- to score points with the voters and embarrass the principal opposition party by exposing its links to Soka Gakkai.

"The LDP is trying to establish in the public's mind that Shinshinto (the opposition party) is Soka Gakkai,'' said Hirotada Asagawa, a political critic. Such a prospect could kill efforts by Shinshinto, also known as the New Frontier Party, to wrestle back control of the government.

Soka Gakkai's size and wealth are impressive, and the group and its controversial leader, Daisaku Ikeda, are regarded with unease by many Japanese.

The public's disdain for links between religion and politics goes back to prewar days, when anyone opposing "state Shinto,'' the religion of emperor worship, was quickly hauled off by the military regime's secret police.

"While I wouldn't say that Soka Gakkai is seen as a cult, they are a very structured, organized, militarist group that wields immense political power,'' said Takayoshi Kitagawa, a professor of sociology at Senshu University in Tokyo.

Takashi Shokei, a professor of culture and sociology at Tokyo's Meisei University, goes further, calling Ikeda "a power-hungry individual who intends to take control of the government and make Soka Gakkai the national religion.''

Except in the Diet and some academic circles, however, the debate over Soka Gakkai is conducted in guarded whispers. Few critics or legal authorities will speak on the record about allegations against the group, saying they fear retaliation.

No one interviewed for this story would discuss the mysterious death -- officially ruled a suicide -- in September of an assemblywoman in Tokyo.

The legislator, 50-year-old Akiyo Asaki, was a vocal opponent of Soka Gakkai who assisted former group members who were being harassed for quitting. She was reportedly preparing a speech on her investigation of Soka Gakkai when she walked out of her office without a word and several hours later was said by police to have jumped out of the fifth-floor window of a nearby building.

In an article printed in a national weekly, Asaki's family accused Soka Gakkai of murdering her, prompting the group to quickly sue the publisher for defamation. The police, however, have reportedly reopened the case as a result of the allegations.

Like Aum Shinri Kyo, Soka Gakkai is headed by a controversial figure bent on rising to the highest level of power in Japan. And like Aum, the group is shrouded in mystery.

But unlike Aum, whose members sported flowing robes, lived in compounds and often appeared in public in trancelike states, one can scarcely pick Soka Gakkai members out of a crowd. A cross section of the group would include members from every tier of Japanese society -- from salarymen to housewives to university students. A high percentage of members are said to be former rural residents who moved to the cities. Experts on Soka Gakkai say the sect's recruiters play on the uprooted feelings and loneliness common to such people.

Soka Gakkai was formed in 1930 as a lay arm of Nichiren Shoshu, one of 38 Buddhist organizations that claim to represent the teachings of Nichiren, a monk who lived from 1222 to 1282.

Nichiren believed that chanting a simple prayer -- Namu myoho renge kyo, or I take my refuge in the Lotus Sutra -- would bring spiritual fulfillment and improve society.

In its appeals to potential converts, Sokkai Gakkai adds that chanting will also bring material rewards. The sect's own far-flung holdings include prime real estate, a nationwide chain of pub-restaurants and a publishing unit.

Nichiren also advocated a militant stance against other Buddhist groups and justified violence to protect his sect and repress rivals. Critics say Soka Gakkai has carried on the torch of intolerance.

Yoshio Yahiro, 69, says that after he quit the group and took 100 others with him to form another Nichiren Shoshu sect four years ago, several hundred Soka Gakkai members invaded his temple during a service and beat him so severely that he was hospitalized for three months.

Yahiro's hospitalization in April 1991 brought to light a brewing battle between Nichiren Shoshu and Soka Gakkai. Animosity intensified with several other clashes at temples, and in November of that year Nichiren Shoshu severed ties with Soka Gakkai and excommunicated Ikeda.

Yahiro, now honorary president of the Soka Gakkai Victims Association, a 10,000-strong organization formed last year, says he has succeeded in encouraging some 800 people to leave the sect.

Tomoko Suzuki is one of them.

The 42-year-old Tokyo housewife did part-time volunteer work for the local arm of Soka Gakkai, raising funds through neighbors and shopkeepers. But when she became disillusioned with the group and tried to quit, she learned that the sect regarded her commitment as a lifetime one.

"I enjoyed the religious practices, but I was not happy with how we were made to collect funds all the time,'' said Suzuki, who declines to use her real name. "They tried to keep us from leaving and made it very difficult for my family to have peace. We had many disturbing phone calls. For a while I thought it would never end.''

Other Soka Gakkai members have told stories of violent intimidation and death threats against critics of the sect and those who have tried to quit the group.

Asaki, the late assemblywoman, received several death threats shortly before her demise, according to her family. A sect spokesman strongly denied all such allegations.

Much of the unease about Soka Gakkai is laid on the stout, balding Ikeda, who urges senior members on with such phrases as Tenka o toru (Conquer the country). Ikeda was born in 1928 into a family of producers of edible seaweed. He joined Soka Gakkai at the age of 19 and quickly rose through the ranks.

He married another follower and had three sons -- the second eldest of whom was being groomed as his replacement before dying of a sudden illness at the age of 29. Ikeda's eldest son, Hiromasa is now said to be the heir apparent. Ikeda's public image is one of a charismatic leader, but he has been known to display a violent temper.

A videotape filmed at a 1993 Ikeda speech to followers in Santa Monica, later released by a disgruntled former sect member, shows Ikeda yelling and pounding on tables in anger and later railing against President Clinton for having refused to meet with him.

After taking control of Soka Gakkai in 1958, Ikeda accelerated efforts to gain political influence for the group. He developed an official political arm, known as the Komeito party. But a 1970 scandal in which Komeito members tried to pressure retailers into not selling a book critical of Soka Gakkai caused the hierarchy to disassociate itself from the party. But few doubt Ikeda's continued control over Komeito, which has since been renamed Komei.

The Aum scare has left the Japanese worried over whether the government has been too lax in its oversight of religious organizations. Polls have shown that nearly 80 percent of the public want some form of broader control. It was with this in mind that the LDP last month seized the opportunity to respond to the public and tarnish Shinshinto at the same time.

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