Religion and Politics in Japan: Mapping a Shifting Terrain

As part of our Sun and Star series, Dr. Levi McLaughlin, Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University, presented on the complex relationship between religion and politics in modern Japan. While the Japanese population shows an aversion to religion – 71.9% state that they hold no religious faith – the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito, the two parties in the governing coalition, are full of religious underpinnings. The 2019 enthronement of the Reiwa Emperor exemplified this complex relationship: the massive, public, religious celebration boasted around 40,000 participants and attendees, with the organizers including prominent politicians (including a Diet member committee), lobbyists, journalists, athletes, academics, and company presidents.

The Japanese Liberal Democratic Party is informed by many distinct ideologues, including juridical persons associated with Buddhism, Christianity, and Shintoism. McLaughlin identified many nationalist objectives driving the Japanese LDP, including codification of the constitutionality of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, the requirement of the pledge and flag in schools, and the prevention of multiple spousal family names. The ultimate objectives of the Liberal Democratic Party are a return to the more conservative 1889 Meiji Constitution or, even more ideally, the Constitution of 604 which is structured as a series of normative statements that emphasize ideals such as filial piety.

Dr. McLaughlin performed extensive on-site research on the fluid network of activists that drives the Japanese LDP and found that the Nippon Kaigi–the largest Japanese right-wing organization, which is extremely influential in politics– functions as a meeting-point for influential religious groups, ethics training organizations, and other ideologically motivated enterprises. The modest operation has deep ties in many influential circles, and many of its members grew up as adherents to the Japanese religion Seichō no Ie. McLaughlin also spoke on the political importance of the Soka Gakkai Buddhist movement, a sect which makes political organization, manipulation, and mobilization a central tenet of the faith. Soka Gakkai has mimetically adopted the structure of a nation-state, and uses its rigid structure to have a disproportionate impact on Japanese elections.

Dr. McLaughlin concluded his findings by reiterating that a true picture of the political state of Japan requires a nuanced understanding of the political contributions and strategies of religious groups.