TOKYO -- Whether Japan's ruling coalition retains power after the June 25 election may depend on the success of candidates like Otohiko Endo in convincing voters that he is not a religious zealot.
Endo is a member of a political party created by a somewhat shadowy and controversial Buddhist sect, and the emergence of the party as a cornerstone in Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori's three-party ruling coalition has unnerved some Japanese voters.
On a recent afternoon, Endo sat with a small group of voters in the living room of a home in Tokyo's Ota ward and talked about how his New Komeito party is working to lower the monthly fee the elderly must pay for nursing care insurance.
He pointed out that Komeito recently pressed successfully for an extension of family subsidies for children up to 6 years old. He promised to get a seaweed museum built to honor the role that harvesting seaweed once played in the ward's livelihood.
Endo is representative of his party's effort to shed its image as the political arm of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization with 8 million followers in Japan and another 2 million overseas, including 300,000 in the United States.
"Of course I'm inspired by the ideas of Buddhism," said Endo, 53, a former diplomat who has represented Ota ward for the past 10 years. "But I'm not in the position of promoting the interests of Soka Gakkai. We have no institutional or legal relationship."
Komeito, a liberal, populist party established in 1964 by Soka Gakkai, advocates such things as free textbooks, help for small businesses and last year's voucher giveaway to help increase consumer spending.
But the public is wary of Soka Gakkai because of its history of aggressive proselytizing, its reverence for the sect's leader, Daisaku Ikeda, and its ability to mobilize millions of votes.
Former prime minister Keizo Obuchi's move bringing the party into a coalition government last fall--to secure a majority in the upper chamber, the House of Councillors-- turned the spotlight again on Komeito's tie to Soka Gakkai.
Some say Komeito's presence in the government violates the constitution, which prohibits religious organizations from exercising political power. They question whether Komeito is a party for ordinary people, as it says, or a party to further the interests of Soka Gakkai, as its critics assert.
The sect does not aspire to political power and does not promote a Buddhist state, its spokesmen say. Komeito is more coy about its goals. To be a ruling party is "not the final goal, just the means," said Endo. "The final goal is how we can promote our political ideas based on Buddhism--peace, human rights, environment, welfare, education."
Komeito--now formally known as New Komeito--holds 48 seats in the 500-member lower chamber, the House of Representatives, making it the third most powerful party in the Diet after the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Soka Gakkai supporters form its political strength; over the years, Komeito has attracted few of Japan's large and crucial number of independent voters.
Next month's election for the lower house is partly a popularity test of the ruling coalition made up of the Liberal Democrats, New Komeito and the Conservative Party, the smaller third member.
Fifty-one percent of the people polled this month were uncomfortable with Komeito's role in government, and critics call it an "unprincipled alliance." Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, described it this week as a "dishonest" coalition, formed just for the sake of gaining a ruling majority.
The Liberal Democrats and Komeito are now in such a close embrace that when Mori told a Shinto group that Japan was a divine nation centered on the emperor, the Buddhist-backed Komeito simply asked for an apology, while other parties howled in protest.
Meanwhile, Soka Gakkai and Komeito are trying hard to convince voters that they are not one and the same.
"We will endorse Komeito depending on its policy," said Kunishige Maeda, vice president of Soka Gakkai. "We are encouraging Komeito to be independent."
As an example, Endo said he is often criticized by Soka Gakkai members for his role in supporting such policies as Japan's $9 billion contribution to the Persian Gulf War, or its participation in peacekeeping operations.
"They are promoting the idea of peace," he said. "But as a politician I have to see hard realities. We have to start from reality, step by step, to achieve peace. So there's a big gap between just promoting peace, peace."
Masao Okkotsu, author of a book examining Komeito and Soka Gakkai, says his research shows that every decision the party makes is based on permission given by Soka Gakkai. "I can almost certainly say that whatever it seems on the surface, there are no cracks between Soka Gakkai and Komeito."
The danger of Soka Gakkai, he said, is that its religious dogma is intolerant and based on the belief that the group must expand its control of society.
Ikeda, the honorary president of Soka Gakkai, is such a controversial figure in Japan that he makes most of his public appearances abroad. He is described as wielding absolute control over the organization and as encouraging his own deification. Yet he is also said to have discouraged the hard-sell tactics, such as smashing the relics of other religions, that characterized its proselytizing in earlier years, and to have opened the door to interfaith dialogue.
Soka Gakkai, which means Value Creation Society, was founded in the 1930s and grew rapidly during the desolation of the years immediately after World War II. It describes its goal as combining happiness of the individual with prosperity of all society, and it initially targeted the less affluent. But despite its benign philosophy, Soka Gakkai is still viewed with suspicion by many people.
"Among my friends, if I talk about Komeito and they don't like Soka Gakkai, they don't support our party," said Setsuke Otake, 52, who was among the group of voters listening to Endo recently. "They read only about the bad reputation of Soka Gakkai in the media."
Chizuko Osaki, 60, said she was raised in a poor family. "It was hard for my mother to buy textbooks. I learned it was Komeito that got the law passed to make textbooks free."
Few in the group were members of Soka Gakkai. Most had supported Komeito in previous elections. Trying to reach voters who are not members of Soka Gakkai is the key element of Endo's election strategy, because under electoral reform Endo will run this time in a single-seat district and needs nearly twice as many votes to retain his Diet seat as he did under the previous proportional system.
"The image of Soka Gakkai used to be very militant," said Kazue Ogawa, 68, who runs a tobacco shop and whose family used to harvest seaweed. "Now they are much softer. They are active in helping others."