Helen Hardacre: Political Realignment Among Japan’s Religions
from Asia Unbound and Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?

Helen Hardacre: Political Realignment Among Japan’s Religions

Shinto priests walk in a line to attend a ritual to usher in the upcoming New Year at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan on December 31, 2016 (REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon).  
Shinto priests walk in a line to attend a ritual to usher in the upcoming New Year at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan on December 31, 2016.
Shinto priests walk in a line to attend a ritual to usher in the upcoming New Year at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan on December 31, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

This blog post is part of a series entitled Will the Japanese Change Their Constitution?, in which leading experts discuss the prospects for revising Japan’s postwar constitution. Helen Hardacre is Reischauer Institute professor of Japanese religions and society in the department of East Asian languages and civilizations at Harvard university.

New religious movements have been a part of Japanese society since the early nineteenth century. Some of them, much like the American new religions, Christian Science or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have become accepted institutions with one or even two centuries of history. The more established, such as Kurozumikyō (founded in 1814), have university-educated leaders who serve on the boards of respected museums and corporations, sit on government bodies, and are pillars of their communities. Unlike Sōka Gakkai and its political party Kōmeitō, or Happy Science and its Happiness Realization Party, they do not preach politics from the pulpit, because they believe in the separation of religion from state.

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Many new religious movements joined the Federation of New Religious Organizations of Japan (Shin Nihon Shūkyō Rengō Kai, generally called Shinshūren), founded in 1951. Shinshūren lobbies for a variety of progressive causes, including opposition to constitutional revision, and supports liberal politicians. Although the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchō) previously belonged to Shinshūren, both it and numerous other religious organizations have recently dropped their affiliation and joined Nippon Kaigi, which is widely recognized as a highly effective, ultra-conservative political lobby. Nippon Kaigi is also beginning to function as an alternative federation for religious organizations and now includes a number of prefectural shrine associations, leaders of such important shrines as the Ise, Atsuta, Meiji, and Yasukuni Shrines, such Buddhist groups as Bussho Gonenkai, Gedatsukai, and Shinsei Bukkyō Kyōdan. Doctrinally eclectic groups like Moralogy, Sūkyō Mahikari, and Taiwa Kyōdan also belong, as well as established Buddhist organizations such as the Tendai sect and its head temple, Enryakuji. When leaders of religious groups like these join Nippon Kaigi, it probably signals leaders’ personal convictions and their belief that their followers should be open to constitutional revision and Nippon Kaigi’s other causes.

Nippon Kaigi gained nationwide influence through mass meetings and petition campaigns, passing resolutions in municipal and prefectural assemblies calling for constitutional revision. As of January 2015, Nippon Kaigi had 35,000 members, including between 1,700 and 1,800 local assembly members, branch offices in every prefecture, and a total of 237 local branches across Japan.[1] Nippon Kaigi advocates the signature issues of Japan’s right wing: constitutional revision, promoting the Meiji constitution and the 1890 Imperial Rescript on Education, reverence for the imperial family, preventing a female from being named emperor, preventing married women from using their maiden names, and rejecting critical views of Japan’s modern history prior to 1945.[2]

The politics of Shinshūren and Nippon Kaigi could hardly be more different. While constitutional revision is a central aim of Nippon Kaigi, Shinshūren has consistently opposed it, calling on government to protect popular sovereignty, freedom of religion, and pacifism. Yet Shinshūren’s proclamations opposing constitutional revision have been issued over the signature of its director, Hozumi Hidetane, who is the leader of the new religion Taiwa Kyōdan, which also affiliated with Nippon Kaigi. Likewise, Gedatsukai is a member of Shinshūren, but its leader Okano Seihō (sixth president of Shinshūren) issued warm congratulations to Nippon Kaigi in 2002:

Nippon Kaigi has developed into a multifaceted movement throughout the country and has achieved great results in shaping popular opinion regarding the constitution, foreign relations, and problems in education. I agree sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, with its forceful proclamation of principles for a new national movement.

Neither Hozumi nor Okada has explained how it is possible simultaneously to support organizations as different as Shinshūren and Nippon Kaigi; it defies rational explanation and looks a lot like hedging one’s bets.

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How to interpret this puzzle? To me, it appears that religious groups moving out of Shinshūren and into Nippon Kaigi are shifting in the direction of supporting constitutional revision. As the Liberal Democratic Party’s policies on constitutional revision and national security have gained some measure of provisional acceptance (as measured by historically high rates of approval for the prime minister and his party),[3] the contrasting goals of Shinshūren can seem mired in the past. It may be that the newness of Nippon Kaigi is attractive in itself, and that it resonates with current circumstances in a way that Shinshūren does not. Religious organizations may be drawn into Nippon Kaigi and support some, but not all, of its signature issues, for example, being very concerned with promoting reverence for the imperial house without necessarily getting involved in the constitutional revision debate, and vice versa. Different religious groups might occupy different positions on the spectrum between activism and passive membership.

We need not suppose that Japan is reverting to the 1930s to see that some of Nippon Kaigi’s goals may sound reasonable to religious organizations concerned for Japan’s future. For example, the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 showed that the government lacks the expertise and authority to deal with a major disaster, suggesting that legislation governing emergency situations is needed. But while one might recognize the need, further questions remain unanswered. For example, is the Abe government correct in holding that such a provision belongs in a revised constitution, as opposed to ordinary legislation, and that the prime minister should be given the power to suspend basic human rights during a national emergency? However these questions are answered, Nippon Kaigi is on the rise as a new magnet for religious associations, and is successfully enlisting them in its right-wing causes.


Sonoda, Kōji 2016: “Nippon Kaigi and the Grassroots Mobilization of Japan’s Right Wing.” Occasional Paper 15, U.S.-Japan Relations Program (Harvard University).

Tawara, Yoshifumi 俵義文 2016: Nippon Kaigi no zen: Shirarezaru kyodai soshiki no jittai日本会議の全貌:知られざる巨大組織の実態 (The entirety of Nippon Kaigi: The actual situation of a huge system that must be known). Tokyo: Kadensha 花伝社.

Uesugi, Satoshi 上杉聰 2016: Nippon Kaigi to wa nanika: Kenpō kaisei ni tsuki susumu karuto shūdan 日本会議とは何か:憲法改正に突き進むカルト集団 (What is Nippon Kaigi? The cult group that’s heading towards constitutional revision). Tokyo: Gōdō shuppan Kabushiki kaisha 合同出版株式会社.

[1] Sonoda 2016: 9.

[2] For extensive treatment of Nippon Kaigi’s understanding of each of these issues, see Uesugi 2016 and Tawara 2016.

[3] According to a public opinion survey undertaken by the Nikkei Shinbun, the Abe government’s approval rating grew to 64 percent following Abe’s historic visit to Pearl Harbor with U.S. President Barack Obama on December 28 and 29, 2016; Naikaku shijiritsu 64 percent ni jōshō http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sctR8DxMlQ. Nikkei Shinbun 2016 December 31 online edition (accessed December 30, 2016).

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