Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

Today, I met with Kenji Yoshigo, the Vice President and Executive Director of Soka Gakkai Office of International Affairs. Soka Gakkai is a Buddhist sect which is one of the largest and most influential in Japan. One of the key things that sets it apart from other Buddhist sects is their active involvement in society including education, International relations and politics. They are the force behind the Komeito Party.

I had heard about Soka Gakkai from a variety of people, usually with negative connotations. Some people alluded to conspiracy, others refer to them like some sort of cult. The only real first hand negative interactions that I had heard of were interactions with overly enthusiastic members trying to recruit people. I had always been curious about the Soka Gakkai, but not curious enough to overcome the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) and actually approach them.

Kana, a young woman who works for me is Soka Gakkai. I found out when I learned that she was marrying a staff member of the Komeito and I asked her whether she was Soka Gakkai. She is one of the hardest working people on our team and has a passion for justice that exceeds ones expectations. She invited me to give the toast at their wedding. At this wedding, they showed video messages from the young children she was mentoring, and I met many of the Soka Gakkai people she worked with. I was very impressed with how intelligent, aware of current issues, and friendly they were. The impression I got at the wedding changed my mental image of Soka Gakkai.

Early this year, Lou Marinoff, a well known philosopher who I had met several times in Davos visited Japan. He had been invited by Soka Gakkai. I had dinner with Lou and his Soka Gakkai host. Lou told me how impressed he was with their efforts and urged me to contact them and learn more about Soka Gokkai. I respect Lou's opinions greatly and he is quite knowledgeable and objective. His description of the variety of things Soka Gakkai was doing made me decide to try to contact Soka Gakkai to try to get a first hand impression.

After the dinner with Lou, I asked Kana if she would help me learn more about Soka Gakkai. It took a bit of scheduling, but she coordinated this meeting with Mr. Yoshigo.

I asked Yoshigo-san to explain Soka Gakkai to me. Soka Gakkai is Buddhist sect and their core principles are very much in tuned with the teachings of most Nichiren Buddhists. Soka Gakkai was originally set up as an educational institution and has worked very hard to try to make society a better place by actively participating in it, unlike many more "passive" sects. I think it is the active participation in politics that causes those in power to fear Soka Gakkai. Yoshigo-san said that they teach people to question authority, think for themselves and be very active. These are also my core principles. Although Soka Gakkai has a large organization with "management" he said that they do not control the thinking of their members and have quite a diverse group of people. They do not worship their founder, nor do they teach people to blindly follow.

Since I am quite curious about the definition of "evil", I asked Yoshigo-san what he thought was "evil". He said that in Soka Gakkai, they believed very strongly in life and believed that those who destroy life, either through murder or the destruction of humans rights were evil. In the same context, those who ruin their own lives were in a way, "evil". Killing human beings, especially in the name of religion, he believed was evil. This definition works for me.

He also said that Buddhist teachings say that 1/3 of the world will be "believers" or "followers of the path," 1/3 of the world will be people who will be supportive and part of the same community, and 1/3 of the world will be actively involved in trying to hurt or subvert "believers." According to these teachings, this was the proper "balance" and that trying to make the whole world peaceful or "converted" was not only impossible, but unnatural. So, although there are some overzealous young Soka Gakkai members who try to convert all of their friends, Yoshigo-san made no attempt to try to make me join and made it clear that Soka Gakkai is open to interaction and cooperation with everyone. In fact, the head of one of their schools is Muslim.

When I visited Koyasan, a monk told us that during the Meiji Restoration, the Japanese government visited most of the European countries in power those days and realized that they were able to use religion as part of the State and used it in war. Japan took the decentralized animist religion, Shinto, and centralized it under the Emperor. When Japan lost WWII, they lost their religion. Similarly, the student uprisings in the 60's and 70's were squashed. Images of young soldiers dying for their divine Emperor as well as the images of youths wearing helmets and fighting with the riot police are considered silly and quite unfashionable to youths in Japan today. Young people in Japan today believe that fighting for a cause, either religious or political, is stupid and un-cool. This lack of spiritualism and activism makes Soka Gakkai's role quite clear.

We talked about Japan. We agreed on nearly every point about the lack of democracy, the apathy among the people, the risk of a right-wing popular uprising, and other issues. We agreed that the notion of unquestioning dependence on authority is still prevalent in Japan and was the cause of much of the problems. We talked about how those in power abuse power and those who follow do not have the will to rise up. Having recently had more and more experience with those in power in Japan, I began to realize how dangerous the Soka Gakkai was to those in power.

It makes sense that those in power would spread FUD about Soka Gakkai and try to discredit their efforts. The more I listened, the more I saw how the negative image Japanese have of Soka Gakkai was part of the standard operating procedure of those in power. If you can't co-opt them, marginalize them in any way possible. Call them, lefties, freaks, extremists, a cult... what ever it takes. Being quite sensitive to how powerful the mass media FUD machine is these days, it was a great feeling to discover yet another mental stigma, planted in my head by "the machine" that I was able to yank out and make my mind more clear.

I have still only had one meeting with Yoshigo-san, but we spent nearly two hours and he answered every question I had directly and without hesitation. He said I could blog anything we talked about. He also agreed to be available if I had any further questions. Now I ask YOU -- Especially all of you who told me that I shouldn't even meet with them. What do you actually KNOW about Soka Gakkai and why do you think they are so weird/bad. Could it be that you are also just a subject of Japanese mass media FUD? If you have any questions for Soka Gakkai, please let me know. Obviously, this can not consume ALL of my time, but my intention is to try dispel some of the FUD and understand more clearly.

Today I went to see Governor Masuda of Iwate. Iwate is physically the largest prefecture in Japan. Iwate is also my "home town" where my mother's side of the family is buried. Our family house is there, the schools that my great grandmother and grandmother built, and our grave. I *think* we've been at the same grave for 14 generations. (I have to fact check this. I know it is between 14-17 generations.) The last time I visited my grave was to pour my mother's ashes into the grave. We pour the ashes on top of the ashes of our ancestors. You can see the hundreds of years of ashes when you move the stone. The generations of people buried under the stone are etched in the stone side by side. Looking at all of the names on the stones sort of puts my life into perspective. A blip in a lineage of rather interesting people.

After our family property was parceled out to the locals during the Meiji Restoration, our money poured into the war effort in WWII and our heirlooms "confiscated" by the occupation, our family became a "normal" family and the city erected a little stone plaque in front of our house saying, "the former Ito residence." As an Ito who still owns the house, that's a bit disturbing. All that remains are the schools that my feminist great grandmother started building. She build one of the first trade schools for women during the war and my grandmother built a nurse school. My uncle reminded me that I must some day take over the school. I decided it was time to meet the Governor.

Luckily, we have many mutual friends and Professor Takemura made an introduction. I visited the Governor today. I talked about Creative Commons, the Internet Archives and the Bookmobile. I explained that Professor Takemura and I have been trying to get support from some local governments and libraries to try to sponsor an effort in Japan. We talked a lot about the future of local governments.

Governor Masuda was sharp, motivated and obviously on top of things. He is also a good friend of Governor Domoto of Chiba, who I know well. After meeting Governor Domoto of Chiba, Governor Tanaka of Nagano and Governor Masuda of Iwate, I think that the Governors of the strong provinces in Japan should start taking more control from the central government. I realize there is still a lot of reform required to allow the local governments to take more control. They need to become more financially self-sufficient. From a political perspective, the Governors are so much more accountable and representative of the people that it's a pity they don't have more resources...

PS 6 hours in the train to go to a 45 minute meeting scheduled 3 months ago is UBER M-Time... ;-)

David Beckemeyer aka twostop, creator of the first hecklebot and regular on #joiito blogs the story of how his 12 year old arrived in JFK during the blackout and how the Net helped him coordinate the night's events.

Brendyn has created a page that lists the online/offline status from jibot as titles and links to all of the recent blog entries of the regulars on #joiito from their RSS feeds. Very cool!

Technical synopsis from Brendyn

M. S. Granovetter .The strength of weak ties : A network theory revisited. In Sociological Theory (1), 1983. is an important paper for understanding social software. Unfortunately, it's an academic paper and therefore NOT ONLINE. (I'll rant about that later). In the paper, Granovetter describes strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are your family, friends and other people you have strong bonds to. Weak ties are relationships that transcend local relationship boundaries both socially and geographically. He writes about the importance of weak ties in the flow of information and does a study of job hunting and shows that jobs are more often found through weak ties than through strong ties. This obviously overlaps with the whole 6 degrees thing. I do believe there are some "nodes" but think that it is much more complex than a simple power law with a few number of local maximums.

After reading Shannon "Pet Rock Star" Campbell's piece on her quest for a job at a temp agency and the "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" page, I decided to look at all of "this stuff" from the perspective of jobs.

I was recently at an advisory board meeting for a trade school. We had just done a survey of employers asking for what they their primary criteria for choosing new employees was and it was overwhelmingly about execution and character and very little about skills. Skills, they said, could be taught later. I believe that "character" in the context of a job is your self-esteem and your passion for what you are doing.

What I would like to assert is that social software can help people with their self-esteem and can also help you find others who can find your assets and interests more valuable and place people in jobs where one can have "character". I wrote about this self-esteem thing earlier and in a trackback on that item, you can find a link to "Exhibit A". Boris writes first hand about the development of his self-esteem through blogs and IRC.

Shannon is a really interesting "case" for me. She is witty, has great character, is a brilliant musician, is a poster-child for the Creative Commons (I first heard of her when Larry Lessig was raving on about her over lunch), and she's worried about her interview at a temp agency in South Carolina. Something's wrong here. I know several other people on my IRC channel who are looking for jobs where they are surrounded geographically by people who don't understand or are unable to "leverage" the assets of that individual.

What I can see emerging is a way to amplify the strength of weak ties. (I knew this before, but it's becoming more crisp to me now.) IRC allows me to see the style and personality of many of the people online. Blogs help me see what their interests are and focus is. LinkedIn provides a professional context for referrals. I think that supporting the process of developing your assets and character and finding a job that best suits you will be one of the single most important benefits of social software. I know I've been ranting about Emergent Democracy and about level 2 and 3 in Maslow's hierarchy of Needs, but I just realized that social software may be most important in addressing level 1, finding the job that brings home the bacon. I know this is stupid of me and everyone is saying "doh" right now, but this, to me, is a big "ah ha".

I recently hired two people who were IRC regulars. I felt very comfortable after "getting to know them" over the last few months on IRC. Of course face to face meetings and interviews were essential, but the time spent with them on IRC really added to my ability to judge their character. I realize now that I am actively recruiting from my network of weak ties on the Net and also using the Net to meet interesting people to connect with others who might be good collaborators for those interesting people. The Net has always been a big part of my arsenal of networking tools, but I think it's reaching a whole new level.