Greetings to readers in 2021, the Year of the Ox. Starting off, weekly business magazine Shukan Diamond (Jan. 9) chose to mark the year’s first regular issue with a 44-page special report on the Buddhist lay group Soka Gakkai, which in 2020 observed the 90th anniversary of its founding.

It was in 1930 that educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, together with Josei Toda, founded the “value-creating study society” based on the tenets of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect. Makiguchi, jailed for his pacifist beliefs, died in prison in 1944. He was succeeded by Toda, who reorganized it after the Pacific War. Under its third president, Daisaku Ikeda, the membership expanded rapidly.

The word “militant,” once used to describe the organization’s aggressive proselytizing tactics, is seldom invoked these days, but Soka Gakkai’s economic, social and political influence is undeniable. With a claimed membership of more than 12 million, it operates Soka University and two primary through high schools in Tokyo and Kansai. Its newspaper, the Seikyo Shimbun, claims a daily circulation of 5.5 million.

Komeito, its affiliated political party, has for some two decades united with the Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling government coalition.

At the start of its 10th decade, however, Diamond sees the organization facing “structural decline,” with its membership, aging and dying out, not being replaced by young blood. The report identifies nine serious crises, beginning with lack of a successor to its leadership, and withdrawal of members dissatisfied with Soka Gakkai and the Komeito Party.

Outside Japan, Soka Gakkai International (SGI) has attracted some 445,000 new adherents between 2015 and 2020, with most of the increases in Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and South America.

Masaru Sato, a former diplomat who is in the process of serializing a 600-page study on Daisaku Ikeda in Aera magazine, believes the organization has its eyes on China, where Soka Gakkai has already established centers for study of Ikeda’s thought at several universities. Because of Soka Gakkai’s ties to Japan’s ruling coalition, Sato believes China may favor a religion that won’t conflict with its Communist system.

“If China were to open its doors to foreign religions, the number of Gakkai members would increase in an instant,” he told Diamond.

Teen hero

Help! A lovely young damsel in distress is pinned to the ground by a heavy fallen log. But never fear, Senku Ishigami is near! This remarkably astute 16-year-old realizes that he can assemble compound pulleys and lift the log, freeing her without further trauma.

Protagonist Ishigami briefly digresses to provide an explanation crediting Archimedes, a third-century B.C. Greek scientist, with inventing the device.

“Dr. Stone,” described as a kagaku manga (science comic), made its debut in Shueisha’s weekly Shonen Jump magazine in 2017. Compiled into 19 separate books, it has already sold a total of 8 million copies.

Sales this past year may have been boosted by large numbers of youngsters being forced to stay home from school due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The January issue of Nikkei Trendy introduces “Dr. Stone” and its creator, Riichiro Inagaki.

“The most important thing, as the major premise of any comic, is that it be interesting,” Inagaki tells the magazine. “I don’t think the focus on science per se has any connection with sales. It’s designed in a way that people who just skim it can enjoy it, and those who read it more closely will appreciate it too.

“I think it’s important that maybe 20% or 30% of readers are pulled in for the science, and the remaining 70% just enjoy it for the interesting story.

“I’m grateful when some people say ‘Dr. Stone’ is educational for kids, but I position it not so much as an educational comic, but entertainment,” the 44-year-old Inagaki says. “For the most part, I want children who read it to feel a sense of excitement.”

Liquid gold?

Shukan Jitsuwa (Jan. 7-14) examines how Japan’s three major coffee chains have been faring during the coronavirus pandemic.

The big three are Starbucks (with 1,601 outlets as of last September), Doutor (1,088 outlets as of last November) and Komeda (873 outlets as of last August).

According to a survey by the Japan Food Services Association, overall turnover by coffee shops in 2019 reached ¥1.178 trillion — an increase of approximately 17% from a decade earlier. This growth has considerably exceeded that of the food and beverage industry as a whole, which over the same period was around 10%.

Starbucks, since its 1996 entry into Japan, now operates outlets in all 47 of Japan’s prefectures.

“Its fancy logo mark, refined cup design and innovative products like Frappuccino or drinks made with matcha help project a coffee culture that hadn’t existed before, and many Japanese were enamored by this,” an industry analyst tells the magazine.

The company is not publicly listed, so its business performance is not announced, but the analyst believes that Starbucks remains on target to increase outlets to 1,700 by the end of 2021.

Doutor (opened in Tokyo in 1980) has adopted a strategy of opening outlets in entertainment and office areas. The company has clearly been negatively affected by more people working from home. Quarterly reports showed sharp declines, finishing with a ¥1.3 billion deficit in the June-August fiscal period.

Komeda, whose forerunner was established in Nagoya in 1968, has situated many of its outlets in residential areas, where it is better positioned to cater to the work-from-home customer base. A business analyst tells the magazine it has made a gradual recovery from last summer.

One factor benefiting Komeda’s bottom line is the introduction of a new type of sandwich, consisting of a generous portion of Korean-style kalbi (beef short ribs) in a hamburger bun, which has reportedly been enjoying strong sales.

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