Canadian scholar Levi McLaughlin remembers intensive Sunday rehearsals he had in the early 2000s with a men's orchestra run in Tokyo by the lay-Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai.
Because Soka Gakkai's charismatic leader Daisaku Ikeda is a Beethoven aficionado, the orchestra mainly played Beethoven symphonies. A violinist trained in Toronto, McLaughlin was the only foreigner in the Japanese religious group's music world.
"The rehearsal was from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday, with many hours of Beethoven. Really intensive, amazing training and experience," recalls McLaughlin, the first non-member, non-Japanese researcher to spend years investigating non-elite Soka Gakkai members as well as Komeito, a Japanese political party backed by the group.
"I met one of the violinists and he said, 'Come to the rehearsal,'" McLaughlin, now an assistant professor of religious studies at North Carolina State University, said in a recent interview at his office in Raleigh. "And I ended up playing with them for four and a half years."
McLaughlin was in Japan from 2000 to 2004 to conduct research on Soka Gakkai, a period that included two years of graduate work at the University of Tokyo. He first grew interested in Asian religion during a year of study in 1994 at Kwansei Gakuin University in Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan.
Soka Gakkai is said to be the largest active religion in Japan, with a claimed membership of 8.27 million households in the country. Komeito is the junior coalition partner of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.
McLaughlin, 45, has sought to learn about something missing from most research on Soka Gakkai -- what is everyday life like for ordinary members, and what motivates their religious and political activities?
To answer these questions, he has extended beyond musical engagements to participation in local-level study meetings, gathering rare publications, and conducting interviews with ex-members and adherents from other faiths. His most valuable insights come from long-term relationships with local Soka Gakkai communities.
"I met a very big, very diverse spectrum of Gakkai members through music," said McLaughlin, also a piano player. "When you play music with people, you develop a strong bond. Music really helped me pursue my study of religion from the ground up."
But building ties with the group has not always been easy. Some members tried to convert him and some encouraged him to play a leading role in Soka Gakkai International, the group's overseas umbrella organization that claims more than 1.5 million adherents in 192 countries and territories.
"I was always very clear about my role as a researcher," McLaughlin said. "I told people, 'It's better for Soka Gakkai to have a non-member perspective that reveals the humanity of the members. If I convert to Soka Gakkai, then you don't have that perspective anymore.'"
Referring to Komeito's loss of six seats to 29 in Japan's House of Representatives in the general election last October, he said the setback -- despite the LDP's resounding victory with 284 seats -- may reflect frustration among some Soka Gakkai members about what they perceive as Komeito's compromise on its founding pacifist principles.
They have criticized Komeito since 2015, when the LDP-Komeito coalition ushered in security legislation that allowed for a reinterpretation of the Constitution's war-renouncing Article 9 to enable Japan to exercise limited forms of collective self-defense.
While critics labeled the controversial laws "war legislation," Abe and other proponents described them as necessary steps for boosting deterrence in the face of North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons development, as well as China's military buildup and assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas.
"Some Gakkai members, especially women who have been the engine that powers the religion's peace movement, have rebuked Komeito for abandoning peace advocacy," McLaughlin said.
"You encounter a lot of silent members, people who decide not to vote or go to the polls and instead of voting for Komeito, they may be secretly voting for other parties. It's very difficult to know for sure."
With Abe now calling for increased national debate on a first-ever amendment to the Constitution -- including his proposal to add a reference to the Self-Defense Forces in Article 9 -- Komeito has maintained a cautious stance.
The article's first paragraph says, "The Japanese people forever renounce war," and its second paragraph says Japan will not maintain "land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential" -- meaning that Japan does not technically have a military.
Abe has proposed adding a third paragraph to the article to recognize and legitimize the existence of the SDF. But there is concern that such a move could provoke South Korea and China, both of which suffered from Japan's wartime militarism.
Citing Komeito's position, McLaughlin said the security laws have made it unnecessary for Japan to alter Article 9, and that the majority of the Japanese people do not regard the SDF as unconstitutional. But it is not known whether Komeito can play its claimed role as "an opposition within the coalition" on this contentious issue.
In what he calls "a generation gap," McLaughlin said younger Soka Gakkai members apparently are not as loyal to Komeito as older ones, and that the younger generation will probably be less aggressive in every election about soliciting votes from non-member friends, family and acquaintances.
The most significant shifts may occur after the passing of Ikeda, who is now 90.
"Once Honorary President Ikeda passes away, you may see more criticism of Komeito, especially from younger members," McLaughlin said, arguing there may be a big difference between a Soka Gakkai administrator telling a member "this is what the honorary president wants" and "this is what the honorary president would have wanted."
"It's going to be a very interesting time for Komeito -- and the LDP, whose politicians also rely on Gakkai voters to retain their seats," he said. "And I'm very much committed to following that with my Soka Gakkai friends."