SŌKA GAKKAI is a large religious organization that rapidly increased its strength after World War II. Official membership figures in December 2003 included approximately 8,210,000 households in Japan and 1,502,000 individuals in other countries. Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (1871–1944), the founder of Sōka Gakkai, was a primary school teacher who sought to establish an educational movement based on a new educational method. In 1928 Makiguchi became a follower of an exclusive subsect of the Nichiren sect of Buddhism, which promoted the merger of his educational and religious movements. In 1930 Makiguchi and Toda Jōsei (1900–1958), his chief disciple, published Sōka Kyoikugaku Taikei (The system of value-creating pedagogy). By 1941 the number of sympathizers had increased to approximately two thousand; at this time the activities of the Sōka Kyoiku Gakkai were inseparable from the activities of lay groups belonging to the Nichiren Shōshū sect. The movement was disbanded in 1943 by the government, but in 1945 it resumed activities under a new name: Sōka Gakkai. The decade of the 1930s was a period of consolidation; 1945 marked the resumption of previous activities; and the 1950s and 1960s were decades of explosive growth.
Makiguchi Tsunesaburo, while serving as a primary school teacher and principal, sought a type of education that would lead his pupils to voluntarily make efforts to develop their abilities and live a better life. After his efforts failed in a public school setting, he began to search for religious values upon which he could realize his ideal form of education. The deaths of family members led him to Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism, a lay-oriented and people-centered subsect of Nichiren Buddhism. Makiguchi embraced the idea that the nation would be saved by true Buddhism and that every person could be a bearer of belief and could guide others to salvation. Sōka Gakkai succeeded in developing a modern Nichiren Buddhism with the goal of enhancing the well-being of people in this world through their self-reforming efforts.
Before its explosive expansion period, its predecessor Sōka Kyoiku Gakkai suffered severe persecution. Makiguchi was jailed in 1943 for refusing to venerate the symbol of the Ise Shrine. He died in prison in 1944. Only twenty or so persons attended the service for the one-year memorial of his death in November 1945.
In 1951 Toda Jōsei reactivated the movement under the new name Sōka Gakkai and became its second president. The membership soon increased to five thousand. By 1956, Toda's long-cherished desire to obtain 750,000 households as followers had been achieved. Toda died in 1958 and was succeeded in 1960 by Ikeda Daisaku (b. 1928). Sōka Gakkai reported that its membership had reached three million households in 1962, and 7.5 million households in 1970. This period marked the peak of its growth.
The main religious practice of Sōka Gakkai followers is the chanting of the Daimoku, a repetition of "Nam-Myōhō-renge-kyō " ("the Lotus Sūtra is the important and superb sūtra"), chanted while facing a holy maṇḍala chart upon which this phrase is written. Called Gohonzon (the sacred object for worship), it is believed that Nichiren designated this chart as the sacred image of the dharma. Through this practice, followers can become united with the Buddha and live a happy life in which the eternal life of the Buddha is embodied. Sōka Gakkai changed the focus of traditional Buddhism from enlightenment and salvation in another world to a focus that is more oriented toward this world.
Sōka Gakkai emphasizes group activities and meetings ranging from small neighborhood gatherings to mass assemblies. During Sōka Gakkai's initial development period, small gatherings called roundtable meetings were held at followers' homes. At a meeting, members study the teachings of the leaders, report on their religiously interpreted daily practices, and mutually encourage one another's efforts. Reports that an individual has succeeded in his or her life thanks to Sōka Gakkai practices are praised by other members with a clapping of hands. Members discuss personal problems and comment on their experience of having participated in a joint program. A sense of community is nurtured in this way. Sōka Gakkai seeks to effect a human revolution by enhancing individual and societal well-being.
Having begun as an educational movement, Sōka Gakkai became a religious organization heavily engaged in society. Utilizing the democratic representative system of government in Japan, Sōka Gakkai members stood for election at all levels. The traditional doctrine of Nichiren Buddhism included a mission to save the state and the world through the wisdom of Buddhist Dharma. This tradition was lost during the Edo period (1603–1867), but it was revived in Japan's modernization process and was later united with nationalism.
The various movements for national salvation initiated by Nichiren Buddhists in modern Japan can be summarized as Nichirenism. Sōka Gakkai developed the mission of modern Nichirenism most effectively in postwar Japan. Sōka Gakkai leaders believed that one way to save Japan would be to increase Sōka Gakkai's influence gradually in the national parliament and local assemblies by winning many seats and by advocating policies based on such concepts as Buddhist democracy, Buddhist neutralism, the Third Civilization, and so on. By 1955, Sōka Gakkai had won several seats in local assemblies; three members were elected to the House of Councilors in 1956. Initially, the goal was to make Nichiren Shōshū the national religion. However, in 1964, the Kōmei Party (Kōmeitō) was established to separate the political activities from the religious activities of Sōka Gakkai. In 1970 it was disclosed that Sōka Gakkai had prevented the proposed publication of a book criticizing the movement. As a result the group was exposed to fierce public criticism. Sōka Gakkai was forced to make a public commitment to follow the rule of "separation of politics and religion" by structurally separating the Kōmei Party from the Sōka Gakkai religious organization and forbidding a person from holding office in both organizations.
As membership peaked in Japan, Sōka Gakkai made inroads into other countries and saw remarkable growth outside Japan. In the United States, an initial group was formed in 1960; it developed rapidly, reporting a membership of 200,000 in 1970. After the 1970s, as the Sōka Gakkai expanded in many regions of the world, it began to place its weight behind peace movements and United Nations activities. Sōka Gakkai was authorized as an NGO (nongovernmental organization) with advisory status to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1981 and to the United Nations Information Office in 1982. The third president, Ikeda Daisaku (honorary president since 1979), impressed the public with his activities on the global level. He held numerous dialogues with prominent figures in various countries, and, utilizing various media, emerged as a charismatic spiritual leader in the contemporary world. Through this process, the nationalistic tendencies observed in Sōka Gakkai during the 1960s have gradually waned.
One of the more difficult problems for Sōka Gakkai after the latter half of the 1970s was its relations with the Nichiren Shōshū sect, its parent group. Nichiren Shōshū, as one of the traditional Buddhist sects in Japan, had a body of followers amounting to around fifty thousand. Sōka Gakkai, though an affiliated organization, grew in strength under the Nichiren Shōshū umbrella until its membership was more than one hundred times the membership of the parent organization. There had earlier been serious conflicts with Nichiren Shōshū over traditional doctrine and the authority of monks after Sōka Gakkai emphasized new styles of lay religiosity and the authority of the Sōka Gakkai president. Nichiren Shōshū and Sōka Gakkai finally split from each other in 1991.
Another difficult problem involved strong criticism from political rivals. The Liberal Democratic Party had kept its position as the ruling party in Japan for many years and sensed a potential threat from the Kōmei Party. Relations between the Kōmei Party and Sōka Gakkai provoked controversy over whether this was a violation of the principle of separation between politics and religion. Over time, however, the Liberal Democratic Party and the Kōmei Party strengthened ties, and in 1998 they formed a coalition government.
Sōka Gakkai has been characterized by its aggressive propaganda asserting that its teachings alone are correct and criticizing other religions and other Buddhist sects. The Shakubuku Kyoten (Manual for forcible persuasion), first published in 1951, clearly demonstrated Sōka Gakkai's exclusiveness, and few religious organizations have had a long-term friendly relationship with Sōka Gakkai. Since the 1980s, however, when Ikeda Daisaku began to place value on dialogue with prominent leaders of the world, more organizations have shown an interest in establishing friendly relations with Sōka Gakkai. The founder, Makiguchi Tsunesaburo, had valued people's sense of voluntarism and self-initiative, and Sōka Gakkai promoted democracy as one of its primary values after the 1960s, directing its policy toward strengthening international cooperative activities. As such, the organization has strengthened its capacity to adapt to a pluralistic democracy.
Sōka Gakkai is representative of new religious organizations that developed rapidly from the 1920s to the 1960s. In particular, the history of religions in the 1950s and 1960s in Japan cannot be told without referring to Sōka Gakkai. Many factors contributed to this new religious organization's rapid growth. Most important was perhaps the creation of a Buddhist belief system with a modern code of behavior in a time when traditional Buddhist organizations and new religious groups were competing with one another. The Sōka Gakkai thought system encouraged people to act on their own initiative, to participate in community activities, and to pursue happiness in this world.
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Shimazono Susumu (2005)
In 1943, the government tried to unify all Nichiren sects, but this was resisted by Makiguchi and Toda. They were arrested, ostensibly on the charge of advising their followers not to purchase amulets from the national Ise Shrine. Makiguchi died in prison, but Toda deepened his faith greatly through his reading in prison. When released, he reconstructed the organization, and in 1952 it was incorporated as an independent religious institution. It rapidly became a multi-million-member organization, extending beyond Japan to other parts of the world, especially the USA and France. It possessed what was at the time of its building the largest temple on earth, on the slopes of Mount Fuji. Under Ikeda Daisaku, Sōka Gakkai established a political party, Komei-to, the party of clean government. Initially, Sōka Gakkai had strongly exclusivist attitudes, following Nichiren in regarding other religions as false and other Buddhist sects as heretical. It was accused of forced conversions through its technique of shakubuku, breaking and subduing. However, since the 1970s, there has been a moderation of its extreme views.