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Season 1, Episode 1 | Levi McLaughlin

June 10, 2020


Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a new podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. My name is Allison Alexy and I’m an assistant professor here at Michigan. I’m a cultural anthropologist and my research focuses on Japan. But I also really enjoy podcasts and especially enjoy hearing authors and thinkers talk about their work, motivations, and their recommendations. I created this podcast to engage scholars and researchers and, frankly, to have an excuse to read interesting work that I might not otherwise encounter. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.

Today I’m really happy to be sitting and talking with professor Levi McLaughlin, who is an associate professor in the department of philosophy and religious studies at North Carolina State University and has written a book that was published last year which is titled, Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan, published by the University of Hawaii Press just last year. Congratulations Levi. This is an awesome book. I really enjoyed reading it.

Levi McLaughlin: Thank you, I really appreciate it.

Allison: And thank you so much for being here and willing to talk with us.

Levi: It’s a pleasure.

Allison: And I should say this year you are the Toyota visiting professor here at the University of Michigan and it’s been such a pleasure to have you on campus all year.

Levi: It’s been awesome to be here.

Allison: Oh, great. I’m so glad to hear that. So let’s start by talking about the book. Could you tell us a little bit about Soka Gakkai as an introduction?

Levi: Sure thing. Soka Gakkai, known as SGI or Soka Gakkai International in the United States, and it’s a presence across the world. If you translate Soko Gakkai literally from Japanese, it means value creation study association, which is an unusual name for a religion, because it didn’t start as a religion. It was founded by educational reformers in the 1930s in Japan, school teachers who are actually themselves quite socio-economically marginal. They didn’t come from the elite. They were mostly from very poor backgrounds and they’d made their way to the imperial capital of Tokyo and got involved with the exciting, vibrant intellectual culture of that place at that time in the beginning of the 20th century. And they are inspired actually by a lot of movement in the United States and in Europe about what it meant to educate people, especially kids. And so they got involved with looking at Neo-Kantian thought, looking at ideas that were inspired by John Dewey and others who were being translated into Japanese around that time.

The founder was a school teacher named Makiguchi Tsunesaburō. He and his disciple, Toda Jōsei converted to lay affiliation. That is to say they weren’t priests, but they became followers of a minority temple-based Buddhist group called Nichiren Shōshū, which means Nichiren “true sect.” So they became the followers of a medieval Buddhist founder, a 13th century monk named Nichiren who grew quite notorious in his day for being this absolute hard line defender of a single teaching, the final teachings of the historical Buddha, in a document known as the Lotus Sutra. According to Nichiren it’s only through sole reverence for the Lotus Sutra that you could possibly hope to attain salvation in this, the degraded age of the Buddhist Dharma. And we’re still in that degree at an age now.

Allison: Yes, we definitely are.

Levi: Aren’t we though? And it’s not hard to find proof of that if you look around. Nichiren received a lot of flack during his lifetime. He was exiled twice by the government. They attempted to execute him once. He died at the age of 60, but he nonetheless sort of set himself up as a kind of biographical model of martyrdom, someone who was steadfastly refusing to capitulate to, state authority and maintaining a singular vision – one teaching, one vision, one founder. There’s just something about that singularity of purpose that resonates particularly in the modern era. In Japan, the largest so-called new religions, groups that were founded in the last couple of centuries, are based in Nichiren’s Buddhism. And Soka Gakkai is the largest of those. Founders were willing to undergo persecution during the wartime era. So focused on Orthodox understandings of Nichiren were they that they refused to enshrine talismans from the Sun Goddess. And that was a requirement during the war in Japan for all religious groups. Makiguchi and Toda were two of a very few people in Japan who were willing to maintain their Orthodox religious beliefs to the extent that they were imprisoned. Makiguchi died of malnutrition while in prison. Toda was released shortly before the end of the Pacific war in July of 1945 and almost immediately thereafter he set about reformulating the group that he and Makiguchi had founded, this time not so much as an educational reform movement, but much more as a broad based mass religious movement. It went from being a just a few thousand followers in the beginning of the 1950s to over 1 million adherent families in Japan by the end of the 1950s. Toda’s successor was a man named Ikeda Daisaku who remains the unquestioned authority in Soka Gakkai.

Allison: He’s close to a hundred, right?


Levi: Well, he’s 91 years actually. His birthday is January 2nd, So he just turned 91. He born in 1928 so I’m going to say 92, I forgot it’s 2020. Yeah, he’s 92 years old. He hasn’t been seen in public since 2010. This hangs over the group as this existential crisis. What happens when your singular figure, someone like Nichiren, very much like Nichiren, who is the center of all adulation, all authority, starts to fade out. Now there’s been a sort of 10 year period of liminality where he’s sort of been present but not actually present. Basically a generation has come of age within Soka Gakkai where they are forced to create their own orthodoxies, where they’re forced to sort of take his teachings and discover for themselves how best to perpetuate what they believe to be the prime messages within them. This is creating all kinds of complications within this massive, very politically powerful, very economically powerful group.

Allison: Let’s come back to the politically powerful and economically powerful if that’s okay.

Levi: Sure.

Allison: I imagine that most listeners to this podcast will be interested in Japan and probably have some personal knowledge or maybe be Soka Gakkai members themselves.

Levi: Sure.

Allison: Can you talk a little bit about general attitudes from outsiders towards Soka Gakkai because I think a lot of people have pretty strong feelings.

Levi: That’s putting it diplomatically. If you raise the term Soka Gakkai in Japan a lot of people get quite nervous to be honest. One of the products of explosive growth is notoriety. Soka Gakkai grew in the ways that it did thanks to a practice labeled as a Nichiren Buddhist term, shakubuku which can be translated literally as “break and convert.” The interpretation of what shakubuku consists of has changed over the decades. But while Soka Gakkai was exploding in terms of numbers it was a pretty hard sell approach. Members grew notorious for targeting the adherence of rival religions and coming up with specific arguments to use against them in order to convince them to give up what they characterized as false teachings, false sects, to convert and to reject them utterly, to burn all of the accoutrements that associated with other religions, and so to take on Soka Gakkai as an exclusive practice.

This makes it quite an exception within the Japanese religious framework. Japan is typically a place where people belong simultaneously to multiple religious constituencies and it’s not a problem to be simultaneously Buddhist, to attend Shinto ceremonies at shrines, and even to go to church and be Christian. These are not considered to be a contradiction to many people in Japan. Soka Gakkai is a glaring exception to that kind of practice where it is entirely singular. But there is also obviously an attraction to this. Another reason it was stigmatized early on was that it attracted largely people who are largely socio-economically marginalized. So it grew in the immediate postwar years. The typical member in the 1950s would have been a woman who moved to the city from the countryside and did not have any kind of social network to rely on and most likely had a lower than average level of education and a low level of income.

It was sort of scornfully referred to as the religion of the poor. And one of the folks I spent time with a mix of pride and humility said, you know, people who were cast out made Soka Gakkai. She’s an example of someone who really made it. Beautifully, a wonderful human, just a fantastic person, but who’d come from an extremely poor background in Western Japan and talked in these terms and knew what it meant to be, to be part of that group and to be viewed by the majority society in this way. So how it compared to the United States, how does it track? I mean, it’s difficult to make broad, comparisons somewhere between the Unification Church of Scientology. Actually, one of the closest ways you might think about it is the Church of Latter Day Saints. So very often a Mormon folks are treated with a certain level of suspicion. Similar questions surround Soka Gakkai for sure. It’s what’s called shūkyōhōjin, religious juridical person. Like all religions in Japan, which makes it possible for it to protect its religious activities from taxation. And that’s just what it means to stay religion. Of course because it’s so big and because it’s so notorious and also because it’s so deeply involved with electoral politics, that gets a lot of scrutiny and is routinely used as a sort of a sounding board for its critics.


Allison: The first time I really encountered Soka Gakkai as an idea and sort of as an imagined threat or a real threat, I’m not sure how to say it, I was doing fieldwork about divorce in Japan in 2005. And one of the things I found was that men and women often asked me to hook them up, to find a boyfriend or a new girlfriend. Because they very intelligently realized that if I’m doing research about divorce, I must know a lot of single people. They were not wrong, right. I, being the earnest little anthropologist I am was really trying to fulfill those requests. And so I was not exactly keeping a list. It turns out, PS, I’m a terrible matchmaker. But I was trying, and you know, enough young-ish women asked me and I thought of one man I knew who was not divorced, had never been married. I thought was lovely, very smart, very kind. We would have great conversations. He was really interested in the world. He must have told me he was Soko Gakkai or belonged, I don’t know even how to say it. I would mention him to these women and to a person they said, Oh my God, no, absolutely not. It was really striking to me that they would have preferred, they certainly would have preferred another divorced person in terms of, as a measure of stigma. They would’ve married a foreigner.

Levi: Sure.

Allison: I was just really struck by this. I probably mentioned him to more than ten women because then it got interesting, right, and I wanted to see who would say yes.

Levi: If there’s going to be anyone who said yes.

Allison: Yeah, nobody said yes. And they never met him. It wasn’t about him. It was about the religion.

Levi: I see. I’d be curious to know if I would’ve changed if they’ve met him cause he’s probably this really charming dude.

Allison: I think he’s lovely.

Levi: And that would have overcome things, I’m sure, too. That’s the thing, the specter of stigma’s always more, more terrifying than the engaged reality of it. That’s one of the things I encountered in doing my research. One of the reasons I wanted to do this research is because Soka Gakkai has loomed in Japan as the elephant in the room. Especially with regard to religion, there was no book on it, no recent book. The last English language manuscript that received a high critical acclaim was written in 1969. A few things have happened in the century since then. So I thought maybe it’s time to talk about Soka Gakkai. In Japan there’s almost nothing in Japanese on Soka Gakki, manuscript length books.

They are either not written by Soka Gakkai itself or one of its paid representatives or by a sort of a vicious sort of tabloid journalism type of critic. Cause that’s sells very well. There’s actually a pretty robust anti-Soka Gakkai journalism. One of the weekly magazines, a shūkan shinchō, maintained a Soka Gakkai desk for decades and just churned out articles on that because it sold copies. That’s the balkanization that kind of existed in Japanese, but also in English too. I needed to look at something that wasn’t like that. So I routed my research in people and spent time with actual people on the unresolved complexity. I started in earnest with fieldwork in 2000. So it’s the product of two decades engaged with the same people. So it’s a generation of insight into how people have lived their lives.

Allison: Yeah. And I think that people really come alive in the book and you can tell the characters. I know they’re real people, but they come off as characters in a really good way. And they come off as three-dimensional real people with concerns that are sometimes about the religion and sometimes not about the religion.

Levi: Right.

Allison: For those reasons, when you were doing the research and the field work in Japan, and you talked about your research to people with whom you weren’t doing research, so other people in the world, were there particular reactions were people threatened or upset or excited or titillated or any of these things?

Levi: It really depended on who I was talking to. Actually you get quite strategic about how you frame your research too, depending on your audience. And I don’t think that’s exclusively my topic, right?

Allison: Not at all. I did that too.

Levi: I mean, if you’re talking about divorce for example -

Allison: I actually framed it as kazoku mondai. I framed divorce as family issues.

Levi: Family issues, right?

Allison: Because then basically somebody who was thinking about divorce could feel included in that category as opposed to someone who said, Oh, well, I, you know, I haven’t gotten divorced yet. And kazoku mondai ­– family problems, family issues – it’s a valid category.


Levi: Sure. It can include just about anything theoretically. But the other, the opposite can also be true. You can actually choose to provoke at times if you want to get a conversation rolling. So there were times where I would specifically say, yes, I’m spending sustained amounts of time with members of Soka Gakkai. I would sometimes say this to people who are incredibly hostile to Soka Gakkai in the hopes of generating conversations. Often it worked to great effect in the sense that they could take seriously the idea of actually learning from someone who’s very different from you. And there’s a certain paradox with being the foreigner. The research I carried out, I was told repeatedly would be very difficult for a Japanese person to do. I’m not phenotypically Japanese. I’m not from Japan. And also I was this, you know, grad student when I started it and so I had no social status to worry about. I was just nothing, you know, this weird alien just landed from outer space.

Allison: But could play violin.

Levi: Yes. I played violin. And that was helpful. Extremely important. The most intensive engagements that I’ve actually still ever experienced research wise, possibly otherwise too is playing a violin with a Soka Gakkai symphony orchestra, which I did for our and a half years in a row from 2000. And then since then I’ve played with Gakkai musicians up to and including this past year. And so these are the same folks I’ve played with for now two decades. They have developed. In some cases they’d become professional musicians because they started as kids. And so last year I spent – I had to practice my ass off. I played pro gigs for the first time in like two decades last year. In a previous life, I was trained as a violinist and that’s what allowed me to do this. I was very, very serious about playing violin until I was about eighteen. And then I made a very abrupt shift that I didn’t want to follow that as a track and decided to instead, how far can I get from Toronto? Maybe I’ll study Japan and I’d been interested in Japan up to that point too. So I started studying Japanese seriously. But as it turns out, the violin just doesn’t go away. It’s my bête noire.

Allison: I was thinking of it as a ghost haunting you.

Levi: It is, it is. It’s like, it’s like, yeah, it’s just, it’s always looming. Which is good, but it’s also punitive cause it always reminds you of your deficiencies. But yeah, it was also a really important way to know people.

Allison: Can you tell us more about the fieldwork you did?

Levi: Sure.

Allison: The question really is, how does playing violin in a symphony orchestra help you write such an interesting book and learn about this group?

Levi: Well, to be honest, the first draft of this book was, um, about a hundred and forty, a hundred fifty thousand words.

Allison: Wow.

Levi: Which is way too long.

Allison: So for our listeners –

Levi: Yes, for those of you who are writing books don’t do that to yourself. And so the stuff that got cut was all the music stuff because it didn’t advance the primary thesis of the rest of the material. So I’m now busily writing a second book that’s all about aesthetic formations and life histories.

Allison: Oh goodness. Ok good. I was worried you’d lose that stuff.

Levi: By no means, no. But, and because I was so close to it, I found it very difficult to digest. I don’t know if you’ve found this, like the closer you are to material that the harder it is to see it and the closer you are to people the hardest to write about them.

Allison: Absolutely.

Levi: The optimal distance is the friend of a friend and that’s so there’s enough trust but also enough critical distance that you can actually quite easily, transparently write about that stuff. The people who are closest to me and they weren’t always the musicians. There are also some local people in my neighborhood I got to know him extremely well, only in the epilogue of the book was able to write about some of them. And there’s other stuff that I had - one day, you know, one day it’ll come together, but this stuff just takes much longer than I anticipated to reach a point where it’s a coherent in writing.

Allison: We have very parallel experiences. In the book that’s coming out in a few months, the person that I am closest to in Japan who also happened to get divorced after we already knew each other, only appears in the sixth chapter of my book because it was too – I think the section he appears in is called “Too Close.”

Levi: Perfect.

Allison: Because that’s literally what I’m writing about. We were friends and then his wife asked for a divorce that he didn’t want. And so it was this horrible confluence of our lives together, you know, intersecting. The first thing I wrote when I came back from doing the original fieldwork and was trying to start writing what was then a dissertation ended up being a chapter called “What Can be Said?” because I was just at such a loss. Like, what am I supposed to say about all these people now? They are too close.

Levi: You don’t anticipate how their lives are going to unfold as you spend time with them.

Allison: Everybody knows that we’re writing, right? Everybody knows that we’re researchers. We’re not hiding it. We’re not trying to do anything surreptitious, but it starts to feel too close. It can start to feel really weird.

Levi: The other part is that these are not public people and they’re not academics. So sure someone knows you’re writing, but that doesn’t mean they know what that means. What does it actually mean to be written about? What does it mean to be a person in a book? It’s going to be read by tens of people.

Allison: Maybe twelve now.

Levi: Maybe twelve.

Allison: After our two listeners.


Levi: So that’s, that’s been an interesting exercise. So it’s taken me awhile to figure out how to frame what the framework should be. But before I got to the aesthetics and before I got to the notion of what it means to grow up inside of an organization, I needed to explain what that organization was. What does it look like, what do people do, how should we understand it on a sort of macro level. And that’s what the book is largely about. So I characterize Soka Gakkai as a mimetic, as mimetic of the modern nation state, as taking as its cue the structures of power that bear no rivals in the lives of the people who founded and built the institutions inside Soka Gakkai. And that helps understand why a group that gets labeled a Buddhist lay organization has things like symphony orchestras, right. Why it has massive universities, why its bureaucracy looks like a civil service, why it has a civil service examination, why it has a constitution. Why it has the working equivalent of taxation. Why it has the working equivalent of the military, in the young men’s division or protecting a de facto sovereign territory, a flag, mustered cadres, anthems, and its own national literature. So I spent a lot of time in the book looking at the literature and the ways in which the narrative, the dramatic narrative of what it means to belong to Soka Gakkai is articulated and how people hook themselves into that and find a place for themselves in this inspiring ever growing body of cannon.

Allison: And the literature is really important too on a day to day basis for most people in the organization, right? Because they’re reading it and rereading it and discussing it. And I think, I’ve never really participated in something like a Bible study, but I imagine it’s almost even more intensive than a typical Bible study. Maybe that’s not a helpful parallel?

Levi: One of the points that I, it took me a lot longer than I’d like to, to come to was that the question is: What’s different about belonging to a group like Soka Gakkai? For example, compared to a group that studies the Bible or looks at, you know, classical Buddhist texts to something. And the difference is that the folks who are reading these see themselves literally see themselves in them because they have the potential to be part of that chronicle. Because it’s a new religion and it is growing and they can actually be part of scripture. And that answers a perennial question that people who study religion, ask, which is what’s new about a new religion. There’s a lot of controversy about the label new religion. It gets stigmatized. It’s not particularly analytically useful. But in this case it is useful because Soka Gakkai is chronologically new and there’s something about linear time that matters. And so if you are a part of a group that is still building its cannon, that means you can be part of it. And that is not possible if you are a part of a group that has closed its cannon. How alluring is that possibility that you can be part of a text that tells a story that is transcendent, that is greater than the sum of its parts, and that should your behavior to be sufficiently virtuous, you can be treated as an exemplary model for generations to come.

Allison: Wow.

Levi: And these are folks like I mentioned, who are historically socially marginalized, who have been a scorned as being not, you know, not up to snuff by virtue of their gender, by their educational background, or whatever, things like that. Here they have a chance to transcend that in this really rhetorically powerful way.

Allison: Could you give us an example of what a sort of average Soka Gakkai member would be doing on a daily basis in terms of practice?

Levi: Sure. Okay. So I characterize Soka Gakkai as the product of twin legacies. On the one hand, members maintain a very orthodox liturgical practice based in Nichiren Buddhism. So ideally – members will cheerfully admit that they don’t always maintain the ideal – but they are supposed to chant twice daily. So every morning and every evening, usually after getting up, members will chant sections of the Lotus Sutra, which is determined by a specific liturgy, which has been reformed a number of times but most recently in 2002. And then followed by repeated incantations of the title of the Lotus, which seven syllables Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, which is known as the Daimoku. So they’ll chant Daimoku. And that’s considered to be the core of the practice. They will direct their chant at a replica object of worship. It’s a calligraphic mandala in the hand of Nichiren which has the title Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō at its center. That is enshrined usually at a home altar. There are also portable versions of this that usually men have actually. And actually it’s intriguing that that’s a marriage issue very often. If someone, for example, if one of your friends had married this lovely young Soka Gakkai boy –

Allison: Such a nice person.

Levi: And had not wanted to convert, he might have had what is called an omamori gohonzon. So like a portable, a object of worship so that he could make so he can maintain his practice while the household was otherwise not Soka Gakkai.

Allison: Interesting.


Levi: So there’s all kinds of different adjustments around that. An average day would consist of morning and evening chant, and there’s a big gender divide in this way. So for example, women especially homemakers who don’t go to an average salaried job – you know, working all day – would almost certainly have some kind of meeting. These often happen in, they’ll happen in the afternoons, and those will be almost exclusively women, and sometimes the occasional retired man. But in the evenings are the big, the big time for these meetings. They’ll have a block districts and upwards all kinds of different integrated hierarchical levels. There’s like subgroups that will meet, the married women’s division will meet for example, and other groups like that. If there’s an election for Kōmeitō, the party that was founded by Soka Gakkai and remains strongly affiliated with Soko Gakkai, then there would almost certainly be some kind of electioneering activities as well. And that might take people quite far away. They’ll go and volunteer to help in elections that are, in some cases, quite distant from their homes in order to get out the vote.

And so their lives are very, very busy. Multiple meetings in a single day are very common as well. Men will do fewer of those because typically there’ll be the breadwinners of the family and they’ll be working a job that would not allow them to do that kind of stuff. But almost every other moment away from that would probably be – if they’re maximally dedicated – would be committed to some kind of Gakkai activity. If you’re part of that, the people you know, the dispositions of the people you spend time with, the expectations that you can have of what they are thinking and doing, the language you use, all those things are very much structured by their engagement in Soka Gakkai. And most of those people also were born and raised in Soka Gakkai families by this point. It’s a largely a generational phenomenon by this point. It’s an entire world.

Allison: That brings us back to something you mentioned earlier in the conversation abou the wealth associated with Soka Gakkai, or the wealth possessed by Soka Gakkai as an organization and also their political power and influence. Would you mind talking us through that?

Levi: Sure. Let’s start with the politics. So Soka Gakkai is most famous actually for being politically relevant. That’s one of the things that people who aren’t members will know about. So if there’s an election, it can be any level of election, the smallest city council up to the national diet, the parliament. Almost certainly there’s going to be a knock on the door. There’s going to be a phone call, a fax even, cause a lot of people still amazingly have home fax machines.

Allison: It’s fantastic.

Levi: It’s just tremendously funny. And it will be a childhood friend, an acquaintance, a former neighbor. Because intriguingly in Japan, it’s actually illegal to carry out house-to-house campaigning. It’s against elections law. But you can go and visit your former elementary school friend, even if you’re in your seventies, for example. Or you’re your kindergarten friend who lives across the country. Oh, and by the way, you know, since I’m here, oh, how about Kōmeitō? Here’s the series of policies that they are promoting in this election and things like that. It’s typically married women’s division members who are the strongest. They are the engine that powers Kōmeitō. They are very sophisticated vote gatherers. They have to be cognizant of all of the policies and able to discuss them extemporaneously. They have to know what’s at stake in terms of the PR vote, the proportional representation vote versus the vote for the specific candidates, which means they have to know about the specific candidates. And in some cases they have to be willing to electioneer on behalf of Kōmeitō’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, which historically they did not like at all, but now are in the position of defending.

These are very highly educated voters. Any other party would kill to have this level of support at the grassroots level and no other party can match it, which is why Kōmeitō has remained in coalition with the majority party, the Liberal Democratic Party for now for more than twenty years. This is an amazingly long time for any coalition to last.

Allison: Especially because they at least seem to disagree on paper about some really key issues, right?

Levi: Well, it’s intriguing.

Allison: Or they should or could.

Levi: So Kōmeitō and all of these groups are difficult to pigeonhole viz a viz like left versus right kind of thing. But by and large, Kōmeitō tends to be socially progressive on the whole. They’re not radically revolutionary, but they are advocating for retaining a low taxation rates on household goods, for allowances for families that have small children, for keeping education costs low. Things like that. So, in other words, the primary interests of their main constituency, which is homemakers. In that case, they’re very progressive, right? But that is actually not a big concern for the LDP. So it’s not as if they conflict so much. It’s almost like they have like a division of labor on that front. Kōmeitō gets that stuff. LDP gets to deal with business development, all sorts of big ticket stuff. Where they really conflict is on security issues. Kōmeitō was founded as a pacifist party, a party dedicated to absolute pacifism. It’s actually in their founding charter, when they were founded in 1964. And they have been forced essentially to compromise on that front at successive points. But really in a big way in the last few years, especially since 2015 when the LDP pushed forward legislation that radically reinterpreted Japan’s peace clause in Article 9 of the Constitution to allow for what’s called collective self-defense.


Up to this point if, for example, if an American vessel plying the waters around Japan was going to be rammed by a North Korean boat, the Japanese self defense forces could not intervene because Japan was not at threat. This was considered to be a difficulty in terms of maintaining the military Alliance with the U.S. And now with this re-interpretation of Article 9, they can intervene. Critics of that point to this as being the slippery slope toward a Japanese military engagement with American war. This seems to be potentially starting to happen. As we speak now, there’s been a cabinet decision to allow a Marine self-defense forces vessel with accompanying airplanes to go to the Straits of Hormuz, off Arabia.

So what this has done is really put Soka Gakkai members into a bind. They grew up with a peace movement. The members who have come of age in the sixties, seventies, eighties, up to the present took part in these casts of thousands world peace festivals where Soka Gakkai would rent stadiums and have these huge song and dance numbers all about world peace. They had all kinds of peace advocacy promotion campaigns in print, in all kinds of different media, conferences, everything like that. So to be a member of Soka Gakkai means it meant to be advocating for peace and specifically the anti-nuclear stuff. That was a really big deal. And now here they are drumming up votes for a party that wants to push for collective self-defense. This inspired some members to protest publicly. That caught a lot of people’s attention. In 2015 there were these Gakkai members who took part in demonstrations in front of the National Diet, waving the Gakkai flag and castigating Kōmeitō members for violating their founding principles. Those protestors received a lot of blow back in their local communities, most of them. And I’ve been able to spend a little bit of time communicating with them, haven’t be able to meet with any. They’re so nervous and I’ve been able to do electronic messaging with them. They’ve been forced to leave their homes because they brought stigma on their families. They’ve been hospitalized for depression. They’ve been bullied in really ugly ways by Gakkai members, who consider them to be basically a fifth column, as plants potentially from the Communist Party or something, or otherwise is somehow sort of destabilized, not being sufficiently loyal. And it’s not the case. These are Gakkai members who are, uh, who are holding to a very strict principal. The majority of people don’t protest publicly but there are lots of folks that I’ve been speaking with who are dismayed about how things have gone.

In other words, Soka Gakkai it seems to be disaggregating into multiple constituencies. This is part of that absence of a single charismatic figure. Without a single voice around which they can rally, it’s incumbent on the local level people to take up the orthodoxy and to propose their own interpretations. I’m inspired recently been reading Wendy Brown on neoliberalism. That seems to be a lot of resonances here. These are responsiblized people where the onus for institutional objectives has been put on the shoulders of individuals. And it seems very much like that’s going on within, again, it seems like the mimetic nation stuff kind of works that way. Now that it’s up to these individuals to perpetuate this massive structure and it’s a lot to take on.

Allison: And to feel responsible for.

Levi: Right. How do you do it?

Allison: Yeah. And if you fail, it’s your fault.

Levi: It’s your fault.

Allison: As opposed to a structural thing.

Levi: Yeah. You can’t criticize the structural aspect. It’s your personal responsibility. That seems very much to be what’s happening.

Allison: Does that seem to be a change? I’m wondering if – not to go off on the neoliberalism track, but does it seem like that’s a new thing?

Levi: Not entirely, no, not entirely. No. That’s one of the distinctive aspects of Soka Gakkai is that sort of focus on – well, the title of my book is “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution” and that’s the title of the novelized history of the group is Ningen Kakumei, the human revolution. In a way, human revolution is a forswearing of political revolution, right? So it’s a turning away from a critique of structural forces. In the 60s when Kōmeitō was starting to get going, up to the eighties and nineties even, the party and the religion where purporting themselves as the third way. So between sort of like the crass capitalism of the LDP and the socialism of the left wing parties like the Communists and the Social Democrats, and people like that. There’s an alternative. So people who are turned off by the revolutionary talk of the communists, were also alienated by what was going on in Japan’s economic miracle could find a place for themselves. And they did this by building this new society. But it is one really in which the onus is on the person. Any failing is an opportunity for you to prove yourself once again through renewing your dedication to the practice.


Allison: It strikes me too that, linking back with something you said earlier, that if one of the pleasures – if I can use that word – of being a member is being able to read scripture and imagine yourself in it in a way that’s still active and growing is that kind of possibility for self, and a particular kind of self, that is enabled through that dynamic also means that if you fail, you fail big. Right? The potential benefits are incredibly high and incredibly sort of golden and wonderful. But drawbacks or the whatever, the opposite of that would also be really terrible, right?

Levi: It’s not restful.

Allison: It sounds very tiring.

Levi: It’s very engaged. So it’s not just a matter of imagining yourself in it. You can actually see yourself in it.

Allison: Thank you. I’m sorry, not even imagining, yeah.

Levi: In a non-metaphorical way. So not just yourself, but you see people you know. You see teachers. You see your family members. You also see cautionary tales. In the same way that if you read the sutras, tales of the historical Buddha’s lifetime and his sermons, they’re also full of characters, right? They’re full of all kinds of stories. And it’s a similar type of storytelling. Nichiren even more than the Buddhist scriptures, actually, people will focus on Nichiren’s writings. And those are, in many cases, letters, his responses to his parishioners. They were very often ordinary people, women to a large extent too. So it was quite distinctive. Thirteenth century’s, writing back. I mean, he’s a fiery guy, but he’s also extremely compassionate or writing back to the people who he cared very much about. And again, there are you see all kinds of examples of positive and negative people, but they’re real people. It’s basically a roman à clef. It’s a fictionalized telling of the story of Soka Gakkai through the human revolution in which the only non-euphemized, non-anonymized people are the main figures, in this case Toda Jōsei and Makiguchi Tsunesaburō. But Ikeda anonymizes himself as a figure named Yamamoto Shinichi. And so, intriguingly, you have Gakkai members who are named name Yamamoto Shinichi. Names from the novel play out in real life as well. So this is fusion of the fictional and the lived real that is sometimes difficult to parse.

Allison: That brings me to one of the questions I wanted to ask, which was how did you decide how to write the book. I’m not trying to stress you out. It sounds like you wrote a couple of extra chapters.

Levi: Yeah, don’t do that!

Allison: Or do that and now you’ve got half another book. Maybe?

Levi: Yes, indeed.

Allison: I’m genuinely asking. But one of the things, I’ve heard you talk about, and you’re right a little bit about too, is in a non-pejorative way, the messiness of human realities. And so that when you’re, when anyone is trying to represent humans, it’s, or at least the way that you and I do it in sort of an ethnographic form – you don’t put them in perfect boxes. People are messy and lives are messy and things are confusing. And categories exist but then people are transmuting them and moving past them all the time. And so I was wondering, my guess is that you’ve thought a lot about that when you were writing it. And I wanted to hear what you were thinking.

Levi: Yeah, more than anything, I realized that the people have to tell the story. If you root it in following the folks you spend time with, then everything else sort of unfolds. You’re never quite satisfied with how you end up framing something, right, because of those difficulties. You do have to end up, you know, creating chapters and following theses. It’s tempting and I’ve seen actually a lot of field workers do this. Like I’m just gonna put all that stuff aside. I’m just going to tell their stories. And in a funny way, I think that that doesn’t do justice to the folks at all.

Allison: It’s so hard. I think about this a lot too. And I’ve read books like that, especially some, there was a sort of period in anthropology in the 90s where people were publishing books like that. These are long, really honest narratives of people’s lives on a day-to-day basis. And partially it was that they were boring.

Levi: Yes.

Allison: But partially it was also that they’re hard to understand. If you’re not there living it at every moment and you don’t know who all these people are and you don’t, it’s, you just don’t get it.

Levi: You don’t get it.

Allison: You don’t get it.

Levi: And here’s my guess. You don’t get it because it doesn’t answer the “so what” question. It’s tempting to think everything is absolutely uniquely unique and it’s just not, right? That’s one of the main points I want to make about in the book too, which is that Soka Gakkai isn’t unique and that’s why people can understand it, right? On the micro and the macro levels, people’s lives are – there’s a resonance there. You can be empathetic to the stories about these people. And that’s one of my hopes as well, is to humanize the Soka Gakkai members, cause they’re so dehumanized. And especially in Japan, they’re seen as this kind of sinister, faceless mass. And it’s absolutely not the case. These are just people and they’re just living their lives. And actually I’ve been told this by folks who are very hostile to Soka Gakkai, who read the book, who said that “I came away with very, very sympathetic to the people in it. I’m glad I read it.”


Allison: That must have felt good to hear?

Levi: It felt great. That was my intention, right? But the other part is that is that these massive institutions that Soka Gakkai fosters they’re not sui generis. They’re not. They are very much in keeping with the familiar structures on purpose, right? They are taking up the things that have legitimacy. They’re granting that legitimacy to their participants. It’s a way of national belonging that was denied the folks whose who built the organization. They’re building those things that grant them that kind of power. Not just blunt force power, things like politics, which is undeniable. But also what Pierre Bourdieu calls distinction, right? This way of social belonging that isn’t simply a matter of making money. A lot of Gakkai members have become financially successful and they’ve done extremely well, but that’s not enough to really belong. You also have to have an effortless command of things like Western classical music, or to be able to speak about non-representative art or to know good versus bad literature is supposed to be and be able to drop those kinds of references into your conversations. If you have the right kind of petty bourgeois upbringing you can do as things and be really poor. Whereas the Gakkai members had no familiarity with that initially, but now they do, because they’ve built universities and build museums. They’ve built all kinds of ins. And so that actually, that was the orchestra experience for me was this tremendous sophistication on the part of these largely amateur musicians who would talk about Furtwängler as a composer and a conductor. Very few people know he was both. Who would talk about the preferred recordings of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. We played almost exclusively Beethoven too, by the way. They were just incredibly well-informed. To the point where they far out shown most people who would actually be professionals in that regard.

Allison: One of the things I was wondering about was – obviously I had seen anti-Soka Gakkai stigma in action in Japan. But before I read your book, I hadn’t really thought seriously about how it is actually just classism. And I don’t mean to reduce it to classism, but the classism seems to be a really big part of this dynamic. Is that, am I getting that right?

Levi: Absolutely. And wouldn’t it be great if we could have honest conversations about social class in Japan. I mean, the prevailing mythology – and this is based on survey data, self-reporting on the part of people in Japan – that ninety percent of Japan is middle class. But if you look at the details of people’s socio-economic lives, people who live in a single room apartment and commute two hours to work and are barely, you know, are one paycheck away from eviction. You’re not middle-class. You are poor. Right? And that’s a lot of people and is on the rise, especially in childhood poverty as I’m sure your new research reveals is just really alarming. And historically Soka Gakkai was definitely on the lower end of this. So as Japan develops through what’s labeled the economic miracle, you know, in the nineteen sixties, the income doubling plan is declared. It’s just this extraordinary explosion of, going from essentially a barely developed nation to what became the second largest economy in the world. Not everybody wins, right? There are lots of people fall through the cracks. Who falls through the cracks? The people whose educations were robbed by the wartime years. Who moved into the city without any kind of social infrastructure. Who are women. Who are ill or otherwise sort of pushed to the margins. Those are the people who built Soka Gakkai.

It was labeled, especially in the fifties, the religion of the poor, right? And so it never really escaped that. And even now I would say, membership of Soka Gakkai now really is basically a microcosm of Japanese society, in terms of it’s all the full economic range. Except that it still has that legacy, right? Either in terms of empirical data or just in terms of the associations, people’s associations with the group, that it has a very working class ethic to it. And there’s a scrappiness to that and there’s an honesty to that. There’s no shirking of responsibility. There’s no sense that people are just going to hand things to you. This is something you have to take up yourself. And it’s also very important that Ikeda Daisaku, the honorary president came from a really poor background. He came from a family in Omori, a southern part of Tokyo that harvested seaweed. And it was just like really, really marginalized socioeconomically, really poor. And also during the war he was sent off to Niigata and then contracted tuberculosis. He never really got an education formally. Thereafter he entered it Soka Gakkai in 1947 and carried out ten years of what he called “Toda University.” He studied under Toda Jōsei. But since then he has actually broken the world record for the number of honorary PhDs received by any individual. Still receiving them now I think it’s surpassed four hundred from universities across the world. But there is a, I would call it in Japanese an akogare, there’s a yearning to that need for recognition academically.


Allison: And proving it socially because if you don’t have the privilege that an elite class background allows, then you have to prove it through your Beethoven knowledge and all these other performative – genuine but performative acts.

Levi: That’s right. And it’s all based in pedagogy. It’s all based in informal education.

Allison: It reminds me a lot of how, I’m sure you know this, that in the United States now more women are going to college than men. It’s not hard for me to imagine that’s partially because women need a kind of certification to prove that they’re basically smart enough to exist in the world. Not to say that they aren’t, but that, um, I don’t want to say that they aren’t, but that, that women need a different kind of proof.

Levi: That’s right.

Allison: Certain people in certain bodies need a different kind of proof.

Levi: They’ll work harder as a result of needing to prove that. They’re also smarter, too.

Allison: So in my experience, not studying anything about religion, Japanese people – with the exception of one person who I know who was Roman Catholic and talks about being Roman Catholic all the time, very legitimately – Japanese people often frame themselves as not being religious or not believing in religion. I think my memory was something like under twenty percent are under thirty percent of people identify as religious in one survey.

Levi: Right. It depends who’s asking, how it’s being asked. But generally speaking, so there are these regular surveys that are large scale things that come out from either the Ministry of Education or major newspapers will also do these general opinion surveys of the Japanese population. Yomiuri Shimbun which is actually the largest circulation of any newspaper in the world, Japan’s largest newspaper. 2008 was the last big one they did, but they asked the question, a very loaded question. Do you have religious faith? Which I mean, anywhere you asked that, that would be a tough one. It was something like twenty-seven percent of people who are willing to say yes, probably unsure entirely what that means. But that includes all generations. Averaged out older people are more likely to say yes. Younger people it’s hovering around ten percent. At college aged folks, ten percent or lower are people willing to say, yes, I am religious. And of course those people who are they going to be? Largely probably members of Soka Gakkai and Christians and a few others for whom the label religion is inescapable. Exclusive belonging, knowing something about the history, the doctrine. Regular attendance at some kind of ritual. All those things that the label “religion” carries with it.

And that’s a product of specific historical developments in Japan. The longer story, the oldest story, which is that the word for religion in Japanese is a translation from the English. The traditions we talk about in Japan are in some cases, you know, maybe as old as two thousand years old. There was no umbrella category called religion that was applied to them. And it was only in the 1850s with the arrival of the Americans who forcibly opened the Japanese ports, that legal language was required translating the English word “religion” into Japanese. And even then, it took about a twenty-something years for the terminology to coalesce around the word shūkyō, which is a rather unusual hybrid word from Buddhist terminology actually. And so with that, of course, comes this onerous responsibility that somehow it’s associated with foreignness. It’s associated with all of the accoutrements of a kind of Protestant style religious belonging.

And then on top of that, we’ve got two other things. After the Pacific war, in 1947, a new Constitution was promulgated in which religious freedom is upheld and separation of religion and government is maintained. Thereafter, it was associated with this kind of really strict legalistic way of thinking. The big reason, though, why most people will be very averse to self-identifying as being religious as the year 1995. There’s a combination of two events early in the year that some people would characterize as like Japan’s 9/11. In January, there was a massive earthquake in the city of Kobe or near the city of Kobe. It’s just killed about six thousand people and absolutely devastated the region and destroyed a popular understanding of Japan as a competent, modern society because of the utter uselessness, basically, of government agencies to respond. In the absence of a coordinated emergency response, you had organized crime groups and religious organizations that offered aid to disaster victims. And those efforts were uneven perhaps in some cases and they were certainly not reported in a positive light. So religion reeled in the aftermath of Kobe.

And then shortly thereafter in March, there was an attack on the Tokyo subways by an apocalyptic sect called Aum Shinrikyō. And that is the real association people have with the label “religion.” Thirteen people died in the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo. And then all these revelations appeared about all of these highly educated, promising young people who had taken upon themselves to become renunciants in this very, very nihilistic, dangerous, violent group. Which stood – though it was quite small – it stood in for religion and there was a massive moral panic that swept Japan in the aftermath of Aum. To the extent that even run of the mill, your local Buddhist priests found it difficult to go about their business wearing their robes because it was sort of, the stigma was so great associated with religion. That has lingered. So it’s a generation that came of age after ‘95 in which the “religion” label is associated with social marginality.


There was a bit of help for religion after 2011. So in the aftermath of the disaster, the tsunami, nuclear meltdown, earthquake disasters that afflicted northeast Japan, the religious groups that learn the lessons from 1995 mobilized in a really big way. And were able to open up their facilities to refugees, bring in all kinds of resources and then go online, which they weren’t able to do really in ‘95 as much barely, and, produce PR, positive PR about their efforts. And be very, very clear about them being ecumenical about them not pushing for any kind of proselytizing or anything like that. That rehabilitated the “religion” label a little bit. It offered an alternative narrative for the first time in a generation that religion wasn’t just this destructive force. It was this post-disaster reconstruction force. And that has given hope to a lot of people. We’ll see how long that will linger. No we’re almost a decade out from that and see what the longevity of that might be. Nonetheless, so still now as you mentioned about this hapless young man – hope is doing well, hope he’s managed to find love.

Allison: I hope so too.

Levi: But, you know, there’s still this stigma. And it doesn’t seem to really be changing that much, particularly among younger people.

Allison: And the moment with this man was in 2005, so this is before 3/11. For whatever that’s worth.

Levi: Yeah. Maybe it helped him out. Hopefully he couldn’t say, “I’m volunteering.”

Allison: I’m sure he would too. He seemed like he’d be willing.

Levi: I’m sure. I’m sure he would. The Soka Gakkai effort was unbelievable. They had five thousand refugees stay in their cultural centers for months at a time. They brought in millions and millions of dollars in material aid. And they were very, very careful to not proselytize in their cultural centers for months. It was a really dramatic effort on their part.

Allison: Wow. And one of the characters, one of the people we meet in your book is driving you around Fukushima and talking about being reassigned, religiously reassigned very soon after 3/11.

Levi: Yes.

Allison: So much so that his family and church group and support group was worried about his physical safety.

Levi: Oh, sure. He was being sent to one of the notorious irradiated centers, very close to the Daiichi plants. Yeah, and he joked a little bit, he was sort of dryly joking about how the ways in which people were treating him was like as if he were going off to war. That speaks to the kind of vocational dedication. And that’s what – I end the book with descriptions of vocational paths. To belong to Soka Gakkai either as a salaried employee, as he was, or just as a member, an ordinary member, is to take on a vocation and the notion of a calling. This isn’t simply, you know, something you do for fun or out of general interest. This is something that has come down to you and it is your path. And so of course you would do this, of course you would go to Fukushima.

Allison: I think the phrase he uses towards you at some point is “it was my destiny.” Am I getting that right?

Levi: He said it in a really Buddhistic way. This might sound weird, but you don’t hear a lot of explicitly Buddhist language all the time in Soka Gakkai because so much of it’s been routinized, in the Weberian sense, like it’s been the sort of turned into bureaucratic language. But he said, “In this human existence, why was born into this lifetime as a human, this is much my chance to contribute in this fashion. This is my karmic sort of determination that I must do this.”

Allison: Wow.

Levi: Yeah. Yeah.

Allison: Are you thinking about translating this book into Japanese?

Levi: Yes.

Allison: Okay. So I was thinking there must be, to your point earlier that if it’s this extreme coverage, either members writing about it or exposé type, then I would imagine there’d be interest, genuine interest, and hopefully a market for this.

Levi: There’s interest and I have fortunately two colleagues who are willing to do it.

Allison: Wow.

Levi: So I’m not quite been able to say everything about it at this point, but I can tell you that it’s in the works.

Allison: Oh, that’s exciting. Okay. So our listeners can buy the hardcopy, buy the paperback, and then buy the Japanese translation so they can have the full set.

Levi: At some point the translation will be available. And Kindle should you want to.

Allison: Okay, Kindle. So the full set, that would be great. And then, you know what, I think you should think about making action figures to go along with that.


Levi: That would be cool. I wonder what my friends would say if they were turned into action figures. They would love it! Oh, they would love it.

Allison: Well, we can think about that. So I’m wondering if you have books or articles or films or anything within the field of Japanese Studies that you recommend, or that you find yourself returning to, or liking when you teach, or your students love. Any recommendations? Fun stuff to read, interesting stuff?

Levi: Absolutely. Well, this is a Japanese studies podcast.

Allison: It is. Slash Allison rambles.

Levi: Right on. When I started studying Japan in back in the late Cretaceous, you didn’t have to explain why studying Japan was a big deal. It spoke for itself, right?

Allison: It’s true.

Levi: It was cool. It was, you know, right after the bubble economy. It was like Japan was front and center. And now studying Japan requires qualification. You have to explain why it’s relevant. And it probably always should have been the case to a certain extent. Nothing speaks for itself. But now we’ve got all this really cool work coming out that does that work, that situates Japan in a really dynamic way. Especially in Japanese religion, there’s a new crop of books that are really, I think that that’s just wonderful and thereby really smart, cool friends. And so one of them I would put forward is Jessica Starling. Jessie Sterling has this book called Guardians of the Buddha’s Home. It’s about women in Pure Land Buddhist temples and how temples are women’s spaces. And completely, finally readjusting the lenses that are used to see what a Buddhist space is. Because it’s so often just seen as this entirely patrilineal male-centered thing, and it just isn’t when it comes down to the day-to-day running of a temple. She does this wonderful ethnography of Buddhist temples. So I highly recommend Guardians of the Buddha’s Home. It came out really recently, the past year.

Allison: From Hawai’i as well, right?

Levi: From the University of Hawai’i Press. The other book that I would, I think it has gotten a lot of attention, justifiably, and is really just a really been a watershed moment for the study of religion, is Jolyon Thomas’s Faking Liberties, which came up from Chicago and it’s just an amazing powerhouse of meticulous scholarship and really forcing people to look at both the United States and Japan and its racist past as ways to understand what the project of religious liberty is. And what it has meant for state building both in Japan and during the occupation era in under American auspices. It’s a fabulous tour de force. I give him some crap in my review because I think he should be even more honest about how it is indeed an interventionist project that he’s engaged in, I think. And I think we should all engage in it, but that book is going to really change how all of us do work and it’s really important.

Allison: Oh, that’s wonderful. I was actually it was on – not on her committee – but I read, I was her outside reader for the dissertation years ago and it was wonderful then. So I haven’t read the final book version, but I’m excited to read it.

Levi: Yes, everyone should read it. Yeah.

Allison: Thank you so much for those suggestions and thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your hard work and the book. Thank you for being honest about the extra forty thousand words you wrote. I’m sure that one of our listeners will absolutely identify with that. It’s a real thing.

Levi: Well, it’s turning into another book, so hopefully soon that will be something people can read.

Allison: There’s no waste.

Levi: No, there’s no waste.

Allison: Thank you so much for your time.

Levi: Pleasure. Thank you.

[music begins]

Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies, the Shapiro Design Lab staff, and our listeners. Thanks also to Reggie Jackson for our theme song. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. It was recorded in the Shapiro Library’s Design Lab in Ann Arbor where it is possible to play with sewing machines and 3D printers while we wait to record. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Marié Abe.