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Decolonisation, development and faith: A Buddhist Japanese perspective

Decolonisation, Development and Faith

by Nobuyuki Asai, Soka Gakkai

This blog post is the eighth in a series that is part of a collaboration between the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLI) and the Centre for Religion and Public Life (CRPL) of the University of Leeds on the topic of decolonisation, development and faith. The series aims to showcase diverse perspectives from practitioners, researchers, activists and faith communities.

Blog posts (inclusive of hyperlinks) reflect the positions of the author(s). Publication on the blog must not be read as an endorsement by the JLI, the CRPL, the University of Leeds, or the series convenors.

Debates about decolonisation, development and faith are often dominated by Christian and Western perspectives. In this blog post, I would like to elaborate about decolonisation from the perspective of Soka Gakkai, a global community of individuals in 192 countries and territories who practise Nichiren Buddhism.

History of Soka Gakkai

The Soka Gakkai (literally ‘society for the creation of value’) was established in 1930 as a lay Buddhist organization based on the key Mahayana scripture the Lotus Sutra and the teachings of the 13th century Japanese priest Nichiren (at that time, it was called the ‘soka kyoiku gakkai’, ‘kyoiku’ meaning education). By around 1940, the organization had about 3,000 members, most of them educators. Its first president, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and second president, Josei Toda, resisted the endorsement of State Shinto that was being forced on the people by the Japanese militarist government at the time. As a result, in 1943 they were arrested under the Peace Preservation Act on lèse-majesté charges, and the organization was almost destroyed. Makiguchi died in prison, but Toda was released from prison and rebuilt the organization after the war. From 1960 onwards, it developed into an international organization under the leadership of Daisaku Ikeda(1928-2023). He also established the organization’s current commitment to peace, culture, and education.

The legacy of Daisaku Ikeda

Ikeda, in particular, was from a generation that felt a strong sense of being betrayed by the state as he grew up in a time when the education system was focused on raising obedient servants of the state willing to die for their country. He developed a strong anti-war orientation and the determination to work for peace. Furthermore, through his encounter with the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism, which puts great emphasis on respecting the human dignity of all, he came to realize the importance of diverse cultures and the importance of friendship with the Asian countries that Japan invaded before and during World War II.

Respect for local cultures

Soka Gakkai promoted respect for local culture and the appointment of local people as organizational leaders in each country from an earlier stage of its development than other religious orders originating from Japan. This includes the adaptation of worship and devotional practices. For example, Soka Gakkai members originally used the Japanese formal kneeling style known as ‘seiza’ when carrying out their daily religious practice, but since this was difficult for foreigners, outside Japan members could use chairs. When holding events outside of Japan, it actively incorporated traditional performing arts from each region, and  promoted the preservation of local culture.

Tensions between Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu

Initially, Soka Gakkai had a cooperative relationship with the Nichiren Shoshu sect, which had inherited a tradition dating back to the 13th century, but the sect had a more conservative stance than Soka Gakkai. The relationship with Soka Gakkai was sometimes tense, and this became critical in 1990. At that time in Japan, there were plans to sing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at a Soka Gakkai event, which the Nichiren Shoshu sect criticized, because they thought the lyrics contained elements praising the God of Christianity. There were also other problems, such as corruption among the sect’s monks, and the following year Soka Gakkai was formally separated from the sect.

Japanese attitudes towards its colonial past

Japan lost all of its colonies after its defeat in World War II, and after this defeat, many Japanese initially thought that the colonial problem was over. In addition, until the 1960s, there was no large-scale movement in the former colonized countries to hold Japan accountable for its actions. Since the 1980s, such discussions have arisen, particularly concerning China and South Korea, and relations with Japan have sometimes become strained. However, since both countries had already achieved a certain degree of economic development, many Japanese people regarded the arising discussion as “political claims'' or “expressions of nationalism' rather than legitimate demands for accountability for Japan’s colonial past. Serious reflections about colonialism, and whether there were any remnants remaining, did not become mainstream in society.

Ikeda’s efforts in mending relations with China and South Korea

Against this backdrop, Soka Gakkai’s third President Daisaku Ikeda actively promoted friendship with China and South Korea and emphasized its importance both at home and abroad. Ikeda promoted the notion  of South Korea being a country that Japan owes a great deal of cultural debt to, due to South Koreans having passed on various cultures, including Buddhism, to Japan since ancient times.  China was seen as an eternal neighbour, no matter what the political situation may be. Ikeda demonstrated a strong intention to continue private diplomacy. Cultural and educational exchanges with China and South Korea were promoted as well, through Soka University, the Min-On Music Association and Fuji Art Museums, all of which the Soka Gakkai president founded. Although Ikeda often faced a backlash from right-leaning thinkers, he remained consistent in his stance. The fact that two of the Soka Gakkai founders went against and were suppressed by the Japanese military government made it easier to be accepted in China and South Korea. Today, there are around one million Soka Gakkai members in Korea. In China, where religious propagation has been prohibited, the Soka Gakkkai has established links with dozens of organizations and academic institutions for cultural and educational exchange.

In addition, Ikeda was very conscious of the suspicion that Soka Gakkai members and organizations in many countries in Asia faced, as it was seen as a “Japanese religion.” When visiting Soka Gakkai organizations in countries such as the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia, in the 1990s, he made great efforts to apologize and offer respect to those who suffered or lost their lives at the hands of the Japanese military.

Approaches of Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Buddhism

Unlike the Soka Gakkai, Nichiren Buddhism did not, in general, produce thoughts and actions that promoted such approaches based on peace and friendship. In the 1930s, one group of Nichiren followers was a major force within Japan that incited invasions of neighboring countries. On the other hand, in the same period, Makiguchi and Toda’s study of the ideas of Nichiren in the 13th century revealed that his writings promoted respect for all, and a focus on each individual’s limitless potential as the core teachings of the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism.

Efforts to address Japan’s colonial past alongside work for gender equality and youth participation

Given this history, I think it can be said that Soka Gakkai has been working to a certain extent on decolonization in the sense of changing people's thinking about Japan’s colonial past and relations with its former colonized peoples, a process that has been supported by Buddhist thought. In addition to that, although the context may be slightly different from decolonization, some other efforts are ongoing within Soka Gakkai, which I see as relevant in this context. For example, in terms of gender equality, like much of the patriarchal Japanese society we come from, Soka Gakkai is still in need of improvement, and efforts are currently being made to promote gender equality within the organization. Soka Gakkai is also making efforts to further incorporate the voices of young people, and in March 2024, youth members strongly supported an initiative called “Mirai (Future) Action Festival” in which various youth organizations collaborated to promote nuclear abolition and climate action.

Rather than resting on its laurels and thinking, “We had nothing to do with colonization,” the organization is aware of the need to continue efforts to constantly review its own ways of being while actively learning from the debates currently occurring in the international community and exploring the role of Buddhism in this context.