Delusions of gender

Soka Gakkai primes the peace industry

By William Wetherall

A review of
Women's Division of Soka Gakkai (compiler)
Women Against War: Personal Accounts of Forty Japanese Woman
Translated by Richard L. Gage
Introduction by Richard H. Minear
Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1986
247 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Priming the peace industry" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 135(4), 22 January 1987, pages 41-42

A shorter version later appeared as
"Delusions of Gender" in
Asahi Evening News, 2 February 1987, page 9

Blue phrases appeared in the FEER but not the AEN version.
Purple phrases appeared only in the AEN version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

The AEN version attracted two critical letters and my rebuttal (reproduced below).

The main product of Japan's peace industry is the idea that Japanese hate war because they suffered so much (if not more than others) in the last big one. Soka Gakkai, the largest private peace corporation, has spent fortunes translating the thoughts of its chief guru, Daisaku Ikeda, into English. Now we have please from the rank and file in a collection of survival stories by women.

"Since it is one of women's roles in life to bring children into the world and raise them to maturity," the preface to this moving but problematic book proclaims, "we feel that women possess a particularly deep understanding of the dignity and value of life."

"Dignity" and "value" are not defined. Nor is it explained why womanhood should engender a "particularly deep" understanding of life, or why such an understanding should oblige a woman to be against war.

There is certainly no proof in the natural world, from which humans of both sexes are wont to dissociate themselves, that females are less territorial than males. Human mothers, too, will fight to the death to protect their young, or themselves or their warrior/provider mates. Women who have wielded political power, while playing their conjugal and maternal roles, have also been as willing as men to resort to war as a means of gaining wealth and glory for themselves and their family, tribe, or nation.

The book consists of selected translations from a 12-volume series of collected testimonials about war, compiled (and published since 1981) by the Soka Gakkai Women's Division Peace Committee. Soka Gakkai, one of Japan's most successful "new" religions, was founded in 1930 as a modern set of Nichiren Buddhism, which according to the preface, "advocates respect for life and fervent devotion to peace."

The compilers thus believe that it is their duty "to do everything in our power to prevent the recurrence of war." If wars begin because groups mobilise all available power to achieve their obsessive goals, one wonders how Soka Gakkai can save the world without burying it.

The potential abuse of power by so committed a group be what it may, Still, the compilers are undoubtedly sincere in their wish to "make available to younger Japanese people, who were born after World War II and have no direct knowledge of the horrors of war, a true picture of the war as witnessed by women who actually lived through it."

The testimonies of the writers, too, are surely sincere. About 60 percent of the contributors are Soka Gakkai converts. "The shattering effects of the war and defeat are part of the story of their conversion," explains Richard Minear in his introduction, most of which is given to an overview of a war that "did not begin with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor" but in some sense dates to the 19th century.

Also affecting the testimonials of the Soka Gakkai contributors are the conversion experiences themselves. Minear cites an example from the opening testimonial, according to which an entire family "became faithful members" in June 1941 after being regularly visited by Nichiren Shoshu believers "despite our poverty and protests that we needed no help." Minear refrained from adding that the ulterior motive of this and other Soka Gakkai books is to gain more converts.

The "Personal Accounts of Forty Japanese Women" (the subtitle on the dustcover) are divided into a prelude and 10 chapters. All are personal stories of women trying to make their way back to Japan amid post-war chaos in foreign lands (Manchuria, Korea, the Philippines, Sakhalin); nurses; teachers; women struggling to provide themselves and their own in the ruins of defeated Japan; victims of the Hiroshima bombing; women who fled to the countryside from Japan's fire-bombed cities; women who prostituted themselves to American servicemen; women who contracted tragic marriages and liaisons with American soldiers or who were the alienated offspring of such marriages; women widowed by war, and women who overcame seemingly insurmountable wartime obstacles to emerge triumphant in the end.

The first testimonial is given special treatment as the prelude "because it represents a norm." The writer, "having experienced the distress, fear, loss, and misery of war while in Tokyo and then in the countryside, gives an excellent description of the social and political tone of the times from the viewpoint of an average woman. Like most women, she is able to place herself outside politics. Her concern is providing for her loved ones and herself, even when the world around her is being consumed by flames and destruction."

None of this rings true in light of what the writer, who was born in 1923, says about either herself or society. The average Japanese woman was not "born into comfortable circumstances" and did not have to leave a city home for the suburbs because "my older sister came down with tuberculosis, and my father fell seriously ill," much less because of "some improper dealings by hour hired help." Nor did the average Japanese family convert to Soka Gakkai in June 1941, or after the "shooting war between Japan and the United States" (Minear) began, or even after Japan unconditionally surrendered.

The converted writer's view of the world places her squarely within "politics" in the sense that her actions have had political consequences. One of these was the phenomenal growth of Soka Gakkai, once officially (now unofficially) the raison d'etre of the Komeito, the self-proclaimed "cleanest" political party in Japan.

The prelude concludes: "Having sent both of her sons off to fight, my mother-in-law had long since ceased to expect their return. Then suddenly, to her immense surprise and joy, they were both home. At the urging of myself and my husband, his mother and brother became believers in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism. I was more conscious of being protected than ever before."

The writer neglected to observe that many of the men who accepted their fate as soldiers, and the women who waved them off with flags, also felt protected by gods. If she and her mother-in-law were silently weeping with the flagwavers, sending her husband and brother-in-law off as reluctant soldiers to the battlefields, how can she -- or any woman -- take comfort in the myth that women have not been party to the politics of war?

Women Against War is the latest addition to the growing archive of Japanese books that aim at providing the affluent post-war generation with a vicarious dose of pre-war and wartime suffering. It, too, shows signs of having been written under the illusion that preventing war is mainly a matter of reminiscing about its horror.

War-is-hell survival stories are found in the written and oral traditions of all countries which have known war. Yet, how many wars have been avoided by tears shed or fearful forebodings of the "cruelty" of "heinousness" of war?

Regurgitating one's war experiences can be therapeutic. And reading about the experiences of others can be educational. But expecting an "excruciating reading experience" to help "bring about a state of absolute global non-belligerence" is vain, especially if left unraised are questions like: why is it likely that many of the wives, mothers, and daughters who have written so convincingly of the agonies of war, with so much hope for eternal peace, are as proud as they are sorry that their husbands, sons, and fathers did not come back?


Two letters criticizing the AEN version of the above review of Women Against War appeared under the heading "From Soka Gakkai" in Asahi Evening News, 20 March 1987, page 7. One letter was signed "Tomiya Akiyama, Director, International Office, The Soka Gakkai", the other "Celine Shinbutsu, Tokyo".

My rebuttal appeared in Asahi Evening News, 21 March 1987, page 7, as follows.

Claims and logic

Tomiya Akiyama and Celine Shinbutsu (AEN March 20, 1987) seem to feel that I based my review of Women Against War only on information in the preface and on the dust cover. They also contend (in their remarkably similar letters) that the review was used as a forum for "airing his own opinions about Soka Gakkai and his lack of respect for women's pacifist convictions" (Akiyama) and as an opportunity "to foist his own prejudices concerning the peace sentiments of Japanese women and Soka Gakkai onto the readers" (Shinbutsu).

Mrs. Shinbutsu's charge that "he does the readers a great disservice by casually and callously dismissing these women's anguished pleas for peace as 'insincere'" clearly shows that she has not read my review carefully. At the very beginning, I called the book "moving but problematic." Later, I called the motives of the compilers "undoubtedly sincere" and the testimonies of the contributors, also, "surely sincere."

Having read the contributions and judged them to be both sincere and moving, why should I have wasted space on personal testimonies that need no further comment? I made very clear what kinds of people wrote the testimonials, so that anyone who wishes to read them can buy the book.

I therefore gave the rest (yes, the "bulk") of my review to an evaluation of the attitudes expressed in the preface and on the dust cover. Insincerity cannot be moving, but sincerity is not necessarily moving. Hence I was moved by the contributions, but not by the attitudes presented in the preface or on the dust cover.

These attitudes are those of a highly organized, politicized, and ambitious religious organization -- or of its sympathizers, or of its commercializers. It was not any personal bias on my part, for or against Soka Gakkai or its peace movement, but simply a critic's eye for suspect claims and faulty logic, that led me to evaluate these attitudes as I did in my review. People who are interested only in reading uncritical comments on Women Against War can peruse the unbiased publisher's ads, or the unbiased reviewers that Soka Gakkai plants in its own periodicals.

As for the peace movement, right on! Women, men, and children of the world unite to prevent all war, but especially the war to end all wars and establish everlasting peace.

The surest way to fail in this noble endeavor is to believe the premises of Women Against War; that "women have a particularly deep understanding of the dignity and value of life"; and that universal (compulsory?) awareness of the "cruelty" and the "heinousness" of war is sufficient to prevent one.

William Wetherall