The Japanese parliament, known as the Diet, is generally a fairly sedate place, but in late September it was the site of an extraordinary scene in which Japanese lawmakers crash-tackled and wrestled each other to the ground during a vote for laws that would, if passed, radically redefine Japan’s security posture.
On Sept. 19, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (the LDP) achieved its goal: voting in a package of laws that would allow Japanese soldiers to fight overseas for the first time since the end of World War II. The laws allow for “collective-self defense,” meaning that Japan can, when a threat is considered significant enough, fight not just in self-defense but also in defense of its allies.
While inside the Diet lawmakers scrummed as the laws were passed, outside, across the country, tens of thousands protested. Indeed, there had been months of almost daily protests against the proposed laws. As the vote neared, among the familiar banners bearing the words “Save Article Nine” and “No War!,” a surprising addition appeared—the tricolor of the powerful Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai.
The addition was surprising because Soka Gakkai International (SGI), which boasts eight million members in Japan (and eleven million globally), were de facto supporters of the security laws—or at least, supporters of one of the key political parties behind the laws. The few Soka Gakkai members who publicly opposed the laws, waving their flags among the crowds of anti-war protestors, were, in effect, defying Soka Gakkai’s leadership.
Why is a Buddhist movement, together with a political party it created and backs, signing off on laws that amount to the biggest expansion of Japan’s military role since the end of World War II? It is a complex story, but at its heart is a clear dilemma: how to square Buddhist values of peace with the tough world of realpolitik.
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The debate over the security laws, which has divided Japan, hinges on the much vaunted “pacifist clause,” or Article Nine, of the Japanese constitution.
“Article Nine is one of the very keystones of the Japanese post-war constitution; it renounces war and says that Japan will not maintain military forces,” said Toshiaki Miura, a journalist at one of Japan’s leading daily newspapers, Asahi Shimbun.
“It’s because of Article Nine that Japan has been largely a civilian power. Article Nine restrains the military and has made pacifism an important part of Japan’s national psyche,” Miura said.
Written in 1947 while Japan was occupied by the United States, the Japanese constitution is held dear by a majority of Japanese, who view it as the bedrock of the country’s post-war democracy. But many Japanese conservatives view the constitution—and Article Nine in particular—as something of a millstone, an anachronistic byproduct of Japan’s humiliating defeat. Led by the current Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, they have long wished to reinterpret or even revise Article Nine, rehabilitating Japan’s military and its role in world affairs. The perceived threat from China and North Korea has added a sense of urgency to these calls.
However divisive, the security laws passed in September are a historic achievement for Shinzo Abe and the right-leaning LDP. But, crucially, Abe and the LDP didn’t do it alone. They had the numbers in parliament thanks to their junior coalition partner, Komeito. And here’s where the plot thickens: the Komeito party hails not from the traditionally hawkish right wing but was created and backed by the peace-loving Buddhist movement, Soka Gakkai.
Founded in the 1930s by Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, Soka Gakkai follows the Buddhist tradition based on the Mahayana scriptures and the Lotus Sutra in particular. Rooted in the teachings of Nichiren, a 13th-century reformist philosopher, Soka Gakkai is often described as a form of “engaged Buddhism” that “concerns itself with realizing one’s inherent potential and fulfilling one’s responsibility to the fullest, whether it be in the home, community, or workplace. It is also about proactively contributing to finding a solution to the various problems facing the world,” according to the organization’s website.
Related: Understanding Nichiren Buddhism
After World War II Soka Gakkai flourished, and in the 1960s established a political wing, the Komeito Party, which today operates at arm’s length from the religious organization. Most people, however, view Soka Gakkai and Komeito as one and the same: Komeito promotes Soka Gakkai’s worldview in national politics; Soka Gakkai provides the votes.
“Our commitment to peace and religious freedom is second to none,” said Hirotsugo Terasaki, vice president and director of peace affairs at Soka Gakkai, during an interview at the organization’s plush Tokyo headquarters.
Soka Gakkai, which also runs universities, cultural programs, and a publishing empire, has always identified itself with Japan’s peace movement, and yet came out in support of Komeito and their role in crafting the new security laws.
Terasaki defends his organization’s position and views Komeito’s support of reinterpretation of Article Nine as just one of the natural political compromises of coalition government: short–term ideological discomfort in exchange for continued political relevance.
“The essential question has been how best to uphold the pacifist principles of Article Nine. Komeito has apparently done its utmost to ensure that, in the revised security legislation, a defense-only policy has been maintained in line with Article Nine,” Terasaki said. “The more rightist elements wanted to move away from the spirit of Article Nine and expand the military’s role even further, and we have helped prevent that.”
Many peace activists, including Takeda Takao of the Nipponzan Myohoji sect, expressed disappointment with Soka Gakkai for not coming out against the security laws.
“There are many faith-based groups who oppose these war bills,” said Takao, who leads a national interfaith network of activists defending Article Nine. “We share many beliefs with Soka Gakkai, and some individual members are protesting with us, but I think the leadership of Soka Gakkai should have protested these laws.”
In the run up to the parliamentary vote on the security laws, Soka Gakkai members who opposed the bills became increasingly vocal, unfurling their tricolor and joining the protests. One Soka Gakkai member, a local chapter leader, reportedly gathered almost ten thousand signatures in petition that he delivered to the Komeito headquarters.
“One thing we know for sure is that there ended up being a rather open rift within the Soka Gakkai membership, and this is, of course, highly unusual,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo. “Soka Gakkai has always been a rather tightly-controlled group, and open opposition to a policy stance adopted by Komeito, and supported by Soka Gakkai leadership is practically unheard of.”
Nakano said criticism of the security laws by pro-Article Nine SGI members has been directed at the Komeito Party, not at Soka Gakkai’s leader, Daisaku Ikeda.
“They go a long way to try to defend their pacifist opposition against the government legislation in terms of the teachings and words of Ikeda,” Nakano said. “They are openly critical of Komeito, but they restrain themselves from criticizing Soka Gakkai’s leadership directly.”
In the months since the vote on the new security laws, opposition groups keen to ensure that the LDP and Komeito pay a political price have continued their protests. One peace group is working to collect 20 million signatures. At the same time, supporters of Japan’s remilitarization are advocating even greater reform. A recent conference in Tokyo, which opened with a video address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, gathered over ten thousand people pushing for the conservative’s holy grail of not simply reinterpreting, but revising altogether, the 1947 Constitution.
Despite the furor over the security laws, Terasaki from Soka Gakkai believes both his organization and Komeito have walked a fine line, defending Buddhist principles of peace and nonviolence while servicing a political marriage that gives Buddhism a powerful foothold in Japanese politics.
“We don’t feel that our credibility as a peace movement has been undermined by these developments,” Terasaki said. “Our commitment to activities aimed at building a world without war will continue unchanged, including ongoing exchange with the citizens of neighboring countries in Asia.”