The relationship between New Komeito—as well as its predecessor, the Komeito Party—and the lay Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai has been the subject of as much serious debate as it has been a tool for political gain wielded by the party's rivals and critics. Our position on this issue, however, has been validated time after time: The Soka Gakkai is a major electoral constituency which, at both the local and national level, has endorsed New Komeito for its political principles and policy objectives. Its endorsement is in no way different from that extended to a political party by a labor union or bar association.
Successive governments have consistently upheld the constitutionality of the New Komeito-Soka Gakkai relationship, maintaining for decades that it does not violate the principle of the separation of religion and state.
A Tragic Legacy and Article 20
When discussing the issue of constitutionality, it is imperative to provide a historical context of ties between the state and religion in Japan. Until the postwar constitution was ratified in 1947, the state had for centuries controlled or co-opted religion for its own ends. And for the most part, the religious community willingly complied. This relationship thus dresses the issue of church and state in entirely different terms than, say, in Europe. It is also why Article 20 of the constitution expressly ensures both the autonomy of religious organizations from state interference and freedom of religious belief.
Article 20 owes its roots to the hope that Japan would never again perpetrate war and repeat the mistakes of its wartime past, a horrific legacy imposed upon the Japanese by a militarist regime and legitimized at the time through its collaboration with State Shinto. As one memorandum of the Allied Powers Occupation noted, “State Shinto has been used by militarists and ultra-nationalists in Japan to engender and foster a military spirit among the people and to justify a war of expansion.” Hence, Article 20 declares:
Freedom of religion is guaranteed to all. No religious organization shall receive any privileges from the State, nor exercise any political authority.
The original postwar draft of a Japanese bill of rights was extensively discussed. One provision that would bar religious organizations from engaging in political activity was omitted after intense debate. The constitutional drafting team of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers' Government Section clearly cites the problems associated with the proposed provision and why it was deleted from the original draft. Those against the provision's inclusion believed that it contravened basic democratic principles, essentially sanctioning state interference in religious affairs once again.
Thus, in its final form, Article 20 was never intended to prohibit a citizen or religious organization from participating in the political process. This interpretation has been the government's official position for decades and repeatedly upheld by constitutional experts.
In 1946—nearly 20 years before the Komeito party was established—Minister of State Tokujiro Kanamori, for example, stated that the clause barring religious groups from exercising political authority “cannot be interpreted as a direct prohibition of political activities.” This was followed by an official government statement issued in 1970 that it did not contravene the constitution if an individual or a party assumes the reins of national government, regardless of one's religious affiliation or endorsement from a religious organization.
That interpretation was reiterated in 1994 by Director General Takao Ohde of the Cabinet Legislation Bureau, which acts as the Cabinet's highest legal counsel. Five years later, bureau director general Masasuke Ohmori was even more explicit: “Even if a political party, endorsed by a religious organization, becomes a ruling party,” he explained at a House of Representatives Budget Committee hearing, “the situation is not contrary to the principle of the separation of church and state as established in the Constitution.”
It should be noted that Article 20's reference to “political authority” is defined as that vested in the state and local government bodies, including the power of taxation, law enforcement and adjudication.
Commitment to Religious FreedomWhile Article 20 bars the state from bestowing the powers of government on religious organizations, it does not proscribe the latter from engaging in political activities in a parliamentary democracy. To do so, according to Hidehiro Hamaya, law professor at Matsuzaka University, would engender the risk of “reverse discrimination” against a particular organization or individuals of a particular religious faith.
Any exception would run counter to the principles of universality and fairness that underpin the highest law of the land. It could conceivably one day undermine participation in the political process by other associations, from industry lobbies to special interests, which have routinely endorsed political parties and/or candidates throughout the course of Japan's postwar era.
Nevertheless, the party and Soka Gakkai provided further clarity to the nature of their relationship in 1970. To ensure that the two were completely autonomous from each other, individuals in one organization could no longer hold leadership appointments in the other. The party would also administer its own affairs—from policymaking and personnel moves to political activities—without Soka Gakkai oversight. (The question of financial affiliation was never an issue because the party was funded independently by audited sources of revenue.) Today, New Komeito briefs the Soka Gakkai on the latest policy issues and political developments on a periodic, but irregular, basis. Yet the meetings, which are open to the media, are strictly for informational purposes and do not influence party policy or activities.
At the 1999 Party National Convention, Takenori Kanzaki, who was New Komeito's Chief Representative at the time, reiterated his party's stand on the freedom of religious belief:
New Komeito has been, and forever remains committed to, the protection of religious freedom and the principle of separation of church and state as stipulated in Article 20 of the Constitution. I wish to declare once again that New Komeito will not in any way favor, or exclude, any particular religious organization.
The Soka Gakkai has equally been clear on its position regarding the principle of its political participation. In a speech made at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in 1995, Einosuke Akiya, then president of the Buddhist association, told the press:
The Soka Gakkai will not make use of the power of the state to propagate its religious beliefs, nor will it seek special protection or privileges from the state. It will insist upon religious neutrality to be upheld by the political party and the candidates it supports.
A Record of IntegrityThe founding premise and purpose of the Komeito party was to elect individuals of ethical integrity who would honestly serve its electorate. New Komeito has carried this mandate forward, serving the most vulnerable members of society, from the owners of small businesses and non-union workers to women, the elderly and the disabled, who have had little or no voice in the political process.
In doing so, the party has for decades acted as architect and agent in the passage of numerous policies and programs, many of them as a proactive member of a coalition government, including the ten years it partnered with the Liberal Democratic Party. Yet it has never sought nor introduced any initiative that would in any way favor the Soka Gakkai or its members since its founding, abiding by both the spirit and letter of Article 20.
The issue of church-state separation has merely stirred interest whenever a rival party or critic feels some measure of political currency, particularly during an election year, can be had by alleging that the relationship between New Komeito and the Soka Gakkai is somehow unconstitutional—which some members of the media invariably provide coverage. Yet the fact remains that the state's interpretation of Article 20 has been consistent for nearly a half-century, two decades before the Komeito party was even founded.
More importantly, the Japanese courts—including the Supreme Court, the ultimate arbiter of constitutionality in a democracy—have never questioned or overturned the validity of that interpretation.