The Value of a Grandfather Figure

Manchester Guardian/May 19, 1984
By Polly Toynbee

On the long flight to Japan, I read for the first time my grandfather's posthumously, published book, "Choose Life -- A Dialogue," a discussion between himself and a Japanese Buddhist leader called Daisaku Ikeda. My grandfather, the historian Arnold Toynbee was 85 when the dialogue was recorded, a short time before his final incapacitating stroke. It is probably the book among his works most kindly left forgotten -- being a long discursive ramble between the two men over topics from sex education to pollution and war.

A few months earlier, I had received a telephone call out of the blue from Mr Ikeda's London representative: Mr Ikeda was inviting my husband and myself to Japan, in memory of, and in gratitude to, my grandfather. We were puzzled at this -- eight years after his death. But perhaps it was some inexplicably Japanese sense of obligation and family beyond Western understanding. Try as we might, we could elicit no further explanation -- though by the end of our trip some much clearer motives were to emerge. As it turned out, we were to see a rather different side of Japan from the view usually afforded Western visitors.

We arrived at Tokyo airport, and at least 10 people were there to greet us, with a huge bouquet each for myself and for Milly, my astounded twelve-year-old daughter. A long solemn message of welcome from Mr Ikeda was read out, and we were driven away in a vast black limousine with electric darkened windows and Mr Ikeda's emblem emblazoned on the carpet in gold thread. Walkie-talkies between the vehicles of the motorcade to the hotel relayed further messages from our mysterious host. The scale of operation was soon made clear.

Two representatives from the English branch of Mr Ikeda's movement had accompanied us all the way from London and were scarcely to leave our side, together with a phalanx of interpreters, drivers and aides of all kinds. Mr Ikeda wishes you to feel entirely at home," and "Mr Ikeda wishes you to make every use of the hotel's services and 36 restaurants" came the messages at regular intervals, as we gazed down out of our fourteenth floor window on to the hotel garden -- full of waterfalls, bridges and carp squeezed, like everything in Tokyo between intersecting flyovers.

Several days passed before we were to meet our mysterious host, time in which we learned more about Mr Ikeda and his Soka Gakkai movement. One thing above all others was made clear: this was an organisation of immense wealth, power and political influence. One book on the sect declares that "no understanding of postwar Japan is complete without some knowledge of this religio-political movement." Its influence strikes deep into every aspect of Japanese life. Among its many publications is a newspaper with a circulation of over 4 million. It has the third largest political party in the country. It has membership of 10 million, still growing. It has a university with 7,000 students, schools an art gallery -- and more.

Mr Ikeda is the third leader of the movement since it started in the thirties. But it is under him that the thing has taken off and become so powerful. He is the relatively uneducated son of a laver seller from Omori, who succeeded to the leadership at the age of 36, when he was head of the Young Men's Division of the Soka Gakkai. It is mainly a lower middle class movement, gathering up those uprooted from old communities, and binding them very tightly to its strong cell-structure.

Night and day, surrounded by his aides, we heard his name mentioned in tones of reverential awe. The head of the British section (an English retired businessman, told us that Ikeda was "A man who has made the revolution in himself." Others testified to the greatness of his writing, his mind, his poetry, his spirit, even his photography. (Later we caught a glimpse of his photographic methods when we watched as an aide handed him a loaded camera. He held it out at arm's length and clicked it randomly without bothering to look in the viewfinder.) He takes photographs with his mind, not with his eye," murmured an aide on enquiry.

The evening came when we were at last to meet him. The great black limousine pulled into the palatial headquarters. The doorway was flood-lit with camera lights, and there stood Mr and Mrs. Ikeda, surrounded by bowing aides and followers. Dazed and dazzled by this unexpected reception committee, we were lead up to him to shake the small, plump hand. There he stood a short, round man with slicked down hair, wearing a sharp Western suit. Camera bulbs flashed, movie cameras closed in, and we were carried away with the throng, past corridors of bowing girls dressed in white to an enormous room.

Vast white armchairs were arrayed in a huge square and we were ushered to a throne-like set of three chairs at the head of the room, one for each of us and one for Mr Ikeda. He speaks no English, so behind us sat his beautiful young interpreter who accompanies him around the world. She sat at a microphone, so all our words could be heard clearly echoing round the room by all the aides and followers, who had taken to their rows of armchairs in strict order of precedence.

We sat there awed, appalled, intimidated, while royal courtesies flowed. "I want you to feel absolutely at home this evening," said Mr. Ikeda as we felt about as far from home as it is possible to be. "Just enjoy yourselves on this very informal occasion," he said. What would a formal meeting have been like? We talked of the weather in London and Japan, the city, the sights -- desperate small talk, conducted in public for half an hour, balancing champagne glass and smoked salmon plate, while the aides round the room nodded solemnly. Our host's style of conversation was imperious and alarming -- he led and others followed. Any unexpected or unconventional remark was greeted with a stern fixed look in the eye, incomprehension, and a warning frostiness.

As we took it in turn to sally forth in this game of verbal royal tennis, we each had time to study the man. Worldly he seemed, down to the tip of his hand-made shoes, earthy almost, without a whiff of even artificial spirituality. Asked to hazard a guess at his occupation, few would have selected him as a religious figure. I have met many powerful men -- prime ministers, leaders of all kinds -- but I have never in my life met anyone who exuded such an aura of absolute power as Mr Ikeda. He seems like a man who for many years has had his every whim gratified, his every order obeyed, a man protected from contradiction or conflict. I am not easily frightened, but something in him struck a chill down the spine.

Dinner was an ordeal. We were ushered into the traditional Japanese dining room, where we sat at cushions on tatami mats at low tables, around our host. The cook crouched in the middle of the table, serving tempura from a vat of boiling oil. "No serious talk tonight. Only pleasure," Mr Ikeda ordained. Our hearts sank. That meant more excruciating small talk.

He turned eventually to reminiscences of my grandfather and their meeting in London. I could hardly imagine the incongruity of this small stout ball of power clanking up the creaky lift to my grandfather's dark and sparse flat. I wondered what meals he had been served -- a slice of spam and a lettuce leaf being a typical meal there. "He was a very, very great man." Ikeda said, leaning towards me, and staring me in the eye. "The greatest scholar in the world!" I pondered on some irreverent family stories, but hastily tucked them away.

"It is my mission in life to see that his work is read by everyone. You will support me in this?" I could hardly say no. "You promise? I have your promise?" I felt uneasy at what exactly was expected of me. Then he suddenly mentioned the fact that there are in existence some more parts to the Toynbee/Ikeda Dialogue, as yet unpublished, which he would like to be able to publish soon. A part of our reason for this journey fell neatly into place. Later I was to find out more.

There was one sticky moment in the course of the meal. He asked us what we thought my grandfather's last word of warning to him had been as they parted. We racked our brains until, in desperation, my husband ill-advisedly answered, "Greed." An icy look passed across Mr Ikeda's ample features. He looked as if he might summon a squad of husky samurai to haul us away. I hastened to explain that Peter meant the greed of mankind, of course, as referred to frequently in the Dialogues -- man's grasping selfishness and so on. He looked not entirely mollified and the moment passed.

After dinner we returned to the room of the great armchairs, and lavish present-giving followed -- a giant doll and a calculator for Milly, pearls, a record album of the Toynbee/Ikeda Dialogue, a personally signed copy of the Toynbee/Ikeda book. At last the nerve-racking evening was over, our cheeks cracked from smiling, our minds drained of all ingenuity in small talk and pleasantry. We were swept away with the throng, back past the bowing girls in white and the movie cameras--and away off in the limousine.

Next day our photographs appeared on the front page of Ikeda's multi-million circulation daily, the Seikyo Press, with a record of our dinner table conversation. No-one told us it was on the record--but it didn't matter, since it was the words, mainly of Mr Ikeda, that went reported, and little of us beyond our presence as his audience.

We departed for a brief trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima, only to be greeted again by more bouquets, banquets, black limousines and local Soka Gakkai groups. Hiroshima is an uncomfortable place -- the shrine of Japan's post-war peace mission. "What do you think of Hiroshima? Have you a few words to say about Hiroshima?" we were asked continually. The exhibits shock and stun, but words fail. After the first blast of horror, something else creeps in. Here is a national shrine to Peace and Never Again, telling the story of the sunny day the bomb dropped out of a blue sky, telling the story of what the world did to Japan. But there is not a word, not a thought, not a hint of anything Japan might have done. Hiroshima was one of the main military bases from which went out the marauding forces to Burma, Singapore, China, Korea -- countries who still find it hard to link Japan and peace in the same breath. But Hiroshima is the shrine of Japan's innocence.

One night we were shown a film of Ikeda's triumphal tour round America, at massed rallies in stadiums from Dallas to San Diego. Formation teams of majorettes and baton twirlers spelled the words SOKA and PEACE in great waves of thousands of human bodies and Ikeda, spot-lit and mobbed by screaming fans, delivered his usual speeches on peace -- always peace. It is one of the Soka Gakkai's themes, peace in men's hearts, peace across the nations, the brotherhood of mankind and so on. The effect was somewhat spoiled when the stadium hushed reverently as a message from President Ronald Reagan himself was read out -- sending a sincere message of goodwill, peace and greeting to the Soka Gakkai and Mr. Ikeda. The stadium burst out in delirious applause.

The Soka Gakkai takes its peace mission round the world, often accompanied by an exhibition of horrific photographs from Hiroshima, which is used as a powerful recruiting aid. What were they doing, we asked, preaching peace and accepting messages of support from Reagan in the same breath? "We do not think there is anything incompatible in voting for President Reagan and being a member of the Soka Gakkai." Ikeda's usually silent male secretary said. The English Soka Gakkai head hastened to add, "We believe every man can change, and when President Reagan sent us that message, it showed that he too is capable of change in his heart."

It was then, at yet another banquet in Hiroshima that we lost our temper. We told them what we felt about the Soka Gakkai and Mr Ikeda's style of leadership. Our hosts were horrified and tried to smooth it all over and pretend the words had never been uttered.

We asked for a proper, serious interview with Ikeda, but later we doubted if anyone had dared relay our comments or our request. The last time we saw him, not a flicker crossed his face to suggest that he had heard of our outburst, or our request. It was at Soka Gakkai's founder's day, with the same kind of mass rally of 6000 majorettes we had seen on the film, to the theme tunes of "Dallas" and "The Sound of Music." After the finale Ikeda took a lap of honour round the stadium, while carefully rehearsed groups of girls shrieking with adulation, pealed away towards him.

We didn't see him again but we reckoned his final gift showed that no-one had recounted our outburst to him. He sent us yet another silk-bound tome, in which there was no text, but only 296 huge full-page photographs of himself and his family -- a book of colossal narcissism.

What had the whole trip been for? By the time we left, it all became clear. We had been taken to be interviewed by newspapers and television -- Peter about international affairs, I about my grandfather. Each interview in which we appeared bound Ikeda and Arnold Toynbee closer together in the public eye. Ikeda was making a firm bid to become the chief official Toynbee friend and spokesman.

I had no idea of the extent of my grandfather's fame and importance in Japan. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, and his work is compulsory reading in all universities. As the prophet of the rise of the East and the decline of the West, he has long been a hero in Japan. There is a Toynbee Society, run by distinguished academics, some of whom knew my grandfather well for many years, and they print a quarterly journal.

My grandfather never met Ikeda on his visits to Japan. His old Japanese friends were clearly less than delighted with lkeda's grandiose appropriation of his memories, on the basis of a handful of rather vague interviews in extreme old age.

Soka Gakkai is the most powerful of Japan's "New Religions" which have sprung up since the war, collecting together an uprooted urban people lacking an identity in a society that puts a high premium on belonging to groups. Soka Gakkai means Value-Creating Society, and is based on the teachings of a thirteenth century monk, Nichiren Shonin, a militant nationalist who promised worldly rewards to his followers. It is rigidly hierarchical, with no democratic elements, and absolute power in Ikeda's hands. It imposes few religious or moral duties, beyond chanting twice a day, but it expects a high degree of obedient social participation in its organisation.

When Ikeda founded the movement's political party, Komeito, there began to be some alarm as to how he would use this power. This alarm has lead the party to officially separate itself from Soka Gakkai, though all its leaders remain Gakkai members. The Komeito (Clean Government) Party is the third largest party in the mysterious and labyrinthine shifting factions of Japanese politics.

It is called a centre party, but such labels mean little in a country where a huge consensus agreed broadly on defence and foreign relations, and approves the absence of a welfare state. With the same party in power for 25 years, it is the factions that count, and Komeito, Clean Government or not, has often helped Tanaka faction candidates, in exchange for Tanaka having helped them over a scandal.

To call Soka Gakkai and its Komeito party "fascist" is to misunderstand Japanese politics. Certainly the movement is run on rigid anti-democratic lines, demanding absolute obedience. It is partly nationalistic, but also highly Americanised in taste and culture.

But it is a supporter of the Peace Constitution and it is not in favour of Japan rearming. Politically, like most of the other parties, it is mostly in favour of being in power. Soka Gakkai has non-governmental organisation status at the United Nations, a fact used much by Ikeda, as it establishes them as a world-wide "peace movement" and helps to give Ikeda access to heads of states around the globe. At Soka Gakkai's founders' day, we found representatives of many foreign embassies, and the French Ambassador was the guest of honour. People who seek influence in Japan cannot afford to ignore Ikeda, and indeed his own books sport hundreds of pictures of himself meeting people like Edward Kennedy, John Galbraith, and Presidents from every continent.

As we were leaving, Ikeda's secretary took us aside and asked if we could help with the publication of a second batch of Ikeda/Toynbee Dialogues left over from the first book. There were, it appeared, problems with executors and rights. Also it was hinted that in Ikeda's forthcoming tour of Britain in June 1985, we might be of some assistance. Exactly what was unspecified, but the marker was put down.

Back in England, I telephoned a few people round the world who had been visited by Ikeda. There was a certain amount of discomfort at being asked, and an admission by several that they felt they had been drawn into endorsing him. A silken web is easily woven, a photograph taken, a brief polite conversation published as if it were some important encounter.

I talked to the Oxford University Press, my grandfather's publishers. They said they had firmly turned down the Toynbee/Ikeda Dialogues, which were being heavily promoted by Ikeda after my grandfather's death. It would have been better if they had stuck to that decision. But Ikeda succeeded in getting it published in New York and the OUP felt obliged to follow suit. In the file lies a later letter referring to the possibility of a second batch of dialogues being published.

A reply from OUP tells inquirers that the manuscript can now only be obtained with the permission of the literary executors. The papers are stored, unsorted, in the Bodleian library in Oxford. It emerged that even while we were in Japan, Ikeda's representatives had been making discreet calls to England about the Toynbee papers. That, in the end, I suspect, was the purpose of our trip -- but from the present firm attitude of the OUP, it is highly unlikely that further Toynbee/Ikeda material will appear.

I like to think that if my grandfather had not been so old or if he had met Ikeda in his own bizarre surroundings, he would not have lent himself to this process of endorsement. He was a frail man at the time, and by nature trusting. If our trip to Japan was intended to bind him yet more tightly to Ikeda, I hope the effect will have been the reverse.

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