My work over the last few months, and what you’ll hear from me over the coming weeks

Hello readers,

Right now, I’m on the tail end of three and a half months in Japan. I’m on a one-year sabbatical from my position at North Carolina State University thanks to generous funding from the Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). I can’t understate what it means to get this kind of support. Put simply, the ACLS has given me the money I need to dive into a year of intensive field research on religion and politics in Japan. I’m totally at liberty here to delve as deeply as I can into whatever I need to pursue. It’s amazing.

The ACLS is funding me to pursue a project I’ve titled “Religious Influences on Japanese Politics and Policymaking.” Essentially, I’m here to dig into a big conundrum that plagues Japan. Going by statistical measures, Japan is one of the world’s least religious countries. In response to regular surveys, when people in Japan are asked the (very loaded) question “do you have religious belief,” in excess of 70% of respondents answer with a resounding “no.” In spite of this, religious organization exert a profound influence on Japanese politics. Japan’s national government comprises a coalition of two parties: the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Japan’s dominant political power; and its junior partner, Komeito, or the “Clean Government Party.” Komeito was founded in 1964 on an absolute pacifism platform, but it has undergone policy shifts since then, most remarkably in recent years – a steep cost it pays to remain in the governing coalition.

Religious groups and otherwise religiously-affiliated activists play a pivotal role in guiding both parties. Most obviously, Komeito was founded by the Buddhist lay association Soka Gakkai (the Value Creation Study Association). I’ve just published a book with the University of Hawai`i Press on Soka Gakkai; see my earlier posts on its release in December 2018. I’m guaranteed to annoy readers with more Soka Gakkai book news to come. Meanwhile, the LDP is bolstered by support from a complex network of numerous (mostly right-wing) religious and otherwise ideologically motivated groups. Quite a few of these are based in Shinto, a difficult-to-define amalgam of traditions that is frequently called Japan’s native religion. For this reason, the LDP is conventionally referred to as a party that enjoys support from “Shinto neonationalism.”

What I’ve come to realize, quite quickly, is that “Shinto neonationalism” by no means encompasses the complexity of ideologues who seek to advance policy aims through the LDP. The label “religion” doesn’t really cut it, either. Right out of the gate, the parameters of my research have changed. Before this chapter of my Japan life, I thought I’d do the rounds of Soka Gakkai and Shinto-affiliated adherents, send out some neat dispatches, and then get back to North Carolina and resume brewing reasonably drinkable beer. Instead, I find myself immersed in a religious world that calls on me, and by extension all of us who do work on religion and politics in Japan, to construct a new set of categories that does justice to the ideas and activities of the many thousands of diverse individuals who are driving religion and politics in Japan today. It’s a big job, but it’s a really, really engrossing job.

It’s now mid-November, and I’ve been here in Japan since the beginning of August. Before this trip, I lived in Japan for long and short stints for a total of something like eight and a half years out of the last twenty-five years of my life, so I thought I had a handle on how things would go over this three-or-so months. I envisioned a comparatively balanced schedule. Interviews, fieldwork, writing, but also time to hike the mountains around Tokyo and indulge in my deeply guilty pleasure of face-melting, eardrum-annihilating heavy metal shows. Tokyo is the best city in the world for live music, in my opinion.

Instead, I was sideswiped by an overpowering wave of mind-bending opportunities to spend hours and hours and hours with religiously-affiliated activists. They just wiped me out. Over the last few months, I’ve woken up at 4:00 a.m. on numerous mornings to make it to ethics training sessions held at Shinto shrines that begin at either 5:00 or 5:30 a.m. These devotees meet 364 days a year. Most of them are women in their 70s and 80s. By their standards, I’m a wimp. I’ve taken part in seven-hour-long Buddhist doctrine study sessions run by a fourth-generation Soka Gakkai twenty-one-year-old Soka Gakkai member student at Soka University. She’s transgender. I rehearsed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony under the baton of a Soka Gakkai member. We performed at a Christian wedding chapel, below a massive wooden cross. During late-night drinking sessions and formal interviews alike, Soka Gakkai members have told me they will follow Komeito no matter how it must compromise its founding pacifist policies to remain in the coalition. Others tell me they think the party at the national level will dissolve within ten years. Still others think Soka Gakkai itself will disappear within a generation. Nominally right-leaning Shinto priests introduce me to their environmental activism and social welfare initiatives that really, really don’t map on to the right/left spectrum that’s imprinted on my brain. The range of opinions and life experiences is overwhelming.

I am deeply suspicious of any general claims about Japan. I have no time for sweeping claims about anything, really. But there’s just something about Japan that seems to invite fatuous overstatement. You’ll notice that statements in English about “THE Japanese” are ubiquitous. Rule of thumb: anytime someone says “THE Japanese think X,” or uses the subject pronoun “they” in a sentence about “THE Japanese,” you can dismiss that person’s opinion.

That being said, there is one sweeping statement about Japan that I’m willing to back up: in general, people don’t do things by half measures here. Whatever you’ve committed yourself to, it’s all or nothing.

For this reason, my initial plan to send a series of dispatches from the field as I carried out fieldwork over the past months was stymied. I was just too busy carrying out the actual fieldwork to update this blog. Initiating engagement with people in their chosen activities was like flipping on a bright, bright light.

Now, however, I’m about to step away for a couple of weeks. I’m headed tomorrow to Denver, to attend the American Academy of Religion’s annual conference, an intimate gathering of 11,000 of my closest friends. I’m then headed home to Raleigh NC for a couple of weeks.

My plan is to send out a series of “here’s what’s going on with religion and politics in Japan” updates over the next few weeks. Lots to digest through these dispatches. Stay tuned here for a LOT more to come.

“Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution” chapter descriptions

For those who are interested, here are chapter descriptions for my new book, “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan. The hardcover is available for purchase here:

Chapter One: Soka Gakkai as Mimetic Nation

Here, I suggests ways analysis of Soka Gakkai contributes to the theoretical category of “mimesis” by conceiving of Soka Gakkai as a “mimetic nation-state.” That is, Soka Gakkai makes itself intelligible and attractive by emulating the institutions, activities, and ideologies perpetuated by nation-state enterprises. Its mimesis of the nation-state’s authority-bearing institutions and practices, particularly those rooted in modern standardized education, proved compelling to converts who flocked to Soka Gakkai, especially those who joined in the decades following World War II. Attention to mimesis also offers explanations about conflicts Soka Gakkai has encountered throughout its history.

Chapter Two: From Intellectual Collective to Religion: A History of Soka Gakkai

This chapter draws on the Gakkai’s archival history to follow the Gakkai’s mimetic development in an overview of its origins as a small educational reform society that burgeoned into a massive religion.

Chapter Three: Soka Gakkai’s Dramatic Narrative

This investigates ways Gakkai media and their attendant practices conflate Nichiren Buddhist martyrdom and modern Romantic heroism in a dramatic narrative that relies on tropes from the Japanese educational curriculum. It focuses in particular on a close reading of “The Human Revolution” (Ningen kakumei), the serial novel at the center of Soka Gakkai’s textual canon.

Chapter Four: Participating in Canon

This chapter continues discussion of the Gakkai’s dramatic narrative as it suggests one response to a perennial question—what is new about a New Religion?—by describing distinctive features of Soka Gakkai’s equivalent of a new canon. The promise of appearing personally in a still-developing canon is one reason a New Religion may prove more alluring to converts than an older organization.

Chapter Five: Cultivating Youth

The investigation here presents a historical and ethnographic study of the Gakkai’s youth training systems and considers how generational changes in instruction mirror educational shifts within the Japanese modern nation-state.

Chapter Six: Good Wives, Wise Mothers, and Foot Soldiers of Conversion

This is an exploration of ways Soka Gakkai replicates Japanese state support for the sengyō shufu, the professional housewife at the center of the family unit that constructs the modern nation. The chapter emphasizes tensions that emerge between the Soka Gakkai ideal of woman as wife, mother, and cultivator of the home and Gakkai administration’s demands on its Married Women’s Division to be active outside the home, and it explains what happens when a Soka Gakkai household collapses.

Afterword: Vocational Paths

The brief afterword discusses dilemmas that confront Soka Gakkai as it seeks to appeal to a new generation of members who are driven by aspirations that are not necessarily accommodated by the organization’s now-traditional mass participation focus and suggests ways Soka Gakkai may develop in the future.

“Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution” is now for sale

I’m pleased to announce that my book, “Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan,” published by the University of Hawai`i Press, is now for sale. Here is a description:

Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan

By Levi McLaughlin, Associate Professor, North Carolina State University

Soka Gakkai is Japan’s largest and most influential new religious organization. It claims more than 8 million Japanese households and close to 2 million members in 192 countries and territories. The religion is best known for its affiliated political party, Komeito (the Clean Government Party), which comprises part of the ruling coalition in Japan’s National Diet, and it exerts considerable influence in education, media, finance, and other key areas.

Levi McLaughlin’s comprehensive account of Soka Gakkai draws on nearly two decades of archival research and non-member fieldwork to account for its institutional development beyond Buddhism and suggest how we should understand the activities and dispositions of its adherents. McLaughlin explores the group’s Nichiren Buddhist origins and turns to insights from religion, political science, anthropology, and cultural studies to characterize Soka Gakkai as mimetic of the nation-state. Ethnographic vignettes combine with historical evidence to demonstrate ways Soka Gakkai’s twin Buddhist and modern humanist legacies inform the organization’s mimesis of the modern Japan in which the group took shape. To make this argument, McLaughlin analyzes Gakkai sources heretofore untreated in English-language scholarship; provides a close reading of the serial novel The Human Revolution, which serves the Gakkai as both history and de facto scripture; identifies ways episodes from members’ lives form new chapters in its growing canon; and contributes to discussions of religion and gender as he chronicles the lives of members who simultaneously reaffirm generational transmission of Gakkai devotion as they pose challenges for the organization’s future.


Chapter One: Soka Gakkai as Mimetic Nation

Chapter Two: From Intellectual Collective to Religion: A History of Soka Gakkai

Chapter Three: Soka Gakkai’s Dramatic Narrative

Chapter Four: Participating in Canon: The Formation of Sacred Texts in a New Religion

Chapter Five: Cultivating Youth: Discipleship Through Standardized Education

Chapter Six: Good Wives, Wise Mothers, and Foot Soldiers of Conversion

Afterword: Vocational Paths

The hardcover is now available at the University of Hawai`i Press site:

A Kindle edition is forthcoming from Amazon in December.

Proofs and index complete

I’ve sent corrected proofs and a finalized index off to the University of Hawai`i Press. Barring some kind of terrible upset, this should be the last stage before seeing the book as a physical object later this year. The publisher tells me that it should actually exist and be for sale at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Denver this coming November.