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.