In 2016, a rash of articles about an extremely conservative religious cult in Japan appeared in publications ranging from Japan Today to The Daily Beast, National Review, and The Economist. These articles bore headlines such as "Japan Reverts to Fascism," "The Religious Cult Secretly Running Japan," and "Ultraconservative Lobby Nippon Kaigi Backs Constitution Revision." More likely than not you've heard of the organization in question, Nippon Kaigi, which begs the question, what the hell is it, and is there merit to these claims?
Nipon Kaigi is powerful, religious lobbyist organization in Japan. Literally translated, Nippon Kaigi simply means "Japanese Conference." The organization formed in 1997, when the Society for the Protection of Japan and the People’s Conference to Protect Japan merged. The right-wing group, which counts as many as 40,000 members, has gained power and popularity in the 2010s, to the point that many of its goals may be within reach.
As the spate of articles shows, Nippon Kaigi has become a lightning rod for international controversy. Depending on your politics, the organization it is either a political movement that will provide salvation for Japan or a sinister shadow government bent on world domination. The Daily Beast called the organization a Japanese cult secretly running the country, and while there certainly are cults in Japan, not everyone agrees with this alarmist assessment. The organization's adherence to nationalistic forms of Shintoism recalls affiliations that led Japan into the Sino-Japanese and Second World wars, which sets off alarm bells with many historians.
Regardless of what you think of Nippon Kaigi, the truth of the group is fascinating, and provides insight into the changing face of Japanese politics.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Many Other Prominent Officials Are Members
The most important thing to note about Nippon Kaigi is its tremendous political influence. Aside from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 40 current or former cabinet ministers and about 280 Diet members (about 40% of total membership) belong to the organization. The National Diet is the Japanese equivalent of the US Congress. Nearly all Nippon Kaigi members in elected positions belong to the Liberal Democratic Party.
Given the multitude of lawmakers claiming membership, Nippon Kaigi may be in a position to push for the enacting of some of the policies for which it advocates. That outcome is far from certain, however, given the complexities of the Japanese democratic system. Some of the policies are inflammatory enough to coalesce opposition groups, and some advocates for the group are reluctant to push certain proposals forward, given their controversial nature.
Its Chairman Is a Former Journalist Who Wants to Reconsider History
The Nippon Kaigi is led by Tadae Takubo, a journalist-turned-advocate and professor emeritus of International Studies at Kyorin University in Tokyo. Takubo was stationed in West Berlin during the Cold War, wrote a book on Nixon's diplomatic dealings with China, and is the author of "New World Order" and Japan, published in 1992.
At a press conference in July 2016, he took questions from the Foreign Corespondents's Club of Japan on Nippon Kaigi's stances on various issues, and its political ambitions. Much of Takubo's work as a historian and journalist focused on defining Japan by its past in order to determine its core values, which he sees as a means of understanding what Japan could be in the future.
During the press conference, in reference to World War II, Takubo said, “Each country has its own view of history. We cannot say one party is completely right, or completely wrong... some parts of Japan’s war were wrong and other parts were right.”
Nippon Kaigi Wants to Change the Constitution, Fundamentally Altering Modern Japan
One of Nippon Kaigi's most controversial stances is its desire to change the Japanese constitution. The document was written in 1946, mostly by the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP), the offices of Allied occupying forces in Japan, under the direction of General MacArthur. MacArthur suggested the Japanese create a new constitution themselves, but when they turned in their proposals, MacArthur saw them as little more than a tweaking of the conservative 1889 constitution. This went against SCAP's vision for a new Japan, one that would promise individual liberties and full democratic rights for all citizens.
Emperor Hirohito endorsed the new constitution, writing, "I rejoice that the foundation for the construction of a new Japan has been laid according to the will of the Japanese people." The document has remained intact since it was enacted, and is seen by many as the foundation of modern Japan. Revising the constitution requires two-thirds of each house in the Diet and a national referendum.
For the first time in Japanese history, proponents of a revision seem to have achieved the two-thirds requirement. Tadae Takubo, believes the constitution will indeed be changed within the next 10 years, saying, “For the first time in the postwar period, [pro-revision parties] have occupied more than two-thirds of both the Lower and Upper houses. This is a prefect chance, and the very first opportunity we’ve had.”
Analyzing Nippon Kaigi's stance on revising the constitution, Jeff Kingston, director of Asia Studies at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo, said the organization sees the document "as something written from the outside with western DNA. They don’t like the emphasis on human rights and liberties and think there should be more emphasis on tradition and duties.”
It Advocates Expanding the Japanese Military
The Nippon Kaigi advocates expanding the Japanese military beyond the existing self-defense force, in order to create a standard army, which would be under civilian control. This is one of the constitutional amendments the organization is pushing for, and a great source of tension in the country. While the creation of a standard army might not seem controversial to those unfamiliar with Japan, the country's constitution is firmly rooted in anti-war beliefs, including opposition to militarization.
Indeed, the constitution explicitly forbids Japan from having an army under Article 9. To quote:
1. Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.
2. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
The threat of Soviet expansion created an immediate need to walk back that section by 1954. Thus, a technical interpretation of the article allowed for the creation of a national self-defense force. However, this organization does not operate like an army, and is extremely small when compared to the militaries of nations of comparable size and wealth.
Despite maintaining a defense force, Japan has largely been a US protectorate since the end of WWII. Nippon Kaigi claims Chinese expansion and American isolationism have created a need to expand the country's self-defense force. This desire has created tension with Japan's long standing culture of pacifism that has endured since the war, and has stoked fears that Japan could return to a militaristic government.
In Takubo's words:
The Japanese Constitution doesn’t have an article that defines a military. If you try to (revise it) to create some provisions for a military force, just like those of other ordinary countries, such a move is called ‘militarism'... Prime Minister Abe is a politician who is trying to make Japan a normal country.
An advisor to the organization, Professor Akira Momochi, said, "It is proper for an independent sovereign nation to have an army. There are no sovereign nations without one. Armies are deterrents, they exist to prevent war. We'll keep our pacifist traditions but we need to respond to rising threat of China."