TOKYO, AUGUST, 31: They are pacifists who make prayer an important part of their daily lives, but members of Japan’s most politically active Buddhist sect say pragmatism comes before religious principle in the country’s September 11 general election.
Soka Gakkai, whose followers launched New Komeito, the junior partner in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s coalition government, says it represents more than 8 million households.
Though the party and sect officially split in 1970, the majority remain faithful to New Komeito and where the party does not field a candidate they tend to follow the sect’s endorsement.
In practice, that means voting for Koizumi’s Liberal Democratic Party despite misgivings over the LDP’s plans to alter Japan’s pacifist constitution and his visits to Yasukuni shrine for war dead, seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
“Politics is a rather different sphere from religion,” said advertising executive Mitsutoshi Narita, one of several sect members who gathered to speak at a straw-matted Tokyo meeting room dominated by a large, black Buddhist altar.
“Politics requires compromise to get things done. I can’t exactly say working with the LDP is the best option, but it is a better option,” the 36-year-old adman said.
Soka Gakkai followers, sometimes treated with suspicion for their eagerness to recruit new members, are keen to stress their ordinariness, and their concerns are largely practical.
Many say New Komeito’s influence on the LDP-dominated coalition has brought much-needed change to welfare legislation.
“As a housewife, I often pass on messages to our Komeito member of parliament about people’s problems and what we would like them to do,” said Chieko Kubota, a 38-year-old mother of two. “With the LDP we feel we are getting the message through,” she said citing childcare allowances and free healthcare for children as examples of improved welfare policy.
The Yasukuni issue is particularly sensitive for Soka Gakkai, given its link to the state Shinto religion used to justify Japan’s World War Two militarism.
Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, who founded the group in 1930, died behind bars in 1944 after being jailed for opposing government-imposed Shinto.
“Yasukuni is a painful subject,” said Narita.
“I really don’t like Yasukuni. I have a lot of Chinese friends. Thinking about Japan’s position in the world as it is developing, I don’t see how it can be a positive thing.”
The main opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) has promised to build an alternative secular war memorial something Soka Gakkai members say is needed to improve relations with Asia. But the DPJ does not attract Soka Gakkai support.
“They seem to have just banded together to try to take power,” 55-year-old securities firm employee Mitsuteru Hikasa said of the DPJ, which is made up of former LDP members, one-time socialists and younger conservative lawmakers. “If they do succeed, there is a danger they will just break apart.”
On the face of it, the often scandal-tainted LDP and New Komeito whose name means “Clean Government Party” look like strange bedfellows.
They were long fierce rivals, and the New Komeito’s predecessor (Komeito) was a member of a coalition government in 1993 that briefly took power away from the LDP.
The LDP invited New Komeito to help form a coalition six years ago in order to achieve the upper house majority it lacked.
The move sparked an outcry from other religious groups that had traditionally supported the LDP.
Some commentators say Komeito was motivated to join by the prospect of being able to protect the tax-exempt status of religious groups, including Soka Gakkai.
The LDP may need New Komeito’s support again in September if it is to return to power in the election for the lower house.
Koizumi has said he is aiming only for the two-party coalition to achieve a majority that is, at least 241 of the 480 seats. New Komeito currently has 34 lower house lawmakers.