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Large Zen Group: “Dangerous Precedent Set”

Sojiji Daisodo

Japan’s largest Buddhist Order claims dissolution case sets dangerous precedent and could be illegal. 

by Matthias Stephan

In a turn of events surprising to many, the Soto Zen order, the largest Buddhist organization in Japan with over eleven million followers, has raised concerns over the Japanese government’s move to dissolve the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (formerly the Unification Church) as a religious corporation.

Bitter Winter exposing forcible detentionBitter Winter, the online magazine for human rights and religious freedom, reported on 14th March 2024 on the important decision by the large group within Japanese Zen Buddhism. See the Bitter Winter article.

Soto Building
Soto Zen Headquarters and Tokyo Grand Hotel in Tokyo Minato-ku. Photo (2011): Kstigarbha / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 3.0 Unp

In the report written by Dr. Massimo Introvigne, it is pointed out that despite Soto Zen’s historical differences with the Unification Church, the Zen order has questioned the legality of the dissolution case. Soto Zen argues that Japanese law traditionally mandates dissolution of a religious organization only in cases of criminal convictions, not civil disputes. This stance has drawn attention to potential constitutional violations regarding freedom of religion and could set a dangerous precedent for religious organizations across Japan.

The controversy arose following Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s abrupt shift in interpreting the Religious Corporations Act, suggesting that religious bodies could face dissolution based on civil cases alone. This sudden change has sparked widespread debate within religious circles and among legal experts.

At its 143rd Ordinary Session, the Soto Zen General Assembly faced internal pressure to reconsider its stance on the dissolution case. However, the head of the religious group, Hattori Shusei, affirmed that there are no plans to revise its position.

Massimo Introvigne writes about dangerous precedent
Dr. Massimo Introvigne, april 2023. Photo: FOREF

Introvigne writes that the dissenting viewpoint of Soto Zen has reverberated through religious communities, challenging the consensus among the members of the Council of Religious Corporations, which initially endorsed the dissolution request. Critics argue that targeting religious organizations based solely on civil disputes could infringe upon constitutional rights and undermine religious freedom in Japan.

While some individuals, such as Councillor Tetsuzu Jinno, have criticized Soto Zen’s stance, accusing it of tacitly supporting the Unification Church, it’s essential to clarify that the large Buddhist group has not expressed approval of the organization now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification. Rather, it has voiced concerns about potential violations of human rights and constitutional principles.

As the case unfolds, the broader implications for religious freedom in Japan remain uncertain. The outcome of this legal battle will not only shape the fate of the Family Federation but will also set a precedent for how religious organizations are treated under the law, underscoring the delicate balance between state intervention and religious autonomy.

“Large Zen Group: ‘Dangerous Precedent Set’” – text: Matthias Stephan

Featured image above: Soto Zen Buddhism Sojiji Head Monastery in Yokohama, Japan. Photo (2009): Wiiii / Wikimedia Commons. License: CC ASA 3.0 Unp. Cropped.

Bitter Winter, the publisher of the article, was established in 2018 as an online magazine focusing on religious freedom and human rights in China. Since December 2020, Bitter Winter has expanded its scope by introducing an international section dedicated to religious freedom issues worldwide. The magazine is published by CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, and is based in Turin, Italy. According to Bitter Winter, it started when scholars, journalists, and human rights advocates from diverse backgrounds joined forces and published news items, stories and personal testimonies about persecution against all faiths in China. Their collective aim was to amplify the voices of the marginalized.

Dr. Massimo Introvigne, who penned the Bitter Winter article, is an Italian sociologist specializing in the study of religions. He is renowned as the founder and director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), a global network of scholars dedicated to researching new religious movements (NRMs). Introvigne boasts an impressive bibliography, having authored around 70 books and over 100 articles within the realm of sociology of religion. Notably, he played a pivotal role as the primary author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He holds positions on the editorial board of the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and the executive board of Nova Religio, published by the University of California Press.

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And still more about dangerous precedent: Kishida Has Opened Can of Worms

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