JAPAN ECHO Vol. 26, No. 4, August 1999


The Kômeitô: A Virus Infecting the Body Politic

ENDÔ Kôichi

Walking the streets in mid-April, before the official start of the campaign for the 1999 round of local elections, you could see posters announcing meetings featuring speeches by this or that politician. The revised Public Office Election Law passed in 1994 expressly prohibits precampaign election posters, but political pros soon found a way around the ban. Posters for individual candidates may be forbidden, but not announcements of "speech meetings" sponsored by parties and other political organizations. This explains the plethora of precampaign posters prominently displaying the names of party officials and candidates.

Especially blatant were the New Kômeitô posters, with the party name and candidate's name emblazoned in big red and blue letters on a yellow ground.1 From the colors of its posters to the final visit to voters to make sure they will cast their ballots for its candidate, the Kômeitô--synonymous with the huge lay Buddhist group Sôka Gakkai (Value Creation Society)--outstrips all other parties in the persistence and audacity of its campaign methods.

PRIDE OVER AN ABSURD POLICY

Hitler said that the secret of a political party's strength was not the independent intelligence of its members but their disciplined loyalty. This gives us a clue to the solidity of the Kômeitô-Sôka Gakkai organization. The disciplined loyalty of Sôka Gakkai members is a fine thing for a religious group. Outsiders have no business criticizing it. But it is a different story when its propaganda gets tied in with things like the program of distributing shopping vouchers to consumers that was implemented earlier this year. This goes beyond the beliefs of a specific religious group and resurrects the old problem for the Kômeitô and Sôka Gakkai of the unification of politics and religion--or, to put it more bluntly, the use of politics by religion.

The Kômeitô is hailing the present period as its own springtime. This means, of course, springtime for the Sôka Gakkai. Even the seemingly impossible can come to pass. When the idea of passing out merchandise vouchers was broached last year as a means of getting the economy moving, economists dismissed it as unworthy of serious consideration. Even some within the Kômeitô (then operating in the House of Representatives as an alliance of the Reformers' Network Party and the New Peace Party and in the House of Councillors as Kômei) worried that they might be ridiculed as a bunch of economic cretins for advancing such a policy. But the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and forces of the soon-to-be-reconstituted Kômeitô colluded to push legislation for the vouchers through the National Diet practically before anyone knew what was happening. (The LDP had lost badly in the July 1998 House of Councillors election, and the Kômei members held the balance of power in the upper house; the LDP was thus eager to curry favor with them.)

Shopping vouchers may have been a parliamentary tactic for the LDP and an electoral tactic for the Kômeitô, but they proved unexpectedly unpopular with the middle-aged housewives that the Kômeitô aims to woo, since most of them did not meet the criteria for receiving the vouchers.2 In a plenary session of the House of Representatives Kan Naoto, head of the Democratic Party of Japan, the biggest opposition party, called the measure "a 700-billion-yen boondoggle for the sake of parliamentary tactics." Although this comment was later struck from the record, it hit the nail on the head.

The Kômeitô's ebullience contrasts sharply with the disillusionment pervading society. But no matter how chilled the surrounding atmosphere may be, the party keeps cheerily singing its own praises. Who is the object of its boasting?

THE PROMISE OF "EARTHLY BENEFITS"

Ôgi Chikage, a Liberal Party upper house member who worked with Kômei members back when she belonged to the now defunct New Frontier Party, recalls that her Kômei colleagues "were like the cormorants used for fishing. Someone was pulling their strings; they never expressed their own opinions. They had a tendency to skirt issues having to do with the state as a whole or defense, but when it came to issues of daily life, like welfare or the consumption tax, they would haggle over the details. In that sense you couldn't help feeling that they were engaging in a rather pandering form of politics."

What Ôgi aptly calls "a pandering form of politics" is linked directly to the essence of the Sôka Gakkai. "Protecting the weak" sounds fine, but such Kômeitô policies as shopping vouchers, ¥2 trillion in tax cuts, enhanced child allowances, and free medical services for infants are, frankly, just indiscriminate handouts. But from the Sôka Gakkai's point of view they represent the "earthly benefits" it promises believers. The Kômeitô is a political machine designed to deliver the earthly benefits that are at the core of the Sôka Gakkai's doctrine.

Traditionally, Japanese Buddhism has emphasized succor, so there is nothing strange about a Buddhist organization preaching the pursuit of earthly benefits. What decisively divides the Sôka Gakkai from other Buddhist groups is its formation of a political party to realize earthly benefits through policies aimed at redistributing national wealth to the socially disadvantaged (who make up the bulk of the group's membership). Helping the disadvantaged is an important part of politics, and parties that advocate doing so deserve praise. The problem is the identification of the Kômeitô's political achievements with the Sôka Gakkai's religious merits.

DUBIOUS CAMPAIGN METHODS

The Sôka Gakkai continues to engage in campaign practices that skirt the edge of the law. Whether the organization has really changed over the years is doubtful. I have before me a Sôka Gakkai document for internal circulation with notes on voter qualification. The contents hint at such practices as escorting people to the polls in an organized manner and deliberately changing voters' registered residences in time for elections so as to stack the deck in favor of Kômeitô-endorsed candidates. If such practices are really taking place, they definitely violate the Public Office Election Law. It seems that the Sôka Gakkai still puts ends over means and behaves accordingly.

There is nothing wrong per se with a religious organization taking part in politics. The Sôka Gakkai's vice-president in charge of political activities, Nozaki Isao, has said, "One mustn't force dogma on people, but it's important to see that the universal principles that can be drawn from Buddhism are reflected in politics." This is fine. Other religious groups seek to bring about social peace and welfare by endorsing outside politicians, but the Sôka Gakkai aims to achieve its goals by getting its own members elected to the Diet and putting them to work as members of the Kômeitô. It also adjures them not to forget what they owe the organization that got them elected. Underlying this is clearly the pressure of dogma. Sôka Gakkai wants to keep politicians firmly under its thumb, the ultimate aim being to achieve government by believers--in other words, to establish a Buddhist state.

No matter how much the Kômeitô protests its endorsement of the principle of the separation of politics and religion, in reality it is itself inseparable from the Sôka Gakkai. In the Sôka Gakkai, campaign activities are closely bound up with religious activities. Indeed, it would be better to say that campaign activities are undertaken as a form of religious activity. The triennial upper house election and quadrennial rounds of local elections are firmly incorporated into the organization's religious activities. Keen activists draw up schedules that put campaign activities on a par with worship meetings, the sale of subscriptions to the Sôka Gakkai newspaper Seikyô Shimbun, and fund raising, and they industriously canvass their communities for the Kômeitô.

The Sôka Gakkai used to spur on members by telling them that asking for votes had the same merit as fighting evil to spread the faith. Its mechanism of channeling religious energy into election campaigns has not changed. It has always taught that campaigning is an effective means of proselytism and that those who take part can undergo what it calls the "human revolution" and gain fundamental happiness.

Why do Sôka Gakkai members campaign so ardently? Behind this lie the ideas of earthly benefits through religious practice and of a Buddhist state, but members' motives differ somewhat according to their standing. Local Sôka Gakkai officers, for example, may be vying for points toward promotion. They probably also hope to reactivate inactive members by involving them in campaign activities and thus invigorate the organization.

When we look at the Sôka Gakkai as a whole, however, more pragmatic reasons emerge. As a former member explains, "the Sôka Gakkai can never give up campaign activities because it now has a vested interest in political participation. It has Kômeitô politicians dispense such favors as getting people into public housing or arranging for welfare assistance and uses that sort of thing to expand its membership. That's how the organization grew, and it can't pull out now." By identifying itself with campaign activities in this way the Sôka Gakkai has become one of Japan's leading election machines and has overpowered other organizations.

EXPLODING A MYTH

There is no question that the Sôka Gakkai is well endowed to fight election campaigns. In last summer's upper house election it contributed 7.75 million votes to successful proportional-representation candidates. Its ability to reliably deliver the vote is supported by its members' dogged activities, which are in turn driven by their faith. They blithely do things that campaigners for other parties will not and cannot do. LDP or DPJ campaigners, seeing a house with a Japanese Communist Party poster on its wall, assume that those who live there support the JCP and cross that house off their list. Sôka Gakkai members, though, partly because the Kômeitô's voter base overlaps with that of the JCP, will barge in and prevail on the family to let them put up their own poster.

In addition, they follow up every connection, persistently soliciting and confirming votes right up to election day. Of course they also enthusiastically round up people to attend political rallies and panel discussions, and those mobilized are more likely to vote than other people. Reportedly, they do not care if the illegality of such practices as escorting people to the polls and changing their registered residences is pointed out. Their campaign fliers and postcards and their street-campaigning manuals are meticulously prepared. And they put a great deal of time and effort into ensuring organizational unity.

Hamada Mariko, the wife of Hamada Takujirô, an independent elected to the upper house last year with the help of Kômei and the Sôka Gakkai, says, "They put an impressive amount of effort into pulling together views from top to bottom, whether it has to do with policies or the recommendation of candidates. The Sôka Gakkai is a group of good people. They decide what candidates to support on the basis of careful preparation and patient consensus building."

All this has generated the myth that the Sôka Gakkai can deliver 7.75 million votes across the board, since its organized campaigning enabled it to garner that many votes for proportional-representation seats in last year's upper house election. In the leadup to the Tokyo gubernatorial election on April 11 this year, the Sôka Gakkai's "core vote" among the metropolitan electorate was said to be 700,000 to 800,000, and where it would be directed was the subject of much speculation. But the grounds for this core-vote figure are not clear. What is clear is that the 7.75 million votes delivered by the Sôka Gakkai in the upper house election were the result of arduous efforts by the organization's committed activists, said to number 1.5 million nationwide. This cannot be called a core vote.

The Sôka Gakkai is well equipped for elections that occur at regular intervals, such as the triennial upper house votes and quadrennial local elections, but it betrays weaknesses when it comes to general elections following dissolution of the lower house and simultaneous elections for both houses of the Diet. It is often said that the Sôka Gakkai vote is highly maneuverable, that it can be switched overnight on command from above. But the only votes that can definitely be mobilized and shifted on command are those of the 1.5 million hard-core activists. The votes that these activists collect cannot be counted on to follow suit.

During the Tokyo gubernatorial campaign interest was focused on which candidate the Kômeitô-Sôka Gakkai forces would direct their vote to. But in fact, the much-talked-about 700,000-strong core vote never materialized. According to Kômeitô leader Kanzaki Takenori, "at least 400,000 of the votes for Akashi Yasushi [a former U.N. undersecretary general who was endorsed by the LDP and approved by the Kômeitô] and almost 100,000 of the votes for [former DPJ deputy leader] Hatoyama Kunio came from Kômeitô supporters." That makes a total of some 500,000 votes, and even so it is a generous estimate. In short, the Sôka Gakkai's core vote is by no means as substantial or as firm as many people have been saying.

Another thing we must not overlook is that other parties' (especially conservative parties') campaign cooperation with the Kômeitô-Sôka Gakkai machine does not necessarily translate into votes for them. For one thing, Sôka Gakkai members' enthusiasm for candidates who do not share their faith is lukewarm; furthermore, what is most important, support from the Kômeitô splits the conservative vote. The recent Tokyo gubernatorial election presents a good example. The main, if hidden, campaign issue was the pros and cons of politics dictated by the Kômeitô and Sôka Gakkai. The majority of conservative voters in effect said no. Even added together, the votes won by Akashi (690,000) and Hatoyama (850,000), the two candidates to whom the Kômeitô-Sôka Gakkai machine delivered its votes, did not approach the 1.66 million votes gained by the victor, conservative independent Ishihara Shintarô. This says everything.

An LDP member explains, "To the extent that Akashi, whom we supported, was seen as the Kômeitô candidate, we alienated members of Risshô Kôsei-kai, Reiyûkai, and other religious organizations. So no matter how much LDP headquarters urged us to sell Akashi, Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly and ward assembly members supported by Risshô Kôsei-kai and Reiyûkai had their hands tied." In the end, both the LDP and the Kômeitô went down to defeat.

The moral is not to overestimate the Sôka Gakkai vote. Otherwise it will take on a life of its own and will be traded at more than its fair value.

THE KÔMEITÔ'S PROSPECTS

The Kômeitô is currently feeling its oats. It was able to get the LDP to agree to implement its proposals for shopping vouchers and the beefing up of child allowances. And during the current deliberations over the bills on the new Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines it has also managed to manipulate matters to its own advantage. In a recent lecture to party members Kanzaki boasted, "The way things are, any bill the Kômeitô opposes gets blown away. And this state of affairs will continue for another six to nine years." The reason the Kômeitô's clout has gained such impact is that the ruling LDP-Liberal Party coalition is 10 seats short of a majority in the upper house. So like it or not the Kômeitô will hold the casting vote in that chamber for the next six to nine years, as Kanzaki says. To put it in a nutshell, a climate conducive to creating earthly benefits will prevail.

Conversely, though, the Kômeitô can only count on being able to sell its favors dearly for another six or seven years. Conditions surrounding the party are far from auspicious. If the lower house were dissolved and a general election held under the present lower house electoral system, which combines single-seat districts and proportional-representation voting, it is certain that the party would be more or less wiped out in single-seat districts and lose more than half its present lower house strength. This is what is behind recent talk about reviving the multiseat constituency system, which was scrapped in 1994, but there is little chance of that happening. To be sure, LDP heavyweights like Nonaka Hiromu, Katô Kôichi, and Kajiyama Seiroku favor bringing back the old system, but they certainly do not speak for the majority. The overwhelming majority of LDP politicians do not want a return to the problems associated with running two LDP candidates in the same district. Kajiyama, while a proponent of multiseat constituencies, has admitted the difficulty of bringing back the old system, saying, "There's no point crying over spilt milk." The DPJ, which is looking for a chance to take power, opposes such a move, as does the Liberal Party. The Kômeitô is isolated on this issue.

This means that the Kômeitô has to find a way to survive under the present lower house electoral system. One idea in the wind is sounding out the LDP on an LDP- Liberal Party-Kômeitô coalition or an LDP-Kômeitô coalition. But the LDP and the Liberal Party already have candidates for all 300 single-seat districts; there is no room for the Kômeitô to squeeze in. Shirakawa Katsuhiko, director of the LDP's Interest Group Policy Division, says flatly, "Any coalition has to succeed in campaign cooperation or it will fall apart. The LDP and the Liberal Party have the same roots, so after one or two general elections they can become a single consolidated force. I don't think the Sôka Gakkai can be part of that. It couldn't blend in comfortably with LDP and Liberal politicians' support groups. Campaign cooperation wouldn't go smoothly. An LDP-Liberal Party-Kômeitô or LDP-Kômeitô coalition, which would be highly unlikely to develop into a single party, just isn't in the cards."

If so, the only option left is to pursue campaign cooperation with the DPJ and confront the LDP as an opposition party. As it is, 70% of single-seat districts filled by the Kômeitô are districts with no prospective DPJ candidate--or, rather, districts deliberately abandoned by the DPJ. In this sense, the prospects for campaign cooperation between these two opposition parties appear good. The Kômeitô, though, wants to avoid a head-on confrontation with the LDP and so will probably keep its relations with the DPJ fairly low key. All in all, it has no choice but to safeguard its seats in the upper house and local assemblies by adopting an extremely vague position as neither a ruling nor an opposition party, and attempt to sell the Sôka Gakkai vote at as high a price as possible to the LDP or the DPJ in lower house single-seat districts.

THE VIRUS INFECTING THE LDP

If truth be told, the Kômeitô-Sôka Gakkai organization has been forced into quite a tight corner. Despite this, some foolish LDP politicians seek to use their links with this machine as leverage to increase their clout within their own party. The LDP has been infected by the Kômeitô-Sôka Gakkai virus and could turn into a clone of the Kômeitô as a result. After all, in terms of their emphasis on earthly benefits, the Sôka Gakkai and the LDP may well be on the same wavelength.

Unfortunately, quite a few LDP politicians confuse conditions in their own constituency with those of the party as a whole. Herein lies the LDP's weakness and the Kômeitô's chance to make inroads.

The first thing Ishihara Shintarô said after winning the Tokyo gubernatorial election was, "The established political parties have lost almost all their value. Everyone in Tokyo, and in Japan, thinks so, but party politicians are marvelously insensitive and don't realize it." Clearly this sharp barb was directed at the LDP.

Kakizawa Kôji, a former foreign minister, was deemed inappropriate as a candidate by the LDP and was expelled from the party when he insisted on running for governor of Tokyo. (He ran as an independent anyway.) The Kômeitô-infected LDP should take to heart the words of Kakizawa's wife, Eiko, referring to the backing of Akashi as gubernatorial candidate by both the LDP and the Kômeitô: "Why has the LDP lost its pride and confidence? I found it most puzzling that, despite having so many outstanding people of its own, the LDP felt it couldn't win unless it borrowed another party's strength."

Translated from "'Kômeitô uirusu' no kenkyû," in Bungei Shunjû, June 1999, pp. 174-86; shortened to about one-half. (Courtesy of Bungei Shunjû)

1. The former Kômeitô (Clean Government Party) was officially merged into the New Frontier Party (Shinshintô) in 1994 but reconstituted itself late in 1998, taking the name "New Kômeitô." --Ed.

2. The original call from the Kômeitô forces had been for across-the-board distribution, but under the scheme that was enacted only elderly people with low incomes and householders with children 15 or under were eligible.

© 1999 Japan Echo Inc.