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When New Komeito backed the Liberal Democratic Party’s decision to send the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq earlier this year, members of Soka Gakkai, Japan’s largest lay Buddhist organization whose political arm is New Komeito, launched rare opposition to the party’s decision.

The members handed a petition bearing about 2,000 signatures to New Komeito’s headquarters in January opposing the dispatch, before the ruling coalition agreed to send the core Ground Self-Defense Force troop contingent to Iraq.

“The party is acting against the principle of Soka Gakkai, which strictly opposes war,” Yoshihiko Ito, a Soka Gakkai member who organized the movement, said in January.

“Many Soka Gakkai members do not consent to the party’s stance. It is neglecting to serve as a pacifist force and is merely following in the LDP’s footsteps,” he said.

They said the SDF’s part in the U.S.-led war on Iraq contravenes Article 9 of the Constitution, which renounces the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

The 2,000 signatures might seem insignificant compared with Soka Gakkai’s overall membership, claimed to be about 10 million nationwide. But it clearly shows the growing disparity between what Soka Gakkai expects from New Komeito and the path the party is pursuing.

The more New Komeito tries to act in harmony with its much larger coalition partner, the greater the chances that it will anger Soka Gakkai.

“The signature campaign has only served as a way for some members to vent their pent-up feelings against war,” political commentator Kichiya Kobayashi said.

New Komeito might face increasingly severe criticism both within and outside the party if the SDF suffers casualties, he added, noting this might strengthen the pacifist stance of Soka Gakkai members ahead of the Upper House election in July.

Kunishige Maeda, a Soka Gakkai vice president, said the group is in a difficult position.

“We understand there are members calling for absolute pacifism,” he said. “But there are also others who insist on the need to make an international cooperation.

“The SDF has not gone to war and will not engage in battle. They have been sent to provide humanitarian assistance for Iraq’s reconstruction as part of an international contribution.”

Maeda expects the party will do its utmost to pursue realistic policies without losing its identity based on peace and welfare.

“It is vitally important for a political party to uphold its principles and policies,” he said. “Even though the party can’t always have its way in a coalition with a bigger partner, it is right for New Komeito to keep trying to effect its own policies.”

Soka Gakkai’s pacifism stems from its wartime experience and the Buddhist teachings of Nichiren, who stressed the value and dignity of life, the organization said.

Founded in 1930 as Soka Kyoiku Gakkai to promote “value creating” education with its basis in the philosophy of Buddhism, the organization faced oppression until the end of World War II under the religious controls of the former military government.

Founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi died in the Tokyo Detention House in late 1944 after being arrested on charges of lese-majeste and violation of the Maintenance of the Public Order Act for resisting orders to venerate Shinto, then the state religion, and opposing the government’s war stance.

Today, married women account for half of Soka Gakkai’s core membership, wielding immense power in the organization. They strongly advocate pacifism.

During election campaigns, these female supporters are key vote-gatherers. They serve as a brake against New Komeito leaning too much toward the LDP, which is pushing for a constitutional amendment so the SDF can play a greater role abroad.

It is an ironic twist of fate that the LDP has become increasingly dependent on Soka Gakkai for its election victories in recent years.

In the Lower House election in November, the LDP sought support from Soka Gakkai in single-seat constituencies. In return, the party called on their own supporters to vote for New Komeito in the proportional representation segment.

A senior opposition lawmaker said the LDP has no choice but to depend on New Komeito’s support at a time when the LDP’s traditional support bases, including agricultural cooperatives and construction firms, are losing their influence over rank-and-file members in election campaigns.

New Komeito drew 8.2 million proportional representation votes in the Upper House election in 2001. The figure can be translated into about 27,000 votes on average in each single-seat constituency.

Without the help of New Komeito, as many as 25 percent of the 177 LDP candidates who won single-seat constituencies in the 2000 general election might have been defeated, according to Ikuo Kabashima, a University of Tokyo professor and expert on political issues.

But the LDP-New Komeito mutual back-scratching alliance may be near a crossroads.

The LDP has pledged to draft a new Constitution next year, when the party celebrates its 50th anniversary. New Komeito leaders have said their party will sort out the overall points at issue, including Article 9, by June.

Soka Gakkai’s Maeda acknowledged the ongoing debate to amend the Constitution to bring it in tune with the times, but he is against undermining the pacifist principles of Article 9.

“The problem is how to deal with the issue of collective defense,” he said. “We can never allow Japan to engage in collective defense, as it would pave the way for the nation to reinforce military alliances with other countries and send the SDF around the world.”

Religious scholar Wajo Shichiri, who is critical of Soka Gakkai, said New Komeito has reached a major turning point as a political-religious group.

“The party is losing its principles, including pacifism, and is on the verge of a rift both with Soka Gakkai and the LDP,” he said.

If New Komeito continues acting in harmony with the LDP just so it can remain part of the ruling camp, it will alienate pacifist supporters in Soka Gakkai, Shichiri said.

But if the party strictly adheres to Soka Gakkai pacifism, it would have to part with the LDP and the benefits of power, including having a strong influence on the policymaking and budgetary processes, he said.

The two coalition parties meanwhile disagree on some issues, including New Komeito’s opposition to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead.

New Komeito also opposes revising the Fundamental Law of Education, in the way promoted by the LDP, which wants to foster patriotism and religious sentiment under the government’s initiatives, which would appear to be a wartime throwback.

Kobayashi said that if the GSDF troops in Iraq suffer casualties or the LDP suffers a major setback in the coming Upper House election, Koizumi would be forced to accept the blame and step down.

Under these circumstances, a regrouping of political forces might occur, centering on the constitutional revision issue, and like-minded politicians from the LDP and the Democratic Party of Japan would team up, he said.

“If this happens, New Komeito may end up being isolated in the political arena,” he said.

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