Japan's Religious Sect Bent On Worldly Power

Sunday Telegraph/October 15, 1995
By Robert Guest

Forget the banking crisis. Forget ultra-nationalism at home and an increasingly aggressive China. The biggest single threat to Japanese democracy is an ostensibly peace·loving lay Buddhist group, according to many members of the political establishment

Last week, the huge power of Japan's religions and charities leapt to the top of the news agenda when Tomoharu Tazawa, the justice minister, was forced to resign after newspapers alleged he struck a secret deal with his political enemies to block changes to the law which guarantees the groups their tax-free privileges.

His resignation is part of a much bigger and more sinister whole. Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest religious organisation, is campaigning relentlessly and covertly to grasp backstage control of parliament, the conspiracy theory goes.

Paranoia? Unfortunately not. Soka Gakkai holds the balance of power in the main opposition New Frontier Party (NFP). Sixty·three MPs from Soka Gakkai's political arm, the bizarrely named "Clean Government Party", merged with the NFP last year.

The NFP welcomed them because they brought a guaranteed six million votes from the faithful, plus copious funds and an army of volunteers prepared to hand out policy leaflets. The trouble is, there are enough Clean Government MPs to veto any NFP leader they dislike. They always vote as one block and they were the political enemies Tazawa was accused of conspiring with.

Soka Gakkai was founded in 1930, the lay arm of a venerable Buddhist sect, Nichiren Shoshu. It was uncontroversial until Daisaku Ikeda became chairman in 1960, since when it has grown larger than Nichiren itself.

Ikeda's followers believe in attaining enlightenment through chanting seven sacred syllables repeatedly and abandoning worldly desires. But Soka Gakkai meetings tend to concentrate more on venerating Ikeda himself and watching videos of him meeting world leaders. As far as religions go, it is not too demanding, except on acolytes' pockets.

The group gives generously to charity, and campaigns for "peace, culture and education". Ikeda denies any political ambitions, but few people in Japan believe his protestations of political innocence.

The government is currently trying to close loopholes in Japan's Religious Corporations Law. which allows almost anyone to register as a sect, and exempts them from taxes and police scrutiny. In the aftermath of the Aum affair in March, when crazed cultists allegedly nerve-gassed the Tokyo subway, the government's plans enjoy popular support. But Soka Gakkai likes its tax·free status. so the NFP opposes any change to the law, saying it would erode religious freedom.

The law was passed as a reaction to the wartime persecution of anyone who failed to worship the emperor. Under it, police may not even ask a registered faith how many members it has. Donations are tax-free. Sect-owned businesses pay less tax than ordinary firms, and accounts can be kept secret and tax-free.

Since religious status is laughably easy to acquire, it should come as no surprise that Japan has 180,000 registered sects. And the Aum cult was allegedly able to get away with murdering its opponents for six years before the authorities took note.

Soka Gakkai is sometimes likened to Aum, but there are few similarities. Aum was tiny, with an estimated 3,000 members. Its leader - Shoko Asahara. was obviously deranged. Aum's plans for world domination were crude, to say the least: killing twelve random commuters by releasing nerve gas on crowded trains was hardly the best way to launch a coup d'etat.

Soka Gakkai. on the other hand, is huge, claiming 10 million members worldwide. Ikeda is brilliantly sane. And since the NFP may well win the next election, his bid for the role of political puppet master looks likely to be rewarded with success.

To what end would Ikeda like to wield power? Soka Gakkai literature gives no clue, and critics worry that power itself is the group's only concrete aim.

The fact that Ikeda once tried to make Nichiren monks worship a statue that looked rather like himself is not encouraging.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.