- Soka Gakkai's Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan by Levi McLaughlin
Levi McLaughlin's Soka Gakkai's Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan is a brilliant introduction to Soka Gakkai as an organization and as a social movement. Soka Gakkai's organizational history, its basic teaching, and the main characteristics of its campaigns are clearly explained in the first half of the book. The second half contains a beautifully written ethnography, in which readers can get a real sense of the ordinary people who participate in Soka Gakkai's movement. Readers will gain most from this book, however, if it is read with Anne Mette Fisker-Nielsen's Religion and Politics in Contemporary Japan: Soka Gakkai Youth and Komeito (Routledge, 2012). McLaughlin is a male nonmember of Soka Gakkai, while Fisker-Nielsen is a female self-identified Gakkai member. In my view, these two books complement each other as two sides of the same coin.
For more advanced readers, I would like to point out some possible shortcomings in McLaughlin's argument. What follows is my critical review of the book. Some may find my criticism pedantic, and if so, this is because McLaughlin's book is overall extremely well written. For those who know my own works, my first criticism will be predictable—rather than assuming Soka Gakkai is a religion, the category of "religion" should be an object of analysis in the context of Soka Gakkai's history.
Soka Gakkai was originally founded in 1930 as Soka Kyōiku Gakkai, which was a self-identified "educational" organization. McLaughlin observes that its founder, Makiguchi Tsunesaburo, "hardly deals with religion" in his academic publications, and Makiguchi's works were "concerned primarily with philosophical inquiry, not with religion" (p. 41). What was described as "religious" about Makiguchi's life by his contemporaries was his conversion to Nichiren Shōshū (p. 42). At that time, Nichiren Shōshū was an officially recognized "religious" organization. This is because the category of "religion" in the prewar Japanese constitutional regime was reserved specifically for Temple Buddhism (which Nichiren Shōshū was part [End Page 527] of), sectarian Shintō, and Christianity. Thus, the arrest of Makiguchi by the police in 1943 and the subsequent dismantling of Soka Kyōiku Gakkai by the Japanese authorities should not be perceived as "clamping down on religious organizations" (p. 43, emphasis added). Instead, the organization was more likely to be clamped down on because it had not been a "religious" organization, which would have been constitutionally protected. It belonged to the category of "pseudo-religion" or "heretic teaching."1
Renamed Soka Gakkai after World War II, in 1952 it became a "religion" "under the 1951 Religious Corporation Law" (p. 118). This meant Soka Gakkai became a legal entity independent from Nichiren Shōshū. The book, however, does not highlight the significance of this event. And interestingly, this might be a beginning of Soka Gakkai's preparation for its future battle against the Nichiren Shōshū priesthood. In my view, this part of Soka Gakkai's history is too important to ignore.
Now I would like to turn to McLaughlin's conceptualization of Soka Gakkai as "a mimetic nation-state" (p. ix). He observes: "Soka Gakkai's appurtenances resemble, most of all, features of a modern nation-state" (p. 16). McLaughlin uses the concept of nation-state as "a guiding metaphor" (p. 20). In my view, however, when he regards Soka Gakkai as "a religion that models itself on an idealized vision of the nation-state" (p. 20), he could have pushed his argument even further to regard Soka Gakkai as a "vestigial state." Vestigial states are "the institutional and cultural remainders of former sovereignties surviving within the jurisdictions of contemporary government."2 They could also be states "in waiting" or "in hibernation."3 Soka Gakkai can be one of the latter type. What are classified as "religions" by the government in...