A Japanese Buddhist Award for Peace

By Jill Carr-Harris

Being invited from India by the Niwano Peace Foundation (NPF) to Japan to receive an international peace prize by a Buddhist organization was indeed a rare honour. The NPF was meticulous, employing a diverse panel of jurors free from political or ideological prejudices to select the candidate. Their final decision was reached after numerous confidential deliberations and discussions, reflecting the quintessential Japanese practice of maintaining fairness and neutrality through detailed, collective decision-making.

This year, the Foundation’s fortieth year, the prestigious accolade was awarded to Gandhian worker Rajagopal, P.V. As his life partner and co-peacebuilder, I was able to vicariously bask in his (our) glory. Over six days, we presented our work to multiple civil society groups and various Japanese audiences. We spent three enlightening days interacting with the organization conferring the Niwano Prize, the Rissho Kosei Kai (Society for Establishing Righteousness and Friendly Relations) and learning about their mission and work.

Members of the Rissho Kosei Kai are devotedly focused on world peace, embodying their Buddhist teachings in a discreet yet committed manner. Originating from the Reiyukai Buddhist movement, which is part of the Nicheran School of Mahayana Buddhism, this group was established by Rev. Nikkyo Niwano and his wife Myoko Naganuma in 1938.

Their legacy has continued through their son and granddaughter, Kosho Ni-wano, the current President Designate who is driving numerous programs. During our encounter, she emphasized the importance of incorporating Buddha’s Lotus Sutra teachings into personal lives and societal development as a method for promoting global peace.

The Rissho Kosei Kai, however, is open to other methods for promoting world peace. They advocate for the coming together of different religious groups for this common cause, evident in their initiative of setting up Religions for Peace (RfP) chapters in 90 countries over the past seventy years. They have carried forward the peace initiatives started by their founder at the Second Vatican Council alongside Pope John XXIII. The organization is also actively pushing for nuclear disarmament, a subject that is becoming increasingly contentious in Japan.

They draw immense inspiration from Gandhi and have a keen interest in learning from other peace actors. Rajagopal’s experience with marginalized communities and long marches to influence policymakers provided valuable insights to the members of Rissho Kosei Kai on Gandhian nonviolent social action. This was of benefit to them and simultaneously brought greater recognition to the Gandhian community and civil society actors in India.

Our time with the Niwano Peace Foundation and Rissho Kosei Kai allowed us a profound glimpse into Japanese society, its developmental priorities, and its peace-making methods. I have identified three key lessons from this experience, which I will elaborate on below.

First, Japan is at a crossroads concerning its pacifist stance. As new threats emerge in the Pacific region, the country is rearming itself despite its post-war pacifist Constitution. This is causing a divide between civil society and the government.

Second, Japanese society’s inclination towards a rule-based order was evident. They have a unique way of bringing together advanced technological development with good values. Schools, civil society organizations, and other public institutions operate with a culture of peace deeply rooted in their structures.

Third, Japan and India share a unique nonviolence agenda. Both these traditional Asian cultures share the idea that within the overall development, there needs to be peace using nonviolence as a means. This common value augments the potential for future collaboration.
I will now delve deeper into each of these lessons learned.


The Japanese Government has taken steps to re-arm itself after over seven decades, responding to a complex security landscape involving China, North Korea, and Russia. Article 9 of its post-war Constitution stipulates a renunciation of war and an unwavering commitment to self-defence (shensu boei), prohibiting any acts of aggression.

In 2015, the government, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, broadened this self-defence concept to encompass escalating counter-attack measures when Japan’s survival was at stake. Consequently, the Japanese Government is set to amplify its defense spending by 56.5% (to 43 trillion yen) over the next five years, becoming the third-largest defense budget behind the US and China.

Prime Minister Kishida is gathering conventional arms while insisting that there can be no nuclear weapons buildup. Originating from Hiroshima, Kishida holds vivid memories of the nuclear disaster from his youth.

The recent G-7 Summit held in Hiroshima highlighted the threats of nuclear war to Western leaders. On May 19th, the G7 leaders unveiled their “Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament”. This statement, however, seemed to embolden them to critique Russia’s threat of using tactical nuclear weapons without considering the realities of NATO forces, which have tactical nuclear weapons stationed in five NATO countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, while the UK and France possess their nuclear weapons. The 2017 UN Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, supported by 90 member states, has thus far failed to curb the military buildup in Europe.

Akira Kawasaki, the Co-Representative of Peace Boat and an Executive Board Member of ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), said:

“Japanese citizens and particularly the survivors of the atomic bomb attacks have been let down by Prime Minister Kishida – by hosting the summit in Hiroshima he raised expectations, but has not delivered any substantive progress on getting rid of nuclear weapons.”

In the April-June 2010 issue of the Rissho Kosei Kai’s quarterly journal, Dharma World: Living Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue, Hiromichi Um-beayashi wrote a prophetic article:

“The thinking that Japan must rely on nuclear arms has deep roots in the nation’s defense and diplomatic establishments. There is, however a countervailing force – the endeavour to abolish nuclear weapons by a nation that has firsthand experience of nuclear devastation”.

According to Buddhism, nuclear weapons represent the extreme manifestation of life’s most malevolent tendencies, seeking to rob others of their existence. This view aligns with most religious traditions, including the Gandhian fraternity in India.


A striking feature of Japan is the harmonious coexistence of technological advancement with cultural and spiritual values. Politeness and respectfulness are common cultural norms, with bowing as a symbol of humility embedded in people’s upbringing. This cultural practice extends to a high standard of cleanliness maintained even in crowded public spaces. In contrast, in India, rule-following is not a cultural norm.

Rissho Kosei Kai, with approximately 1.14 million household members, runs 238 Dharma centers in Japan, a co-ed school, a girls’ college, and a hospital. The foundation of their teachings rests on values of empathy and compassion, or omoiyari, highlighting the importance of understanding and considering others’ perspectives, needs, and emotions.

We noticed that the Japanese strictly adhere to rules and prefer known environments. When these norms are breached, problems may arise. In India, where we live, people are always looking for ways to circumvent rules. This Japanese cultural habit of rule-based behaviour makes it easier for everyone to have equal access. This is preferable to allowing deviant individuals to capture all the space for themselves.

We found the Japanese infrastructure consistently high in quality, even in the most remote areas. Its modernity contrasts with the preservation of numerous 14th century temples and shrines such as Daitokuji in Kyoto.

Japan has managed to maintain an ethnically uniform population, albeit challenged by the existence of indigenous groups like the Ainu people. The Ainu’s language and culture have been severely eroded due to assimilation, with their lands and resources appropriated by Japanese settlers. Their nature-based livelihoods are dying out. There are many parallels to the situation faced by Adivasis in India.


A common nonviolence principle, rooted in Buddhism for Japan and Gandhi’s teachings for India, is integral to both countries’ development paths. So, it is easy to conceive of collaborative projects in future that strengthen Indo-Japanese relations. Organisations like Rissho Kosei Kai use Buddha’s teachings to foster a nonviolent, advanced society grounded in enlightened values. Gandhi was able to illustrate in his lifetime that violence is not only in individuals and in the political arena, but it is also in economic, cultural and educational policies and organizations. Gandhi’s core principle – “thinking of the poorest” – was foundational for creating inclusive nonviolent development.

Prominent figures like Sadako Ogata, the Former President of JICA and UN Commissioner for Refugees, and J.C. Kumarappa, Mahatma Gandhi’s economist, have alike advocated for livelihood creation at the grassroots level and a holistic approach to nonviolence that permeates political, economic, cultural, and educational arenas. Many in civil society in India continue this practice, in what is called “nonviolent economy”. This, like the emphasis on human security, is a way of building peace into development through nonviolence.

In closing, we extend our gratitude to those we met in Japan for their time and insights into Japanese society and our discussions of future collaborative opportunities.

Dr. Jill Carr-Harris has worked with civil society organizations for over forty years at the United Nations, and in Canada, India, Philippines and Bangladesh. She is currently at the International Gandhi Initiatives for Nonviolence and Peace in Southern India.

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