Since its foundation more than seventy years ago and throughout the postwar era, Sōka Gakkai, Japan’s largest new religious movement, has stressed the importance of the arts, and has encouraged its members to participate in cultural activities that give voice to the group’s ideals. Specifically, western classical music and reverence of the lives and works of representative European composers, artists and philosophers have been guiding influences on Sōka Gakkai members and leaders. The Ongakutai, or “music cadres,” under the aegis of Sōka Gakkai’s Young Men’s Division, is one of the religion’s most active sub-groups. It is an organization of tens of thousands of devoted non-professional musicians who engage in rehearsals, religious meetings and concerts devoted to the glory of the movement and the pursuit of musical and spiritual goals.
This paper will present research on the activities of the members of an Ongakutai symphony orchestra. Qualitative data drawn from participant observation as a musician and researcher within the group will illustrate that the members’ activities are a fusion of lay Buddhist practice, value inculcation and musical expression. Music forms the basis of the orchestra members’ religious experience, and is manifest on the one hand as western musical elements infused into Buddhist chant, and on the other as a deep reverence for Ludwig van Beethoven. Historical evidence and ethnographic case studies will provide an explanation for this dynamic combination, and point to avenues of inquiry that may be undertaken by scholars researching Japanese new religious movements “on the ground.”
Material drawn from fieldwork will be analyzed in part using typologies of New Religions proposed recently by Japanese scholars. Direct application of these typologies to the case of the Sōka Gakkai orchestra will demonstrate that while these well-respected models are useful in describing general tendencies, they are less effective if used to characterize the complexities of actual religious experience. Instead, it will be suggested that long-term, engaged research allows for future inquiry into contemporary religion in profound and original directions.