Soka Gakkai is a Japanese new religious movement based on Nichiren Buddhism. It has been described as Japan’s most successful new religious movement in terms of the number of members, including non-Japanese members in the West. It claims to have 8.27 million member households in Japan and a further 1.5 million members across 192 countries and territories worldwide.
Soka Gakkai started as an educational reform movement, emerging in Japan between the First and Second World Wars. It was established by a school principal, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944), who had earlier converted to Nichiren Shoshu, a minority lineage following the teachings of the thirteenth century monk Nichiren Daishonin (1222-82). Nichiren opposed the support that the military establishment of the time gave to certain Buddhist schools and challenged the status quo in other ways. As a result, the government exiled him twice and also tried to execute him. Nichiren’s teachings have inspired religious expressions amongst several Buddhist sub-schools throughout the centuries.
Initially known as Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value Creation Education Society), the movement was an attempt by Makiguchi to reform the Japanese educational system along humanist and individualistic lines. This soon proved incompatible with the policies and ideology of Japan’s rapidly militarising regime. Makiguchi and his disciple, Josei Toda (1900-58), were eventually imprisoned for their opposition to Japan’s wartime policies, with Makiguchi dying whilst incarcerated.
After the War, the movement reorganised itself as a lay association affiliated with Nichiren Shoshu. It broadened its remit beyond education and dropped ‘Kyoiku’ from its name becoming simply, ‘Soka Gakkai’. Under Toda’s leadership, it appealed to significant numbers amongst displaced urban populations, especially in Tokyo. Under the leadership of the movement’s third president, Daisaku Ikeda (b. 1928), it formed its own political party within Japan, Komeito (Clean Government), in 1961. However, these two entities officially separated at the end of the 1960s. In 1975, Soka Gakkai International was launched.
In 1991, the Nichiren Shoshu priestly leadership issued an order demanding that Soka Gakkai be disbanded and for all remaining members to be excommunicated, resulting in an acrimonious split. Ironically, Soka Gakkai International benefited from this schism because its constituent organisations were able to claim more national autonomy and adapt to their specific contexts. In 1999, Komeito (now rebranded as New Komeito), became the junior partner in the coalition government led by the Liberal Democratic Party. Within Japan and internationally, Soka Gakkai remains committed to the teachings of Nichiren.
About the author
This section was written by Dr Shanon Shah.
Shanon is a Research Officer at the Information Network on Religious Movements (Inform) and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from King’s College London.