The Joy of Sect

For members of Soka Gakkai, the path to enlightenment (and maybe a new car) is through chanting

SGI is recognized as a church both here and in Japan, so it's nearly impossible to put a finger on its finances. Members are asked to contribute a minimum of $20 a month or as much as they can afford. Bill Aiken, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesperson for SGI-USA, says the majority of U.S. members don't contribute anything financially. "I would say one-third of our members [give money] and two-thirds do not. We'd like to see that increase."

Obviously the economic muscle of the church comes from Japan, where members are hit for bigger and more frequent donations. In a 1995 article titled "The Power of Soka Gakkai," Time magazine estimated the group's assets at $100 billion worldwide.

As religions go, Soka Gakkai is freshly minted. It was founded in 1930 by Japanese educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi as an effort to reform schools in Japan. At the time the dominant educational philosophy in Japan was one of rote memorization and obedience. Influenced by Western ideals, Makiguchi strove toward a system that emphasized creativity, happiness, and personal benefit or gain. He believed students should have a positive influence on society, hence the name of his group: Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, or "Value-Creation Education Society."

That old-time religion: Soka Gakkai believers meet in Stephen Bonnell's home
Melissa Jones
That old-time religion: Soka Gakkai believers meet in Stephen Bonnell's home

Makiguchi and his friend, Josei Toda, gathered a small following of mostly educators in the years that followed. Soon they attracted the attention of Japanese authorities, who were not pleased with their opposition to state-imposed Shinto religion. Japan was becoming increasingly militaristic, and Shinto (a form of emperor worship) was a mandate. Makiguchi denounced the Japanese war effort and was arrested in 1943 along with all the other Soka Gakkai leaders. He was interrogated and tortured but refused to compromise his beliefs. He died in prison in 1944.

Toda was released in 1945 and set about rebuilding the sect. In the religious vacuum created by Japan's defeat and the American occupation, new religions sprouted like weeds. He dropped "education" from the group's name so that it became Value Creating Society, or Soka Gakkai. He became Soka Gakkai's second president in 1951, and by his death in 1958 the group had some 750,000 followers. Daisaku Ikeda was named the third president in 1960, at age 32. Though he is now the honorary president, Ikeda is, for all intents and purposes, still the true leader of Soka Gakkai.

Ikeda is a philosopher, author, artist, and world traveler. He's always been fond of having his picture taken with world leaders, including Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher, and Nelson Mandela. Soka Gakkai members almost always seem to have a gleam in their eye when they refer to Ikeda. They can quote him from memory and are fond of telling anecdotes that illustrate his warmth, charm, and charisma. "He is the man we really consider our mentor, our leader," says Bonnell. "It's not like we worship him or anything, but he is our teacher."

We must never relax in our struggle against evil. We must never drop our guard. We must never forget our determination to defend what is right -- until the roots of evil have been eradicated.

-- Daisaku Ikeda

In September 1963, Look magazine published a front-page story headlined "Japan: Prosperity, beauty, ugliness and an alarming new religion that wants to conquer the world." The story was even more startling. "Soka Gakkai regards itself as not only the one true Buddhist religion, but the one true religion on earth," writes Richard Okamoto. "Its principal aims are the propagation of its gospel throughout the world, by forced conversion if necessary, and the denunciation and destruction of all other faiths as 'false' religions."

Thirty-two years later, Time magazine toned down the rhetoric but was still beating the drum. In the wake of a fatal sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway by the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo, Time wondered in print if there were too little scrutiny of groups like Soka Gakkai. "No group is quite so disciplined, determined or focused on political power as Soka Gakkai, which is well positioned to wield immense influence over national affairs."

There's little doubt about Soka Gakkai's political might and ambition in Japan. But how does SGI-USA compare?

"I look at the U.S. organization as a mere pawn for Ikeda's ambitions," writes John Ayres, who runs the Website "Victims of Soka Gakkai International Association" ( Ayers, who responded to inquiries for this story via e-mail, claims he was personally harassed by Soka Gakkai while living in Japan. In the U.S. members don't seem to know or care about the group's history, he writes. "Most SGI-USA members here are in lullaby land. There are a lot of former hippies, idealists, and others seeking some sort of spirituality."

Another ex-member spun off all manner of theories about SGI-USA, characterizing them as a "communist cell" type of organization set up to gather intelligence for Japanese corporations. "They set up these kids like little transmitters," says Peter Graves, a Miami resident who used to belong to SGI-USA when he lived in California, referring to the group's youth divisions. "They have ways they can decipher intelligence. They never know when one of their own will move into a position of power and then they can get what they want."

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