Soka Gakkai in Japan


A review of Sōka Gakkai in Japan, by Levi McLaughlin.

Levi McLaughlin studies the immensely influential and controversial lay Nichiren Buddhism-based organization Sōka Gakkai (Value Creation Study Association).  His dissertation moves beyond recent studies of the group, which are almost all divided between vigorous attacks by critics and hagiographies sponsored by the organization itself, to observe that “the final picture is not one of a hegemonic, undifferentiated mass created by Sōka Gakkai leaders’ fiat but of a socially variegated and multivocal society animated by members’ histories, passions, and personal engagements with the group’s ideas and practices” (pg. 12).  McLaughlin brings together archival research on Gakkai primary sources and data from close to seven years he spent as a non-member participant observer of Sōka Gakkai activities to investigate what he terms the group’s “twin legacies”: self-cultivation through Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism conflated with pedagogy, philosophy, and aesthetics introduced to Japan from Europe and the United States in the modern era.  McLaughlin’s most provocative suggestion may be that Sōka Gakkai builds on these legacies to construct what he calls an “adjunct nation,” which is to say that the organization functions as a kind of surrogate for, or supplement to, the modern Japanese nation-state.  It has played this role for relatively disenfranchised people in a postwar Japan.

Chapter 1 details Sōka Gakkai’s history, covering the development from its founding as a small educational reform society into a religious mass movement.  It begins by discussing founder Makiguchi Tsunesaburō and his background as an educator.  In 1930, Makiguchi published Sōka kyōikugaku taikei (System of Value-Creating Educational Study), which McLaughlin calls “a liberal humanist work of philosophy” (p. 46), expressing a self-improvement ethos characterizing the Meiji Period.  In 1928 Makiguchi had also converted to Nichiren Buddhism, which values all-encompassing faith in the Lotus Sūtra.  McLaughlin notes the incongruity in the combination of Nichiren Buddhism with Makiguchi’s “liberal humanist” perspectives, and he traces ways these are addressed through initiatives by Toda Jōsei, the Gakkai’s leader after Makiguchi died in prison during the Second World War.  Makiguchi was imprisoned because of his opposition to the wartime state; imprisoned at the same time, Toda identified his own tribulations with those of Nichiren who opposed the thirteenth-century Kamakura state.  The remainder of the chapter deals with Sōka Gakkai’s history under Toda’s successor and current Honorary President Ikeda Daisaku.  It details the transformation of Sōka Gakkai under Ikeda from an explicitly Buddhist lay association into a more broadly defined organization wherein adherents promote the institution’s ideals through electoral politics, art, literature, and other avenues broadly defined as “culture.”  While this expanded mandate encouraged institutional growth, it also led to a split in 1991 between Sōka Gakkai and its parent Buddhist sect Nichiren Shōshū, along with other conflicts.

Chapter 2, “Sōka Gakkai’s Dramatic Narrative,” focuses on Ikeda’s dramatic persona.  Ikeda and the Gakkai increasingly linked Nichiren’s ideal martyrdom and a drive to proselytize associated with Nichiren Buddhism on the one hand, with Western romanticism in literature, music, and art on the other.  The organization’s most important text became Ikeda’s autobiographical serialized novel, The Human Revolution.  This multi-volume work, a vast media empire publishing it and much else, along with infrastructure including youth organizations, women’s organizations, and a Music Corps, perpetuate and spread Sōka Gakkai.  Ikeda’s novel conflates him with Makiguchi, Toda, Nichiren, and canonical literary greats, including the Count of Monte Cristo, glorifying the author’s struggles against established authority.  The chapter traces how members’ interactions with this Gakkai’s media empire provide them with lessons in discipleship and establish a model for future Gakkai goals.

Chapter 3 discusses Sōka Gakkai women.  McLaughlin provides contrasting ethnographic case studies of Sōka Gakkai homes to demonstrate ways in which Sōka Gakkai practice structures and gives meaning to the lives of female adherents, and how the institution encourages women members to transform their domestic spaces into Sōka Gakkai venues.  McLaughlin begins with a portrait of a middle class family woman who resides in greater Tokyo.  He then describes an elderly, childless woman from a suburb of Nagoya whom McLaughlin accompanies on a visit to the group’s headquarters in Tokyo – a visit that she, and many other Married Women’s Division members like her, treat as a pilgrimage to a holy site.  The next vignette involves a northern Kyushu devotee whose son resents the sacrifices his mother made for her absolute devotion to the organization.  The son rejects the Buddhist faith in which he was raised and yet maintains close ties with his mother, who maintains her absolute faith in the Gakkai’s goodness.  McLaughlin ends the chapter with the stories of two abused women, considering the question of what happens to the ideal Gakkai household when it falls apart.

The centerpieces of Chapter 4, “Cultivating Youth,” are taken from McLaughlin’s fieldwork experiences.  In 2007 he took the nin’yō shiken (appointment exam), an entry-level doctrinal test for those who wish to achieve successive ranks in the group.  McLaughlin details the expansion and the compromises of Sōka Gakkai’s internal examination system from the times of Toda to the current century, and how the emphasis of cultivation within the group has transformed from lay Buddhist training to heightened devotion to Ikeda Daisaku and the discipline one must have in order to demonstrate this devotion.  McLaughlin also participated for several years as a violinist in a symphony orchestra organized within the Gakkai’s Young Men’s Division.  Here, he considers how the music of Ludwig van Beethoven is transformed into a mode of Buddhist self-cultivation, and he details some of the personal and institutional struggles this distinctive practice creates.

The Conclusion, titled “Paradoxes of Success,” discusses how Sōka Gakkai owes its success as a mass movement to the ideals of a group-oriented, expansionist, aspirational ethos, and considers the dilemmas the organization faces as it tries to instill this same ethos in its second- and third-generation membership that is “increasingly socially diverse, largely unmotivated by the material wants and spiritual anomie that attracted the first generation of members, and otherwise driven by individual aspirations not necessarily accommodated by the mass movement focus of the centralized organization” (pg. 34).

Scholars such as Robert Kisala, Helen Hardacre, and Shimazono Susumu have written on “New Religions” in prewar and postwar Japan, of which Sōka Gakkai is an example.  McLaughlin’s dissertation builds upon all of this, as well as upon Jacqueline Stone’s research on the long-term history of Nichiren Buddhism and related forms.  McLaughlin’s work, moreover, provides novel focus on Sōka Gakkai in recent times, combining knowledge of history with ethnography.  Nonetheless, his work is about more than “religion.”  He compares the Gakkai to a nation-state, which is the fundamental organizing principle of modern societies, and there are many similarities.  Readers who want a view into the complexities of this society as it takes shape within Sōka Gakkai, and those who have been looking for a treatment of Japan’s largest-ever religious organization that goes beyond a top-down perspective, will have something to learn from McLaughlin’s empathetic yet analytical perspective on the Gakkai and its adherents.

Gerald Iguchi
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University of Wisconsin – La Crosse

Primary Sources

Periodicals (in print and online), in particular the wide variety of those produced by Sōka Gakkai
The (published) collected works of the three leaders of Sōka Gakkai (Ikeda Daisaku, Makiguchi Tsunesaburō, and Toda Jōsei), along with various individual works by each of them published in both English and Japanese
The Sōka Gakkai edition of Nichiren’s writings, Shinpen Nichiren Daishōnin gosho zenshū
Main source: ethnographic, firsthand research

Dissertation Information

Princeton University. 2009. 445 pp. Primary Advisor: Jacqueline Stone.


Image: “Soka Gakkai Makiguchi Memorial Hall, Tokyo” by checkov, Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like