Rise of the Soka Gakkai International

Daisaku Ikeda
(1928 - )

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

Daisaku Ikeda took over as the general director of the Soka Gakkai in 1958. In 1960 he became the third president of the Soka Gakkai. Daisaku Ikeda had joined the Soka Gakkai in 1947 as a member of the Youth Division. In 1949, Ikeda became Toda's secretary. Toda also became his private tutor from 1950 - 1951. In 1954, Ikeda became the chief-of-staff of the Youth Division and thus was a key figure in the shakubuku campaigns of the 1950's. As early as 1951, Toda seemed to be grooming his protege to be the third president of the Soka Gakkai and made remarks to the effect that his successor would come from the Young Men's Division. In Ikeda's inauguration address as the third president of the Soka Gakkai he made it clear that he intended to strengthen the bonds between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood (referring to the High Priest as "His Excellency" and to continue the relentless campaign against "evil religions."
In accordance with the spirit of our first president, Mr. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and the second president, our teacher, Josei Toda, who had loyally dedicated themselves to the head temple, I, representing the entire membership of our organization, pledge even greater loyalty to His Excellency. Soka Gakkai is the greatest ally of the masses. Our enemies are the evil religions. Evil religions drive people to hell. True Buddhism makes Buddhas out of all people. Nichiren Daishonin said the source of all unhappiness and misfortunes of people is evil religion. It was our teacher, Mr. Josei Toda, who repeated this great saying.

With the great spirit of this teacher of ours for destroying the evil religions, we, his pupils must once again fiercely attack them. (Murata, pp. 118-9)
Ikeda continued his predecessor's effort to contribute new facilities to Taisekiji. Through the donations of millions of dollars by Soka Gakkai members, the Grand Reception Hall was built in 1964. In 1965, over 8 million dollars were raised in four days for the building of a Grand Main Temple (Sho-Hondo) where the Daigohonzon of Taisekiji could be displayed for pilgrims from all over the world. The Grand Main Temple was finally completed in 1972. The Grand Main Temple was the largest religious structure in the world and would receive more than 3.5 million pilgrims a year.

Ikeda also continued the Soka Gakkai's involvement in Japanese politics. In fact, under Ikeda, the Soka Gakkai formed its own political party - the Komeito (Clean Government Party) in 1964 and successfully ran 25 candidates in the general election for the House of Representatives. The Komeito also had a total of 20 members in the House of Councilors, and had won many seats in local legislatures. By 1969 the Komeito had become the third largest party after the Liberal Democratic Party and the Social Democratic Party. The Komeito would remain a strong force in Japanese politics for decades to come. In 1993, it even became part of the coalition which temporarily dethroned the LDP. Following the disastrous defeat of that coalition, the Komeito disbanded. However, it reformed as the New Komeito in 1998 and resumed its place as the third strongest party in Japanese politics. Given the Soka Gakkai's previously stated goal of establishing Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism as the state religion, the Komeito's rising strength made many Japanese afraid that the Soka Gakkai's ambitions were being realized.

In fact, the Komeito was to change its nature as an extension of the Soka Gakkai sooner than expected. In 1970, the year after it became the third largest political party in the House of Representatives, the so-called "freedom of press incident" occurred, exposing the close relationship that the Komeito enjoyed with the Soka Gakkai to public criticism. Komeito party officials allegedly tried to obstruct the publication of a book that was critical of the Soka Gakkai and the Komeito. The Komeito flatly denied the allegations, and the details of the case remain unsubstantiated. However, the incident prompted the Komeito to shed its religious identity and become an "open" party that enjoys more widespread support of the Japanese people. Serious steps were taken with a view to severing ties between politics and religion, as proven in the amendment to the party's program and party regulations, and as reflected in the subsequent reorganization of party alliances and positions in the opposition. First, regarding the new party principles and program, all Buddhist doctrinal terminology, which abounded in the original version, disappeared. Policies were proposed in a more concrete form. For example, regarding the constitution, which is not even mentioned in the original document, the amended version declares, "Our party shall uphold the Japanese Constitution...and shall not only protect fundamental human rights, but also seek to secure fundamental social rights," clearly indicating its new orientation as a secular, non-religious party. Furthermore, Komeito's participation in the realignment of opposition party alliances became a serious option, hitherto impossible as long as it adhered to the religious tenets of the Soka Gakkai. As for the Gakkai, it officially renounced the idea of a national sanctuary in 1970, which had been one of its religious themes. In its relationship with the Komeito, it decided upon clear guidelines not to appoint party representatives to leadership positions in the Soka Gakkai, and to dissociate itself completely from personnel affairs, candidacy decisions, finances, and management of the party. (Machaceck & Wilson, pp. 116-117)

Though the Soka Gakkai officially renounced the establishment of a state sponsored Precept Platform in 1970, both the Nichiren Shoshu and the Soka Gakkai had actually been moving towards a new understanding of how the Precept Platform was to be established for some time. As early as February 16, 1965, in a sermon given at the first meeting of the Sho-Hondo Construction Committee, High Priest Nittatsu declared that the new Grand Main Temple (Sho-Hondo) would be the Precept Platform of the Essential Teaching. This view was then taken up by Ikeda over the next few years, most notably on October 12, 1968 at the ground breaking ceremony for the Sho-Hondo. This was made the official view of the Nichiren Shoshu by High Priest Nittatu on April 28, 1972. In the Admonition he gave that day, High Priest Nittatsu stated,
The Sho-Hondo is the actual High Sanctuary of True Buddhism (ji no kaidan) of this time, which contains the significance described in On the Three Great Secret Laws and the Minobu Transfer Document. The Sho-Hondo is a supreme edifice that should be the High Sanctuary of Honmon-ji (Temple of True Buddhism) at the time of kosen-rufu. (Issues Vol. 3, p.132)
So as early as 1965, the view that the Precept Platform of the Essential Teaching had to be established by the government had changed. By 1972, it was the official view of the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu that the Precept Platform of the Essential Teaching had been established with the completion of the Sho-Hondo and the enshrinement of the Dai-Gohonzon within it. The government mandate was no longer required. In fact, the previous goal of converting the entire Japanese nation in order to get a mandate from the people had also been changed. In it's place was the concept of the "300,000 of Shravasti" (Jap: Shae no san-oku). The "300,000 of Shravasti" referred to the one-third of the population of the kingdom of Shravasti which took faith in the Buddha's teachings when the Buddha lived and taught there. In Ikeda's own words:
The membership of our association now far exceeds five million families [as of July 1965]. There is a formula called Shae no san-oku concerning the country of Shae, which was known in the Buddha's lifetime as the country most closely related to him in all of India. That is to say, in the Shae of those years, one-third of its people saw and heard the Buddha and believed in him. Another one-third saw the Buddha but did not hear him preach. The remaining one-third, it is said, neither saw nor heard the Buddha.

If we are to apply this formula to our program of kosen rufu and of realizing obutsu myogo, it would mean as follows: if one-third of the population of Japan became members of Soka Gakkai and another third, though not gaining our faith, supported Komeito, and the remaining third opposed espousing our faith, it would mean virtual kosen rufu. We can realize obutsu myogo by attaining a Shae no san-oku [in Japan]... (Murata, pp. 130-131)
Aside from religion and politics, Ikeda also expanded the Soka Gakkai's involvement in culture and education. Beginning in 1964, the Soka Gakkai began establishing elementary schools, primary schools, and secondary schools. Soka University was founded in 1971 and Soka University of America in 1987. The interest in education and the application of Makiguchi's educational theories were very much in keeping with the Soka Gakkai's origins. In addition, the Soka Gakkai founded the Min'on Concert Association and the Min'en Theatrical Association. Over the years, the Soka Gakkai would sponsor or begin many other cultural and educational projects and exhibits.

The Soka Gakkai also began to expand outside of Japan under the presidency of Ikeda. In 1960, Ikeda made his first trip to the United States, Canada, and Brazil. The number of Soka Gakkai members in the United States grew dramatically during the 60's and 70's as the result of the efforts of Japanese war brides and students who were members of the Soka Gakkai living in U.S. A young student named Masayasu Sadanaga was especially instrumental in organizing the propagation efforts in the U.S. and in 1963 Ikeda made him the national director of the Nichiren Shoshu Academy (which would later be renamed Nichiren Shoshu of America). In 1972, Masayasu Sadanaga changed his name to George M. Williams in order to better assimilate himself to American culture. The NSA followed suit in the diversity of its members which soon represented a cross-section of American ethnic groups, classes, and educational levels, though the Japanese provided the core membership and leadership for quite some time. And despite the counter-culture movement which enabled it to grow, the NSA did not shy away from embracing patriotic displays in its conventions and in its participation in various public events and parades. Despite its solidly Japanese practice of chanting in Sino-Japanese, the NSA became the most well assimilated and diverse of all forms of American Buddhism, a fact which is noted to this day. NSA's growth was also remarkable for a group consisting primarily of American converts as opposed to immigrants from Buddhist cultures. Santa Barbara sociologists Phillip Hammond and David Machaceck estimate that the NSA grew from 4,000 members in 1965 to over 35,000 members by the end of the century. (Hammond & Machaceck, p.42)

With the completion of the Grand Main Temple in 1972, the Soka Gakkai was at its peak strength. Even though there was no government or popular mandate by the Japanese people, High Priest Nittatsu had declared the Grand Main Temple the actual Precept Platform of the Essential Teaching. Through the efforts of the Soka Gakkai it appeared that the third of Nichiren's Three Great Secret Dharmas (Honzon, Daimoku, and Kaidan) had finally been concretely established. Nittatsu and Ikeda seemed to be of one mind, and the cooperation and harmony between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu was at the highest point it would ever reach. The Soka Gakkai estimated that it's membership had reached 7.5 million households (though outside estimates put it at around 3.75 million - see Machaceck & Wilson, pp.100-101) and the Komeito remained a formidable force in Japanese politics. A university and various other cultural institutions had been established by this time as well to round out the Soka Gakkai's accomplishments. The Soka Gakkai was even experiencing phenomenal growth overseas in the Americas, Europe, and other parts of Asia. In 1975, the Soka Gakkai International was formed in order to unify the various overseas branches under the umbrella of a single international movement.

The Split

In 1977, however, the relationship between the Soka Gakkai leadership and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood began to break down. Due to statements made by Ikeda and the change of the gongyo prayers to include references to the Soka Gakkai, the Nichiren Shoshu priests were angered that the Soka Gakkai seemed to be equating itself with the third of the Three Treasure, the priesthood. On June 30, 1978, the Soka Gakkai printed an article entitled "Basic Questions of Study" in its newspaper, the Seikyo Shinbun. In the article, the Soka Gakkai repented of its deviations and pledged to follow the Nichiren Shoshu teachings. Specifically the article reaffirmed the doctrine of kechimyaku, which means "lifeblood" of faith. According to the Nichiren Shoshu, the heritage of the Dharma can only be preserved for all mankind through a person-to-person transmission among the successive high priests:
Therefore to embrace the Gohonzon inscribed and transmitted by the successive high priests is the correct way of faith and becomes the basis for Kechimyaku in the more general sense. We wish to confirm here the difference between the specific transmission of the Law and the general lifeblood of faith. (as translated in the World Tribune, February 5, 1979)
The priesthood, however, were further angered in 1978 when the Soka Gakkai allegedly made unauthorized copies of the Gohonzon for their community centers. The Soka Gakkai insists to this day that they had received approval from Nittatsu for them. In any case, seven of eight were returned except for one that Nittatu's granted them permission to keep at Soka Gakkai Headquarters. On November 11 of that year at a leaders meeting at Taisekiji, Hiroshi Hojo, the general director, made the following statement:
In this vein, we, the Soka Gakkai, frankly admit the next two points: 1) The fundamental principles that the Soka Gakkai must follow through as the lay organization of Nichiren Shoshu were somehow disregarded during the last several years in its orientation, in its direction of advance and in its application of Nichiren Daishonin's teachings. 2) The attitude the Soka Gakkai took toward Nichiren Shoshu last year was out of bounds. We, executives of the Soka Gakkai, deeply apologize for these two points. (World Tribune, February 5, 1979)
The Nichiren Shoshu priesthood and its original lay organization, the Hokkeko, however, were still not satisfied with the Soka Gakkai's apologies and were not convinced that the Soka Gakkai had changed its attitudes. In March 1979, the Hokkeko began pressuring Ikeda to resign as chief lay representative of Nichiren Shoshu. In April, Ikeda stepped down as president of Soka Gakkai and as chief lay representative of Nichiren Shoshu. In his place, Hiroshi Hojo became the fourth president of the Soka Gakkai. Ikeda, however, became the honorary president of Soka Gakkai and the president of Soka Gakkai International. In May at the 40th Soka Gakkai Headquarters general meeting, Nittatsu delivered a speech of reconciliation and a plea for cooperation and harmony between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood and the Hokkeko. In July, Nittatsu passed away and by August Nikken Abe had become the 67th High Priest of Nichiren Shoshu.

The problems had not been resolved to the satisfaction of all the priests however. Even as early as 1970, a group of priests called the Myoshinko (or Myokankai) had protested the declaration of the Grand Main Temple as the Precept Platform of the Essential Teaching. They insisted that the Precept Platform must be established by the government as a national sanctuary. In 1974 they were expelled from Nichiren Shoshu by Nittatsu. These nationalist priests later renamed themselves the Kenshokai.

In 1980, a new schism erupted when a group of priests formed the Shoshinkai. Their objective was to promote direct membership with the temples and to weaken or abolish the power of the Soka Gakkai in Nichiren Shoshu. When they were rebuked for their attacks on the Soka Gakkai by Nikken, the Shoshinkai began to attack the legitimacy of his succession as well. Between 1981 and 1983, Nikken expelled 180 of the Shoshinkai priests in the second schism within the ranks of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood over the Soka Gakkai in a decade.

The relationship between the Soka Gakkai and the Nichiren Shoshu was fairly harmonious during the rest of the 80's. Ikeda was even reappointed as the chief lay representative of Nichiren Shoshu on January 2, 1984. This peace would not last however. During 1990 the tensions between the two groups erupted again, resulting in the dismissal of Ikeda as the chief lay representative of Nichiren Shoshu in December. Throughout 1991 the accusations and recriminations between the Nichiren Shoshu and the Soka Gakkai intensified. On November 8, 1991, the Nichiren Shoshu demanded that the Soka Gakkai disband. When the Soka Gakkai refused and instead intensified its criticisms of Nikken and the actions of the priesthood, the Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated the Soka Gakkai en masse on November 28. In response, the Soka Gakkai sent a petition with 16.25 million names demanding the resignation of Nikken as High Priest. The next year, on August 11, 1992, the Nichiren Shoshu personally excommunicated Ikeda from the Nichiren Shoshu. On October 2, 1993 the Soka Gakkai began to issue its own Gohonzons, using one originally transcribed by Nichikan, the 26th High Priest of Nichiren Shoshu. On November 30, 1997, the Nichiren Shoshu excommunicated the actual members of Soka Gakkai who refused to leave the organization to join the Hokkeko. On April 5, 1998, Nikken secretly transferred the Dai-Gohonzon from the Grand Main Temple to the Hoanden and on June 23 began the demolition of the Grand Main Temple. The seeming fulfillment of the establishment of Precept Platform of the Essential Teaching by Daisaku Ikeda was over. The grand symbol of the former unity between the Nichiren Shoshu and the Soka Gakkai was demolished and there would be no turning back.

As of 2001, the Soka Gakkai still continues its official policy of fighting to destroy what it perceives as the evil and corruption of the priesthood and what it perceives as Nikken's betrayal of Nichiren Daishonin. The Soka Gakkai has also made itself self-sufficient in that it now performs its own wedding, funerals, and Gohonzon conferrals. It has also been taking a more ecumenical stance towards other religions and even other Buddhist groups (except for the Nichiren Shoshu) in its efforts to broaden its appeal and establish legitimacy with the academic community and the mainstream of Buddhism. The Soka Gakkai's doctrines also seem to be in flux, with several key elements of Nichiren Shoshu teachings being rejected or reevaluated and others retained. One things is for certain, it has rejected the doctrines relating to the priesthood, the High Priests, and even some if not all of the teachings relating to the Daigohonzon. The teaching that Nichiren is the True Buddha has also been downplayed if not changed. It remains to be seen how deep and far reaching these doctrinal changes will become. The Soka Gakkai claims to have 8 million members in Japan and 300,000 in the U.S., but more conservative estimates put the Japanese membership at 4 million and the U.S. membership at just under 36,000 in 1997.

The Nichiren Shoshu has not succeeded in drawing away the vast majority of Soka Gakkai members, and several score of its priests have actually left the Nichiren Shoshu. Some priests have even defected to the Soka Gakkai and are known as the domei priests. However, the Hokkeko continues to thrive in a modest way now that it can directly promote direct temple membership. The Nichiren Shoshu and Hokkeko in general have been withdrawing from the fight and seem to be taking a more reclusive stance.

Due to the efforts of Josei Toda and Daisaku Ikeda, the Nichiren Shoshu teachings have spread throughout the world. Even in Japan, Nichiren Buddhism is almost always associated with the Soka Gakkai. Outside of Japan, the Nichiren Shoshu teachings as promoted by the Soka Gakkai are assumed to be the normative form of Nichiren Buddhism, an assumption held even by many within academia. With a handful of exceptions, Western scholars and writers do not seem to be aware of the other schools of Nichiren Buddhism in Japan or of the standards of Nichiren Buddhist scholarship set by Rissho University, nor is there any sign of interest in a deeper understanding of Nichiren Buddhism which is seen as a popularized or even nationalistic form of Buddhism with no real substance. Though the phenomenal growth of the Soka Gakkai seems to have peaked in the early 70's, it would still be safe to say that outside of Asia, and excluding immigrants from Buddhist countries, the majority of actively practicing Buddhists are or once were members of Soka Gakkai. Nichiren Buddhism, as defined by the Soka Gakkai, has succeeded in becoming a form of Buddhism known and practiced all over the world. It remains to be seen how long it will survive outside of Japan beyond the current generation of practitioners, and it remains to be seen if any of the other more traditional forms of Nichiren Buddhism will ever gain as wide a following.


Bethel, Dayle M. Makiguchi the Value Creator: Revolutionary Japanese Educator and Founder of Soka Gakkai. New York: Weatherhill, 1994.

Hammond, Phillip & Machacek, David. Soka Gakkai in America: Accomodation and Conversion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Machacek, David & Wilson, Bryan. Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhist Movement in the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Montgomery, Daniel B. Fire in the Lotus: The Dynamic Buddhism of Nichiren. London: Mandala, 1991.

Murata, Kiyoaki. Japan's New Buddhism: An Objective Account of Soka Gakkai. New York: Walker/Weatherhill, 1969.

SGI-USA Study Department. The Untold Story of the Fuji School: The True Story of Nichiren Shoshu. Santa Monica: The World Tribune Press, 2000.

White, James W. The Soka Gakkai and Mass Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970.

Internet Resources

  • www.cebunet.com/sgi/histsplit.htm
  • www.sokaspirit.com/chronol.htm
  • www.sokaspirit.com/overvie.htm
  • ww2.netnitco.net/users/jqpublic/let2ed.html
  • Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2001.

    More articles by Ryuei:
    Life of Nikko
    Life of Nichiren
    The Fuji Lineage

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