The Role of Religion in Global Civil Society:
A Focus on South and Southeast Asia
January 15, 2011
University of California, Santa Barbara
Ria Shibata is currently enrolled in the Graduate Program in Global Studies at Sophia University in Japan. Her research is on the role of religion in global civil society, focusing on the activities of Japanese religious NGOs. She also teaches an undergraduate course on Intercultural Communication at Temple University in Tokyo. She has worked as an interpreter and cross-cultural communications consultant on various projects involving religious organizations and NGOs. In 2001, she was the executive producer of an award-winning environmental documentary, “A Quiet Revolution,” featuring Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2005). The film, a project of the Earth Council to promote sustainable development in the run-up to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, aired on National Geographic channel in 55 countries and continues to be widely used as an educational tool. Her recent documentary film about sustainability initiatives in Denmark was aired on cable channels in Japan in 2010. She is an advisor on an upcoming film project for The Global Human Rights Education Network (HREA). Her translation of “Beyond the Shadow of 9/11,” a book by Han Seung Soo, president of the 56th General Assembly of the United Nations, on the UN’s response to the 9.11 terrorist attacks, was published by the Reischauer Center for Asian Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
The role of religion in the public sphere has long been a subject of debate within academic discourse. In recent years, groups and movements rooted in a range of religious traditions have been making their way out of the private sphere and into public life, often on a transnational level. This raises such new questions as: How do religions enter and operate in the public sphere? What role do they play in the emerging global civil society? This debate takes place against the backdrop of the much larger question of the relationship between religion and modernity.
My research considered the role of religion in an emerging global civil society through examining the activities of two Japanese Buddhist NGOs: Soka Gakkai (International) and Rissho Kosei-kai. Both of these Japanese new religious movements have become active players in global civil society, mobilizing public opinion on a range of issues broadly related to the question of “human security.” Both in terms of their membership size and the scope of their civil society activities, Soka Gakkai International and Rissho Kosei-kai are the two most prominent Japanese religious NGOs officially registered as having consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.
Soka Gakkai was founded in 1930 by Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, a reform-minded educator, as a group of like-minded teachers in an attempt to infuse humanistic ideals into the Japanese educational system. The group was suppressed during World War II, but then rapidly as a mass religious movement in the post-war. Today Soka Gakkai International is a worldwide association of 82 constituent organizations with memberships in 192 countries and territories; it claims a membership of some ten million in Japan, and 12 million worldwide. One notable feature of Soka Gakkai’s civil society activities is found in its emphasis on grassroots public education, carried out through a global network of believers using such educational tools as exhibits and publications. Its issues of particular focus are nuclear disarmament, human rights and sustainability education.
Founded in 1938 by Niwano Nikkyo and Naganuma Miyoko, Rissho Kosei-kai today claims a membership of six million and rivals Soka Gakkai as a Japanese mass religious movement rooted in Buddhist tradition. In contrast to the Soka Gakkai, Rissho Kosei-kai has from an early stage pursued a policy of collaboration with other religious groups; its civil society activities place emphasis on interfaith engagement and cooperation. Niwano founded The World Conference of Religions for Peace (WCRP a.k.a. Religions for Peace) in 1970 as an international forum for inter-religious cooperation. Today the WCRP has become the largest global coalition of religions and an influential lobbying body within UN processes on issues of peace, sustainability, poverty alleviation and human rights.
Both Soka Gakkai and Rissho Kosei-kai identify the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, in particular the Lotus Sutra, as a constitutive for the worldview supporting their civil society engagements. The strategies and processes by which the two groups pursue their goals, however, differ: Rissho Kosei-kai works through the formation of inter-religious coalitions (WCRP) and places emphasis on advocacy and lobbying methods to shape discourse and decision-making about global issues. Soka Gakkai, on the other hand, focuses on the educational and informational component, as it leverages its vast global human network to raise awareness and mobilize international public opinion around specific issues.
In this research, I examine the two religious NGOs’ organizational, strategic and service dimensions with a particular focus on the groups’ activities in the area of peace and nuclear disarmament. Through analysis of the two organizations’ history, spiritual foundation and outreach activities, this study will explore how two groups motivated by the same religious text—Lotus Sutra teachings of Mahayana Buddhist tradition—have chosen different approaches and strategies for social and political engagement in global civil society.