Japan's Crusader or Corrupter?

Buddhist lay leader Daisaku Ikeda and his giant organization cast a long shadow. Backers hail him as a champion of the masses. The government claims he is a threat to democracy

The Los Angeles Times/March 15, 1996
By Teresa Watanabe

He is, by some accounts, the most powerful man in Japan--and certainly one of the most enigmatic: Daisaku Ikeda, leader of the nation's largest religious organization, has been condemned and praised as a devil and an angel, a Hitler and a Gandhi, a despot and a democrat.

He is a grasping power-monger aiming for political control by rallying the 8 million families of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization, critics say. Ridiculous, his supporters retort: He is a crusader for common folk who unflinchingly fights the oppressive establishment.

He is an "evil slanderer" skewing Buddhist doctrine to glorify himself and deny the clergy's authority, say priests of Ikeda's Nichiren Shoshu sect, who excommunicated him in 1991 in a tumultuous split with the laity. No, followers say, he is an inspired teacher who helps them understand Buddhism as a personal communion between the inner self and divine law.

Ikeda is a glory-hound who covets meetings with world leaders yet is himself void of scholarship, said writer Kunihiro Naito.

Wrong, countered Claremont McKenna professor Alfred Balitzer. He said Ikeda, whom he met in 1992, can embrace all cultures and see connections between the Western philosophy of Plato, the Eastern metaphysics of Buddhism and the social problems of the day.

"He reminds me of a great rabbi, a man of deep learning with followers of great passion, commitment and loyalty," Balitzer said.

Perhaps no other figure in Japan today presents such a puzzle of conflicting perceptions. Ikeda resembles a prism, reflecting people's greatest hopes and worst fears.

But he chooses another metaphor.

As he began a rare interview, this 68-year-old man blown up to mythic proportions presented an ordinary appearance of spectacles and slicked-back hair.

His handshake was soft; his eyes escaped prolonged contact. He confessed intimidation at being laid bare, then issued the invitation:

"Please begin cutting up Daisaku Ikeda," he said. "I'm like an onion: No matter how you slice me, I'm the same."

Understanding Ikeda is a daunting task. Japan is home to a frenzied anti-Ikeda industry, where tabloid coverage has affected his public image and blurred the lines between suspicion and fact, imagination and reality.

The Soka Gakkai also seems to trigger deep emotions unusual in a society where black-and-white judgments are rare.

No one seems able to explain why. It is possible to view Soka Gakkai members as conscientious citizens who get out the vote, donate to charitable causes and hold deeply to their religious beliefs. In six decades, they say, they have expanded abroad with 1.2 million followers in 115 countries. That includes 300,000 in the U.S. branch, which is based in Santa Monica.

The group boasts tremendous organizational strength, discipline and wealth--including ownership of Japan's third-largest newspaper, Seikyo Shimbun.

Ikeda also has started a political party, education system, art museum and cultural programs that have taken him to 50 countries--deeds that will establish his legacy as one of modern Japan's most remarkable religious leaders, said Shin Anzai, a Roman Catholic scholar.

Yet the prevailing view portrays him as a tyrant and his followers as brainwashed zombies, poised to undermine Japan's democratic process.

Electoral Powerhouse

The decline of farmers and labor unions has made Soka Gakkai the nation's biggest voting bloc--and its decision to ally with opposition forces was the greatest factor behind the New Frontier Party's upset win in last year's elections for parliament's upper house.

Alarmed, the government has stepped up attacks on Ikeda as it faces crucial general elections amid sagging popularity caused by outrage over financial scandals.

The leading Liberal Democratic Party freely admits that its electoral strategy is to equate the New Frontier Party with the Soka Gakkai.

"We will not stop our campaign until we get Ikeda to testify in the parliament," LDP Secretary-General Koichi Kato recently declared. "He wants to control our country."

But at least some of the criticism against the Soka Gakkai appears to be deliberate fear-mongering.

Writer Atsushi Mizoguchi unblinkingly said Ikeda would probably kill his enemies if he ever took power. Others imagine tax harassment or steps to remove the current separation of church and state and declare Nichiren Buddhism the state religion.

Soka Gakkai's affiliated Clean Government Party--known mainly for pacifism and promoting welfare--attempted no such actions when it held power as part of the coalition governments of Morihiro Hosokawa and Tsutomu Hata in 1993 and 1994. And even if its members did desire sole political rule--which they deny--they make up only 20% of the voting electorate.

Aside from voicing these political fears, critics paint pictures of a violent, vengeful group. Masao Okkotsu and other former members describe tales of being followed and videotaped, harassed with midnight phone calls. Tabloids routinely report alleged violence against enemies, from manslaughter to arson.

At least two incidents can be confirmed: a 1991 threat to dynamite the Nichiren sect's main temple and the 1992 attempted arson of a Hiroshima temple. The organization says these were isolated incidents involving distraught members.

Other charges have proved groundless. A tabloid report that a Soka Gakkai member had killed a priest in a deliberate car collision was spread on the Internet and taken up in parliament by Ikeda critics. But it was the priest who strayed over the center line and hit the member's truck head-on, police and the local media say.

In the most high-profile cases against him, Ikeda was cleared in 1962 of charges of election tampering and won a libel suit in 1980 against a tabloid that claimed he was a womanizer.

Claims of Distortion

Ikeda said the myriad accusations deliberately distort the group's philosophy. They also ignore history: Soka Gakkai was one of the few organizations that resisted the militaristic Shinto theocracy in the dark years leading to World War II and was nearly destroyed for it. Its founder, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, died in jail; Josei Toda, Ikeda's late, revered mentor, suffered behind bars for two years.

Jabbing a finger in the air, Ikeda declared: "We don't have the slightest intention of ever supporting a theocratic government. The Soka Gakkai organization was destroyed by state Shinto, by a form of nationalism that really did merge the political and the religious. Why in the world would we want to repeat that bitter experience?"

The group's political activity--as well as its other endeavors--stems from a belief that the spirit of religion should animate and uplift all realms of society, he said.

"If religion does nothing but pray in quiet isolation, then there is no need for it," he said, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi. "Unless the spirit of religion is reflected in politics, in society, unless it contributes to the world, then it is without value."

Still, Ikeda said Soka Gakkai's aims have been so misunderstood that it will begin endorsing candidates rather than specific parties after the next election, which must be held by spring, 1997.

Even so, public acceptance is likely to remain elusive.

Pushy Proselytizers

Some say the antipathy stems from Soka Gakkai's history of aggressive proselytizing--a legacy of the fiery brand of Buddhism preached by Nichiren, a poor fisherman's son who founded the sect in 1253. He declared that disasters would destroy Japan unless people abandoned their evil belief in other Buddhist doctrines and recognized the Lotus Sutra as the only true teaching.

At the height of their aggression in the late 1950s, followers entered homes and threw competing Buddhist altars into the streets. Such methods have long been abandoned, but the image of pushy proselytizers still offends many Japanese, who tend to tolerate a mix of beliefs.

Religion scholar Hiroshi Shimada said many Japanese dislike the group because it reflects a history they want to escape: the feudalistic fealty of disciple to master; a clannishness that to critics reeks of a suffocating rural society.

Soka Gakkai's membership has traditionally been drawn from the poor, the ill and the dispossessed, leading to class snobbery among some critics, Shimada said.

Ikeda does not pause when asked why he is attacked so vehemently.

"Because I am antiauthority. The fundamental reason is that we haven't allowed ourselves to be co-opted by authorities and don't do as we are told.

"The Japanese national character is very muddled," he said. "You don't know what their religious beliefs are, who they follow. But for some reason, they never criticize authority."

In the 3 1/2-hour interview at his group's Soka University outside Tokyo, Ikeda was blunt, impassioned and erudite.

He spoke of Japan's spiritual hunger and political malaise, the wounds of his own childhood, French literature and American poetry, the universal message of hope that Buddhism offers.

He denied designs on being prime minister, and he confessed to holding grudges against betrayers and to a fondness for sushi and spring.

He consistently returned to the theme of the "demonic nature of authority." The topic provokes thunder in his voice and fire in his eyes, stirring painful memories of a family ripped apart by war.

Poor Beginnings

Born Jan. 2, 1928, in Tokyo, Ikeda was the fifth son in a family of 10, whom he describes as poor but happy harvesters of seaweed.

As Japan began its long slide into militarism, four of his brothers were drafted, and one was killed at the front. His brothers' absence devastated the family business and cast clouds of sorrow over his normally radiant mother.

Afflicted with tuberculosis, Ikeda was forced at age 14 to fend for the family when his father fell ill.

He recalls coughing up bloody phlegm as he labored in an ironworks factory. He recalls the terrifying secret police and the nauseating stories of cruelty toward the Chinese that his brothers brought back from the front.

His life's decisive encounter occurred when he was 19, as the benumbed Japanese began picking up the pieces of a demolished country. What he believed would be a study meeting on "life philosophy" instead was a lecture on the Lotus Sutra by Toda, who would become his touchstone.

To Ikeda, Toda was a man of unshakable convictions, "like a sheer and towering cliff," who had gone to prison defending them; he was a mathematical genius and a master at explaining ancient Buddhist doctrine in logical, modern terms.

"He was completely open, frank and unaffected," Ikeda said. "I intuitively knew this was someone I could put my trust in."

A year later, in 1949, Ikeda began working for Toda's publishing company, and the two became inseparable. Toda taught him more than Buddhism: Every morning, he instructed Ikeda--whose education was cut off by war--in economics, law, political science, astronomy, chemistry, the Chinese classics and organizational theory.

As a result, Ikeda's breadth of knowledge dazzles scholars such as Balitzer. "He has read every book I teach, and he knows them better than most educators," he said. "He is not a cult leader. Cult leaders don't read Plato."

Ikeda married, and he has two sons. A poet, photographer and author of about 150 publications, he was named Soka Gakkai president in 1960 and resigned in 1979. Today, he is honorary president.

He receives both a Soka salary similar to those of other top officers in the group and royalties from some of his publications.

His followers say he lives modestly compared with presidents of major Japanese corporations. He occupies a small 1941 wooden house; he is, however, chauffeured in a Mercedes-Benz and stays in expensive suites when traveling, though defenders say both these seeming luxuries are fitting for him when he meets security- and status-conscious world leaders.

Meanwhile, Toda's influence still permeates Ikeda's core; Soka Gakkai President Einosuke Akiya said Ikeda still invokes his mentor's name every day.

"Josei Toda wanted me to understand his own life and experience and to realize we really have no choice but to fight against persecution and authoritarianism," Ikeda recalled.

That task is pressing in Japan, which "sanitized and glorified" a horrible war and is still caught in a spiritual bondage created by centuries of feudalism, Ikeda said.

But his critics say Ikeda is a religious tyrant, intolerant of dissent.

The struggle between the priests and Soka Gakkai has been largely portrayed by the secular press as a clash for money and power, but it raises questions about the nature of faith itself.

Nichiren priests preach a fundamentalist vision, stressing the importance of objects such as sacred scrolls and the authority of the clergy. If the clergy are not obeyed and doctrine not followed, worshipers will "fall into hell," Nichiren high priests state.

But Ikeda says Nichiren's essential teachings are antiauthoritarian, aimed at empowering the masses to gain spiritual enlightenment through their own action. He views religion as an inner communion, independent of controlling clergy. He also says the true spirit of Buddhism is tolerant, affirming the value of all teachings, even as it holds to its core beliefs.

Split With Priests

Ikeda's stands are hailed by such scholars as Anzai, who said Soka Gakkai has become more open to interfaith dialogue since splitting with the priests. Bryan Wilson, an Oxford University sociologist who examined the group's British branch in a 1994 book, said Soka Gakkai was the most open to academic scrutiny of any movement he has studied.

But Ikeda's stands are also attacked by such critics as Kotoku Obayashi, chief priest of the Myokoji temple in Tokyo: "He doesn't pay any respect to priests . . . this indicates his . . . arrogance and selfishness."

If Ikeda has challenged Japan's religious and political status quo, he has also embraced outsiders shunned here.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, South African President Nelson Mandela and American civil rights legend Rosa Parks all found a supporter in Ikeda.

While other groups balked at requests to help combat anti-Semitism here, Cooper said, Soka Gakkai delivered $100,000 to help bring an exhibit on Anne Frank and the Holocaust to 15 cities; the display has been attended so far by 1 million people. Soka Gakkai has raised more than $7.5 million to aid refugees around the world.

Critics condemn Ikeda's global activities as ploys to boost his stature and to win him the Nobel Peace Prize. But there is no question that he spreads goodwill--and transforms stereotypes.

"My image of Japan was that it was monolithic and that there might be great resistance to African Americans because of {racist} statements made by some political leaders," said Elaine Steele, who accompanied Parks to Japan as co-founder of their self-development institute. "Since meeting with Soka Gakkai, I've come to learn--and very pleasantly so--that it is just like America: Some people are monolithic, and others are very open and multiracial."

Ikeda said he will put his final efforts into education to repay Japan's debt to the United States. Plans for a graduate campus of Soka University in Orange County and an existing undergraduate campus in Calabasas have sparked some controversy.

Whatever his ultimate legacy, Ikeda said the message is more important than the man: "The choice is between being a slave of authority or of holding to your beliefs, living for your convictions. This is the history of Buddhism for the past 3,000 years."

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