Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan eds. by George Ehrhardt et al. (review)
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Reviewed by
Kōmeitō: Politics and Religion in Japan. Edited by George Ehrhardt, Axel Klein, Levi McLaughlin, and Steven R. Reed. University of California Press, 2014. 286 pages. Softcover $25.00.

Research has not kept pace with the impact of Sōka Gakkai and Kōmeitō, the political party that Sōka Gakkai founded in 1964, though both have exerted significant influence in Japanese politics for half a century. Prior to the work reviewed here, the best study of the two organizations was James White’s The Sōka Gakkai and Mass Society (Stanford University Press), published in 1970. Since that time, Sōka Gakkai’s membership has tapered off, yet it still numbers over eight million households, making it the largest by far of the Japanese new religious movements, larger also than any temple Buddhist sect.1 Kōmeitō became the third-largest political party represented in the national Diet in 1969 and is the junior coalition partner of the LDP in the current Abe Shinzō administration. The party moreover has almost three thousand representatives in local governments across the country, nearly as many as the LDP.

These essays edited by George Ehrhardt, Axel Klein, Levi McLaughlin, and Steven R. Reed substantially enhance our understanding of Sōka Gakkai and Kōmeitō. They treat the history of Kōmeitō in detail and in relation to Sōka Gakkai, surveying the history of political activities by Japanese religious organizations, Sōka Gakkai’s understanding of electioneering as a religious practice, the processes by which Kōmeitō politicians are chosen, their campaign methods, the central significance of the Sōka Gakkai Married Women’s Division in setting the party’s agenda as well as in organizing the vote, the various movements to counter Kōmeitō, and Kōmeitō’s compromises with the LDP. The volume is well organized and lucidly written; its conclusions are compelling, and the essays complement each other well. The book should become required reading for scholars of Japanese religions, society, and politics.

Chaper 1, “Kōmeitō: The Most Understudied Party of Japanese Politics” by Ehrhardt, Klein, McLaughlin, and Reed, poses the book’s main questions: “What motivated [End Page 253] Kōmeitō’s founding? Why did a religious organization enter electoral politics, and how did its party survive and thrive, both in opposition and in government, and, perhaps most important, how does Kōmeitō work?” (p. 14).

Chapter 2, “Religious Groups in Japanese Electoral Politics” by Klein and Reed, identifies ten religious parties other than Kōmeitō that have run in upper-house elections from 1947 to 2013. The only one in operation now is Kōfuku Jitsugentō (Happiness Realization Party), founded by Kōfuku no Kagaku in 2009, which has never won an election. A number of religious associations have sponsored their own members as electoral candidates without forming a political party, including Tenrikyō, Risshō Kōseikai, Seichō no Ie, and Jōdo Shinshū. In addition, the League of Shinto Parliamentarians (Shintō Seiji Renmei), composed of Diet members affiliated with the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchō), pursues a platform of conservative causes; and while the authors do not address it, Nippon Kaigi is another significant forum for political engagement by conservative-leaning religious organizations. Sōka Gakkai dwarfs the competition, electing three or four times more candidates than all other religious groups combined. Whereas other “bloc” voting groups like construction workers and agricultural cooperatives have declined, “Sōka Gakkai represents by far the largest and most reliable organized bloc of voters in Japan today” (p. 45).

The chapter enumerates three main reasons why religious groups become involved in politics: to influence policy, to defend their interests, and to maintain organizational strength. The third is especially significant in Sōka Gakkai, where electioneering is regarded as bearing religious meaning. The authors argue convincingly for Kōmeitō’s “pivotal” political role, calling on political scientists to renounce the notion that religion can safely be ignored as a factor in Japanese politics (p. 45).

Chapter 3, “Electioneering as Religious Practice: A History of Sōka Gakkai’s Political Activities to 1970” by Levi McLaughlin, covers the founding of Sōka Gakkai, its establishment of Kōmeit...


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