The Soka Gakkai is a movement of Mahayana Buddhist lay believers that originated in Japan in the 1930s. Today, it is the largest and most influential of new religious movements in Japan. The nature of its role within Japanese society has been the focus of considerable controversy and research, particularly during its period of rapid expansion from the early 1950s to around 1970. Founded by the educator Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (b. 1871–d. 1944), the organization was suppressed during World War II for refusing to accede to official religious policies. Its second president, Josei Toda (b. 1900–d. 1958), rebuilt the organization in the postwar period. The third president, Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928), took over leadership in 1960; the founder of an affiliated political party, the Komei Party, and numerous educational and cultural bodies, he has further overseen the Soka Gakkai’s international expansion. Ikeda has written extensively on a wide range of topics and conducted dialogues with international figures that have been published in Japanese, English, and other languages. As the Soka Gakkai International (SGI), an umbrella organization established by Ikeda in 1975, the movement now claims adherents in 192 countries and territories. The Soka Gakkai was associated with the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, a relationship that was particularly close in the postwar period. Tensions between the two bodies surfaced in the late 1970s and again in the early 1990s, when there was a definitive schism. The Soka Gakkai is sometimes classed under the rubric of “engaged Buddhism” and, as a nongovernmental organization with official ties to the UN, the organization has undertaken activities in the fields of nuclear disarmament, human rights, and sustainability education. The movement cites the philosophy of the 13th-century Buddhist monk Nichiren, with its distinctly this-worldly orientation and teaching the goal of enlightenment in one’s present form, as the doctrinal basis for such engagements. The Soka Gakkai is a complex phenomenon, with religious, sociological, and political aspects and implications; its development, activities, and ideas have thus been examined in scholarship rooted a wide range of disciplines.
The emergence of a rapidly expanding popular religious movement, such as the Soka Gakkai was in the 1950s and 1960s in Japan, is almost certain to provoke strong anxieties, and these are inevitably reflected in the record of academic research. In Japan, the organization’s involvement with the domestic political process from the mid-1950s intensified questions about the nature and goals of the movement. Fujiwara 1970 can be read as a compendium of early anxieties, expressed as comparisons to Communism, prewar Japanese fascism, and Nazism. Cold War interest in Japan’s role as a stable ally also shaped the research questions posed by US-based researchers, which tended to be sociopolitical or sociological (Dator 1969, White 1970). At the same time, the organization became the focus of work by religious researchers (Murakami 1967) and observers (Murata 1969) consciously seeking a more evenhanded approach. Stone 2003 traces the doctrinal and interpretive origins of organization’s political involvements. Machacek and Wilson 2000 presents a variety of research efforts directed at a movement whose long-term presence within Japanese society has opened it to more nuanced perspectives. The Soka Gakkai has developed a multilingual web presence that provides rich sources of both contemporary and historical information while offering windows on its evolving self-definitional frameworks (see Soka Gakkai and Soka Gakkai International); these sites also link to the constellation of SGI-affiliated research and academic and cultural institutions.
Dator, James. Soka Gakkai, Builders of the Third Civilization: American and Japanese Members. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1969.
A political scientist at Rikkyo University in Japan examines the development of the Soka Gakkai from a sociopolitical perspective based on participant observation, including political activities to support the Komei Party during elections. This is one of the earliest accounts of non-Japanese members and their motivations. It uses personality typing, alienation, and traditionalism scales to draw composite portrait of converts.
Fujiwara, Hirotatsu. I Denounce Soka Gakkai. Translated by Worth C. Grant. Tokyo: Nisshin Hodo, 1970.
Intensely critical of every aspect of the Soka Gakkai, suggesting that its political involvement would bring a return of prewar fascism. Allegations of attempts by Soka Gakkai–supported politicians to suppress publication sparked intense controversy, leading in 1970 to the official organizational separation of the Komei political party from the Soka Gakkai.
Machacek, David, and Brian Wilson, eds. Global Citizens: The Soka Gakkai Buddhist Movement in the World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Most up-to-date and comprehensive academic overview of the movement currently available, both within Japan and globally. Comprises articles by established researchers in a number of fields (religious studies, political science, educational studies, sociology, media studies, etc.), all with in-depth knowledge of the Soka Gakkai.
Murakami, Shigeyoshi. Soka Gakkai=Komeito. Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1967.
One of Japan’s leading religious scholars gives a carefully researched account of the historical process of the Soka Gakkai’s development. Examines the group’s philosophical underpinning in Nichiren Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra, the dissolution of the Soka Gakkai during World War II, and the socioeconomic backdrop for the Soka Gakkai’s decision to enter politics and establish a political party, Komeito.
Murata, Kiyoaki. Japan’s New Buddhism: An Objective Account of Soka Gakkai. New York: Walker, 1969.
A Japanese journalist who had already written about the Soka Gakkai for more than a decade before starting this project reviews the history of Nichiren and Nichiren Shoshu, the early years of the Soka Gakkai, and its recent growth. As the title suggests, Murata makes a deliberate effort to be objective at a time when views such as those expressed by Fujiwara 1970 were common in media, if not academic, circles.
Official Japanese-language site of the Soka Gakkai. Introduces current activities of the Soka Gakkai, including daily pdf updates of the front page of the organization’s newspaper, the Seikyo Shimbun, and video lectures on the teachings of Nichiren. Good resource for students and researchers wanting to follow the organization in real time.
The official Soka Gakkai International (SGI) website. Parallel sites in Spanish and Chinese. Includes searchable online versions of the English-translation versions of the writings of Nichiren and the SGI dictionary of Buddhist terms.
Stone, Jacqueline. “By Imperial Edict and Shogunal Degree.” In Buddhism in the Modern World: Adaptations of an Ancient Tradition. Edited by Steven Heine and Charles C. Prebish, 199–219. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
A leading scholar of Kamakura Buddhism traces the sources of the Soka Gakkai’s engagement with society and politics to ideas present in the Nichiren corpus. Stone compares the modalities of this engagement to the pre–World War II nationalist (“Nichirenist”) interpretations of Tanaka Chigaku (b. 1861–d. 1939) and describes changes made under the leadership of Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928) post-1960.
White, James W. The Sokagakkai and Mass Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1970.
One of the earliest methodologically rigorous sociological studies of the Soka Gakkai to be conducted and published in English. Broadly framed by Cold War concerns and rooted in a modernization-secularization paradigm, the research concludes that the movement appears to pose no threat to the development of democracy in Japan.
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