Soka Gakkai keeps religious, political machine humming

The Japan Times/December 2, 2008

What do movie star Orlando Bloom, who plays young pirate Will Turner in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series, R&B diva Tina Turner and Shunsuke Nakamura, an ace midfielder for Scottish soccer team Celtic, have in common?

They all belong to Soka Gakkai, arguably the most powerful religious group in Japan, where mainstay Buddhism and Shinto do not play a part of daily life the way religions do in many other countries. Following are questions and answers about Soka Gakkai:

How does Soka Gakkai affect the country?

The group supports New Komeito, the junior partner in the ruling coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party. Most of Soka Gakkai's 10 million members in Japan are almost sure to vote New Komeito.

The party is the third largest in the Lower and Upper houses. Of the 480 seats in the Lower House, 31 are held by New Komeito. The party has 21 members in the 242-seat Upper House.

Out of the 10 million Soka Gakkai members, 2.5 million regularly participate in religious meetings and try to increase membership, according to Hiromi Shimada, a religion scholar who has written several books about the group.

Soka Gakkai has 1.69 million members outside Japan.

It has schools ranging from a kindergarten to a university and the daily newspaper Seikyo Shimbun, circulation 5.5 million. Although not owned by Soka Gakkai, the magazines Ushio and Daisan Bunmei feature the group often.

Do New Komeito members have to be in Soka Gakkai?

No. But in reality, all of the party's past and present presidents have held executive positions in Soka Gakkai, Shimada said. But Soka Gakkai does not decide who becomes New Komeito's president, he said.

Critics question the party's legitimacy, as it contradicts the principle of separation of politics and religion.

Some Soka Gakkai members do not support the party's coalition with the Liberal Democratic Party, although this is not Soka Gakkai's business, Soka Gakkai Vice President Hirotsugu Terasaki and Shimada said.

That being said, critics still suspect the religious group influences the party's decisions.

What is Soka Gakkai's religion?

It is based on Nichiren Buddhism, a dynamic philosophy grounded in the realities of daily life. Nichiren was a 13th-century Buddhist reformer.

Soka Gakkai, which does not have priests or other religious occupations, was part of Nichiren Shoshu, a branch of Buddhism following Nichiren's teachings, but withdrew from it in 1991 because "we oppose Nichiren Shoshu's attitude that priests are superior to regular members," Terasaki said.

Who heads Soka Gakkai?

You can't talk about Soka Gakkai, which was established in 1930, without talking about honorary President Daisaku Ikeda, who also serves as president of Soka Gakkai International, encompassing networks and branches in 192 countries, including Japan. Ikeda, who joined the group at age 19 in 1947, has been the supreme power in the group since the 1960s. He officially reigned as president from 1960 to 1979, the year when he turned over the helm to Hiroshi Hojo, but as honorary president he is still apparently top dog.

The group was founded on Nov. 18, 1930, by the first president, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, and Josei Toda, who later became the second president. Ikeda was the third president. When he assumed the post in 1960, Soka Gakkai's membership stood at about 900,000 households. That number is now 8.27 million.

Hojo was the fourth president, Einosuke Akiya became the fifth in 1981 and Minoru Harada the sixth in 2006.

Ikeda has been effectively in power for so long, what will happen when he dies?

He does not engage in daily work, thus little would change, Shimada and Terasaki said. Even though Ikeda is the spiritual leader for many, his death would not lead to a breakup of the group or a leadership battle, Shimada said.

What is Soka Gakkai worth?

It declines to disclose a figure. But Shimada estimates its assets total about ¥500 billion. These include its headquarters and branch buildings across Japan and the Seikyo Shimbun. Most revenues come from member donations. Other sources are newspaper sales and ad revenue.

What other notables belong to Soka Gakkai?

Shimada, whose books are praised for revealing money-collecting methods and other undisclosed truths about religious groups, said that in addition to Orlando Bloom, Tina Turner and Shunsuke Nakamura, the group counts among its members jazz legend Herbie Hancock, Italian soccer player Roberto Baggio and many other celebrities, including Japanese TV celebrities such as Masami Hisamoto. Soka Gakkai does not disclose who its celebrity members are unless they publicly announce their membership themselves.

What does the Seikyo Shimbun cover?

More than half of its contents are about activities of the group, including where Ikeda goes, who he meets and what other famous members do. Articles about and photos of Ikeda appear on every front page.

With its circulation of 5.5 million, it is Japan's third-largest daily, after the Yomiuri Shimbun's 10.02 million and the Asahi Shimbun's 8.04 million. It does not own printing equipment and thus pays major newspaper publishers for its press runs.

Critics say Soka Gakkai's aim is to be a customer of major newspapers to dissuade them from generating negative press. Newspaper publishers have many customers as advertisers, but Soka Gakkai is arguably the only one that helps them make effective use of their expensive presses.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.