A Discussion with Joan Anderson, International Office of Public Information, Soka Gakkai
With: Joan Anderson Berkley Center Profile
November 5, 2009
Background: This discussion, which took place on November 5, 2009 between Michael Bodakowski and Joan Anderson, focuses on the work and philosophy that informs SGI's rather unique approach and role in different societies and its central focus on peace. The fundamental flaw with development programs, Anderson argues, is that they improve tangible situations without improving the morale and confidence of the people in that situation. Without addressing the latter, monetary and infrastructure changes will see very little impact.
Can you please speak about your experience, and the journey that has taken you to where you are today?
I had been working in NGOs for 10 years; I started working in the region in Cambodia, as country director for Save the Children. While I was in that position however, I continued my Soka Gakkai studies and practices, and sort of by default, became the SGI director in Cambodia. The office was just beginning to grow and I happened to be there and had enough room in my apartment to hold meetings. I therefore had the quite unusual experience of being involved in both kinds of activities (Save the Children and SGI) and for me that really made clear how I wanted eventually to continue my involvement in development work.
However much you give people, especially in Cambodia, if they don’t have the inner resources of hope or courage to think that they can personally change their lives, you will have very little impact. Within the Soka Gakkai group, I saw people beginning to feel more hopeful and more able to challenge their circumstances. That is where I was seeing the empowerment happening, I wasn’t seeing it happening, however much we tried, in our community programs with Save the Children; there, it was much slower and less apparent. It was at that point that I began inquiring about work with SGI as a full time opportunity after my contract with Save the Children came to an end.
Can you tell me about Soka Gakkai? What is its basic philosophy and general background, and how does it relate to development and empowerment?
Soka Gakkai is drawn from Nichiren Buddhism, and it is a lay organization founded in the 1930s by teachers who wanted to reform the Japanese education system. It was this group of teachers, who were practicing Nichiren Buddhism, that developed into a lay Buddhist group, and that saw the beginnings of SGI. From the beginning, we’ve had a double pronged approach: to 1) contribute to society and bring out the infinite potential of each individual, and 2) practice Buddhism. It initially began with an orthodox Nichiren school, then in the 1990s SGI separated to become more independent and not a direct follower of that particular orthodox movement, though the practice we follow is still the same.
There is also an important element in our history with regards to the evolution of SGI. Our early leader was imprisoned for his opposition to Japan’s militarism and the state religion, Shinto, and he died in prison. From that time in Soka Gakkai, standing up for your conviction has always been very important for our philosophical outlook. After World War II, Soka Gakkai was in some respects restarted, and it spread quickly among the poorest sectors in Japan. It was known as the organization for the poor and sick at that time, and there were some who looked down on it. For the poor and sick however, it was of course very relevant. The main reason it spread so quickly was because of the message of Nichiren, that each individual can unlock their personal potential and gain control of their lives, going from being a victim to being someone that contributes. It gave hope that they could change their circumstances. Whether that was initially a roof over your head, or that your husband had stopped drinking…. Ultimately, people realized that their lives were actually worth something and they began to live in a more fulfilled and productive manner.
What kind of support did Soka Gakkai provide to the people?
That’s a good question. I think it’s very interesting that Soka Gokkai never provides material resources for our members. There is a rule in the organization about not lending money to people, amongst members, which is sometimes extremely hard to follow if people are in a desperate situation. The idea is that through our philosophy people can help themselves, and if in the same group people are giving out material items, the message can get confused. We are not a charity type organization. I am not saying this in a disparaging way, but that is just not how we operate. There is a quote from a social activist working in Japan with the poor in the 1950s or 60s that exemplifies this, which I will send to you afterwards that talks about the moral support and the network of SGI.
The Japanese author and critic Mimpei Sugiura, participated in a discussion series in the Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper, the Seikyo Shimbun. In the May 3, 1981 issue, he said:
“The Gakkai’s greatest achievement lies in unleashing the power of the people, of those at the very lowest strata of society, and in revitalizing their lives. This, actually, is something that I have also devoted great energy to... [After World War II,] there were so many people suffering emotional or economic distress as a result of physical disabilities, illness, the loss of a spouse, and so on. Determined to help them in any way I could, I went to villages and offered assistance and undertook various volunteer activities. I made the Eighth Route Army of China [renowned for its selfless service to the people] one of my models. But it was no good. You can’t foster genuine independence in people merely through charitable deeds or donations of money. But helping people become self-reliant is precisely what the Soka Gakkai has done.”
Would you say that you have a philosophy of public service?
Yes, I would say that. There is a phrase that is important to us, called, “human revolution.” It means that one individual going through a process of inner change, becomes not only stronger, but compassionate, and this individual will then turn from being a victim who blames society to not only improve their own situation but care about the people around them. We also have a philosophy called “Turning poison into medicine,” that is if someone has suffered themselves, then obviously they are likely to be very understanding of those going through the same things. People will begin to be more considerate of others and stick up for others. There is a strong emphasis on not just focusing on your own happiness. Your life is connected to other people “Happiness for one’s self and others.” However there is no prescription that one must do X, Y, and Z, it is very much each person feeling inspired to do what they feel is best.
I remember one member in Cambodia, a woman called Samith, who decided to clean out a well in her local community every week without anyone paying her, without anyone asking or expecting any praise. Eventually others joined in, but I was very struck by her, that she just wanted to contribute to her community. It was not part of any formal program. Eventually, others in the community began to join in, all working for the good of the entire community.
Would you say that a lot of the work that Soka Gakkai does overseas begins from the individual level?
I think that would describe our overall approach globally, Yes, this idea that change starts from within one person, and then spreads out through family and friends, and that one person can have a high impact is very much stressed. But at the same time we do also have an organized approach.
This started on a global scale with the Cambodian refugee crisis of the 1970s. Soka Gakkai in Japan began regular refugee fundraising drives for UNHCR and local NGOs that continued for 20 years. So in that case it did involve collecting money.
Then there was also the, “Voice Aid Campaign” which came through a personal relationship with Mr. Akashi, who was heading the UN operation in Cambodia, and Mr. Ikeda, who was then our International President. It was a program in Cambodia that collected 300,000 secondhand radios in Japan and distributed them to Cambodians so that they could get information and more actively participate in the elections. This was a large scale campaign that was very successful.
However, in general, in Japan large-scale national campaigns are rare given that we are such a huge organization, as the actual organization of the activity becomes a large scale operation that becomes all-absorbing. We are more focused on creating empowered global citizens, so that people within the local community are being looked at as contributors rather than the organization nationally dictating what people do.
And there is one other important part of our history. From 1957 on, our 2nd president, Toda, who had earlier been released from prison, made an impassioned declaration against nuclear weapons. He was dying at that time and knew it, so he called upon the youth of Soka Gakkai to take up this issue. From that point, advocacy became a large part of SGI’s work. At the moment, internationally, we have a whole host of nuclear abolition campaigns that we are working on with both other NGOs and the UN.
From that time on, we began to do a lot of public education work, including exhibitions and seminars to raise awareness and encourage people to become active and make a difference if they have been inspired. We would again not be telling them what to do, but raising their awareness and making them realize that they can contribute a lot. Public education is primarily in three areas:
1) Peace and Disarmament
2) Human Rights Education
3) Education related to Sustainable Development (one that I am particularly involved in now)
Usually, SGI creates educational resources, both in Tokyo and in other places, and then those resources are made available to other offices around the world if they are interested. For example, we created an exhibition for the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002 and that is now being shown in Latin America, India, Netherlands, US, Canada, in different languages and adapted to the local context, working with local organizations and schools.
Can you comment on how SGI is organized?
Each individual International SGI organization is independent, not a subsidiary of SGI in Japan.
To briefly mention some examples of SGI organizations working in Southeast Asia:
In Malaysia, because of the multi-cultural and multi-faith nature of the country, and because almost all of our members are from the Chinese community, our focus has tended to be on cultural events where we reach out to other groups in society to build connections and bridges, as well as become in involved with other charity groups to demonstrate our philosophy. In Malaysia there are huge divisions in society that we have consciously been working to bridge.
In Singapore, we have done many intercultural activities. SGI is working jointly with Mercy Relief, a multifaith organization that grew initially from the Muslim community, which is involved in humanitarian assistance and has done work on Tsunami relief and school and orphanage repair in Cambodia. The SGI director in Singapore is also on the Mercy Relief Board, which is a very concrete relationship across faiths.
Briefly, in terms of Cambodia, I can give you a few other details. Starting in the 1980s, we were supporting a project of JVC, the Japan International Volunteer Center, which is a Japanese NGO working in Cambodia and other countries around the world. We supported a particular project from Japan, which was a vehicle repair workshop. A SGI member went as a volunteer and was running that workshop. It is funny, because when I was in Cambodia with Save the Children we would get all of our vehicles fixed there. It was known as the best vehicle repair workshop in Phnom Penh! SGI has also worked with UNESCO Cambodia.
When I was there, SGI in Cambodia faced some difficulties. Some of the Christian churches would give out rice to those attending services, which is fine, but it means that some people coming to SGI meetings expected rice too. The fact that we don’t give out material items could have become a little bit of an issue, but through the initiative of an American member who had visited, there was a small NGO called Simply Help that has in some places developed as a parallel to SGI Cambodia doing activities such as well digging, giving opportunities to learn dress making, English skills, or computer training, just to demonstrate that we are not solely a religious organization. It very much does depend on the organization in each country as to how that kind of thing develops.
So could I say that as a substitute to receiving rice, people were receiving training?
Well, I should clarify. That would for us be mixing up our Buddhist philosophy and you would end up with people joining SGI for maybe confused reasons. It was rather that a school teacher in a particular village became involved in SGI, and he studied and was able to explain the SGI philosophy to people very effectively, so the group grew rapidly in that village. The project run by Simply Help there was also not only for SGI members, it was for the entire village. We try to decouple those things. It is linked to SGI, but it is not solely for SGI members.
When you are doing interfaith work, what is the common ground you find with the organizations to build upon and work together on?
I guess it would be a wish to contribute. We usually start with discussions with representatives from different religious groups and a relationship grows out of that. Particularly in Singapore and Malaysia I think links between different faith groups are really important. In Singapore we have a very high profile, as we do in Malaysia, for this kind of activity.
What is SGI’s role in Japan itself?
SGI is involved in politics in Japan. Since the organization was sort of crushed during the war in Japan, there was a feeling that Soka Gokkai needed to keep an eye on abuse of power by the government, and also the control of religion by the government. There was that motivation, and also that ordinary, downtrodden people in Japanese society were not represented in the political scene. It began at a time when I think a lot of religious groups were putting candidates forward for elections and there was a period called the ”rush hour of the Gods” because so many religious groups were springing up, and Soka Gakkai became rather successful. I personally think that the relationship between SGI and the Komato party is a lot more distant than in the initial stages. Now it really does function as an independent party and makes it own policies based broadly on Buddhist kind of values. Nonetheless, SGI is still the main endorsing group for the party.
Some people can look at this and think that is scary; what is their real agenda? But as far as I can see it is just the people in the local community really caring about the education system and other aspects of the way the government functions. It can be very local and it is their expression about the state of affairs in Japan. People have raised the question about separation of Church and state but it is in no way in breach of the constitution, and as you may know how Japanese politics works, it is a kind of group activity often, in a way that seems a bit strange to us, so most religious groups are endorsing candidates just as Japanese companies do. This does not mean though that members have to support these candidates.
I would say it rather makes people feel very engaged, that they can make a difference. Whereas most Japanese are fairly apathetic about politics, I think SGI members do see politicians as servants of the people. They don’t call politicians by the honorific “sensei” for example; it is supposed to be the other way around. In a way this involvement helps keep freedom of religion and protects religion from the state, because of the history of what happened during the war. This is in a way the opposite of the situation in Europe where the problem was that religion was trying to control the state. In Japan the problem has been that the state has controlled religion.
It is only in Japan that SGI is involved in politics; it will never happen anywhere else, and even in Japan, it happened almost as an accident of history.
What do you see as the future trends with SGI and its development work abroad?
I think that, in talking about these different groups in Malaysia, Singapore, and also now in Hong Kong, one thing that is interesting is that they are globally amongst our most organized, most active, and in a way most independent organizations. They are financially independent form Japan and have their own resources. I think the development of these independent organizations is an expression of the philosophy of human revolution, and they are contributing in a way that is appropriate to their own society. This will continue to be a trend. For example in Italy, SGI is talking about the death penalty, because that is what people in Italy care about. We have this network of organizations with the same basic philosophy, but it manifests itself in many different ways depending on the issues and the state of the society they are in.
That is very interesting because I think I was seeing Soka Gakkai internationally as more of a Japanese organization that was doing work abroad. Though it may have started like that, it seems to have taken on a much more international face.
Yes, and thank you, it’s good you said that. That reminds me of another point. When I was doing more traditional NGO work, I was always looking at the beneficiaries, the people I was trying to help and it is very hard for that relationship to be an equal one. Whereas I think SGI’s main focus is on working through its members to help them develop their lives in a way that they can contribute to society. We are all in this together, which feels like a much more comfortable relationship, and one that does not involve money as well, creating a certain type of freedom.