Soka Renaissance Vanguard in competition (Tokyo, January 2004)

The Music Corps (Ongakutai) was founded in Japan as a part of the Soka Gakkai in May 1954. As the group celebrates its 50th anniversary, it looks back on a history of remarkable development. Originally composed of a handful of volunteers who played principally to brighten up Soka Gakkai meetings, the Music Corps now comprises some 20,000 members throughout Japan. From its original brass and marching band orientation, the Music Corps has expanded its scope to include choral, symphonic and, most recently, folkloric and ethnic musical genres. Concerts and performances are given in public venues ranging from sports stadiums to nursing homes.

Three years before the Music Corps’s founding, Josei Toda had been inaugurated as the organization’s second president. Toda immediately initiated efforts to bring a Buddhist message of empowerment to a population still reeling from the devastation of World War II. Within the organization’s youth membership, in particular, there was a hunger for some form of cultural and musical expression. Daisaku Ikeda, later the organization’s third president, spearheaded efforts to encourage a love of music in these young people.

In an important sense, the early efforts of the Music Corps represent the first steps of the Soka Gakkai to move beyond the traditional confines of a religious focus to embrace a broader commitment to the ideals of peace, culture and education.

Courage and Hope Through Music

related article Make Me Sound Amazing: Lessons in Life and Leadership Make Me Sound Amazing: Lessons in Life and Leadership by James Greening What being a jazz musician and a Buddhist taught James Greening about leadership. Despite its growth, the Music Corps has kept the amateur flavor that gives its activities their unique aspect. The vast majority of the young people active in the different choruses, orchestras and bands that make up the Music Corps have no professional musical training. The key qualification for membership is the desire to make music and a willingness to take on challenges. Teachers, accountants and salespeople by day, the members gather on evenings and weekends for rehearsals that can run for up to 12 hours. For the Renaissance Vanguard marching band, finding venues that can accommodate the complex movements and full auditory output of up to 100 performers is a constant challenge.

For a period of five years, the Yamagata Music Corps participated in events held in support of people with disabilities. They currently offer visiting concerts in nursing homes for the elderly. One of the staff of such a home spoke of being deeply moved to see residents, some of whom had not smiled for years, clapping happily in time to a live performance. “I truly felt the power of music to enrich and refresh the heart.”

In Kansai in western Japan, Nobuya Kuninaka was determined to put the spirit of social contribution he had learned through Music Corps activities into action. As owner-operator of a company that processes waste materials, he made efforts to increase the percentage of materials being recycled. In 2000, his became one of the first companies in its field to meet international standards for ISO 14001 certification for environmental management.

Soka Renaissance Vanguard Junior band holding a public parade

Dedicated individual efforts have generated collective success: since 1997, the Soka Renaissance Vanguard Drum and Brass Corps has been voted Japan’s top marching band seven years in a row. Akihiko Inada is the vice representative for the Music Corps: “As the top marching band, other groups are interested in what we are doing. But our rehearsals are always open. We’re proud to think that we’ve spurred greater interest in marching bands in Japan, helping encourage the development of that form of culture. Mostly, though, we want to create music that offers people courage and hope.”

[Courtesy July 2004 SGI Quarterly]

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