Church/State Seperation and Soka Gakkai

April 5, 2010

One of Japan's most influential political parties, founded by members of a religious sect, skirts the fine line between church and state.  

By Eric Eck  

Those living in Japan for any length of time have likely been approached by representatives from the Soka Gakkai movement. An offshoot of Nichiren Buddhism, Soka is, depending on who is asked, either a progressive peace-centered organization or a religious cult. The group's ominious ties to the New Komeito Party, Japan's third largest political party, has historically caused concern.  

Do we not, some ask, see a conflict in Soka members being encouraged to vote New Komeito and being pressed to cajole friends and co-workers into doing the same given the fact that Japan's postwar Constitution established a clear separation between church and state? New Komeito's position on this issue highlights the differences in approach between Japan and a country like the United States on similar doctrines. At the same time, seperation advocates abroad might recognize familiar spurious reasoning coming from the East.  

First, Article 20 of the Japanese Constitution states: Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority. 2) No person shall be compelled to take part in any religious acts, celebration, rite or practice. 3) The State and its organs shall refrain from religious education or any other religious activity.

New Komeito's position declaration first seeks to dispel any official relationship between the party and Soka itself. From their website, under the subheading "Views on Politics and Religion": "...in 1970, Komeito and the Soka Gakkai severed all organizational affiliation. (Prior to that time it was possible for an individual to hold appointments in both organizations.) The Soka Gakkai has not provided any degree of oversight to the Komei Party or its current successor, New Komeito, in terms of personnel, management or administration, since then.

The entry goes on to state, quite rightly, that the freedom of religion article served to guarantee freedom from religion as well, most notably State-sponsored Shinto. It then immediately makes reference to an abandoned article which would have banned any political activity by religious organizations saying,  "(the article) was seen as an intolerable danger to democracy in that it would enable the state to intervene in the affairs of religious organizations", and concluding, "Thus, Article 20 was never intended to prohibit any citizen or religious organization from participating in the political process."

This, of course, echoes the standard argument of the faithful in places like the U.S., where religious leaders are quick to call foul when their "tiny" voice is quashed by the heavy foot of government imposed division. Yet Japan's church/state problems have historically been "top-down". It was government intrusion into and co-optation of Shinto that led to barbarism and war, not the other way around. New Komieto exploits this difference, and reasons (incorrectly) that, while state interference in religion is wrong, the opposite is constitutionally protected.

At the same time, one must ask, if New Komeito is so thoroughly disentangled from Soka Gakkai and religious influence, why do they find a need to so vigerously assert as much? Some of Soka's own protestations about misinformation spread in the media (by publications including Time Magazine, no less) regarding the group recall other prominent pseudo-religions' paranoid rumblings. Certainly some of the dirtier allegations, such as extortion, levelled against Soka higher-ups mirror supposed nefarious goings-on in the Scientology sect. True or false, Soka Gakkai and, ostensibly, its proxy members in New Komeito, have a lot of allegations out there to contend with, not the least of which is playing both sides of the fence.

New Komeito Party website: http://www.komei.or.jp/en/about/view.html