Identity, Diversity and Belonging

Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;


Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.


Religious Identity

As a lay organisation that had its origins in Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism, Soka Gakkai shares some common traits with other schools of Japanese Buddhism. For one thing, in contrast to Indian expressions of Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism is relatively more ‘social’ and emphasises community and group values (Keown 1996: 78). Some influential teachers have even frowned upon monasticism and encouraged monks to marry and remain active in social life.

The Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu, however, remained fiercely independent when Japan’s wartime government attempted to impose national unity by enforcing religious uniformity. The Imperial government pressured small sects to merge with larger ones so that they could be controlled more easily. The Soka Gakkai resisted this state imposition which led to the imprisonment of Soka Gakkai founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and his disciple Josei Toda. This zealous independence went on to inform the political and religious ambitions of the movement’s third president, Daisaku Ikeda.

Nichiren Shoshu, but not Soka Gakkai, has an ambition to convert all of Japan to Nichiren Buddhism. This goal traces its origins to a fusion of politics, faith and practice embedded in the Three Secret Dharmas that developed within Nichiren Buddhism. The first two dharmaso daimoku (sacred chanting) and the Gohonzon (the mandala) – have been explained and were realised during Nichiren’s lifetime in the thirteenth century (McLaughlin 2015: 12). The third Secret Dharma remains to be achieved and is the most overtly political. This is the honmon no kaidan, the “true ordination platform” – a government-sponsored facility which will enshrine the Dai-gohonzon, to be worshipped through o daimoku when everyone in Japan has converted to Nichiren Buddhism.

It is against this background that the Soka Gakkai in Japan – as a branch of Nichiren – are often regarded as nationalists who are willing to fuse religion and politics (for instance, via the creation of Komeito). This fusion of Japanese nationalism and Buddhism does not apply, however, to SGI organisations.

Family and Community

In the post-War years, the appeal of Toda’s leadership to the more marginalised members of Japanese society meant that Soka Gakkai attracted large numbers of people who were poor and uneducated, especially those who were housewives (McLaughlin 2015: 13). This attractiveness enabled Soka Gakkai in Japan and, to a greater extent, SGI organisations in other countries to encourage the growth of new communities amongst members.

Diversity within the tradition

Soka Gakkai regards itself as the sole and true inheritor of Nichiren’s dharma, which has often placed it squarely in opposition not only to other Buddhists, but to other Nichiren-based sub-schools (McLaughlin 2015: 4). This tendency to schism had an early precedent when the Nichiren Shoshu sub-school emerged in the late thirteenth century through the establishment of its head temple at Taiseki-ji. After Soka Gakkai broke with Nichiren Shoshu in the 1990s, however, there appeared to be an upsurge in diversity amongst SGI organisations in different countries.

The different SGI organisations also have their own approaches to inclusion and diversity. For example, SGI-UK highlights the testimonies of members who come from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community or who are of ethnic minority backgrounds (SGI-UK 2017: 27–29, 32–33).

Other Religions

As a result of backlash against Soka Gakkai’s uncompromising interpretation of Buddhism and its controversial practices, such as shakubuku, SGI president Daisaku Ikeda toned down some of the movement’s ideals. For example, in 1970 he conceded that Soka Gakkai did not intend to establish the kaidan, or “government-sponsored platform” (Baffelli 2011: 234).

Since establishing SGI, Ikeda has adopted a more innovative and engaging approach in spreading Buddhism worldwide. He founded the Soka schools, a non-denominational school system which includes all levels, including kindergarten, and a university in Tokyo and another in California (SGI-UK 2017: 44). Ikeda is also a proponent of dialogue and peace initiatives, and has published exchanges with figures as diverse as Mikhail Gorbachev (the last leader of the Soviet Union), Elise Boulding (the Norwegian Quaker and sociologist), Joseph Rotblat (the Polish Nobel Peace laureate), and Andre Malraux (the French novelist, art theorist and politician) (SGI-UK 2017: 44).

The fourth item in the SGI charter also affirms that the movement “shall respect and protect the freedom of religion and religious expression” (Soka Gakkai International (SGI) 1995).

The Middle Way

The diversity within Buddhism has resulted in diverging interpretations of common concepts, such as the ‘Middle Way’. For Soka Gakkai, drawing upon the teachings of Nichiren Daishonin, the Middle Way is exemplified by the Daimoku – “the ultimate Law or truth of all things”. They see it not as a compromise between extremes, but as a way to attain balance in life (SGI-UK 2017: 31).

This framework is what enabled the second president of Soka Gakkai, Josei Toda, to focus his teachings on the attainment of health, wealth, and spiritual and worldly happiness. Toda likened happiness to the flavouring in soup, which should contain the right balance of sweet and sour. Too much sour would make the soup inedible, and some sweetness would need to be added. Toda even proclaimed, ‘If you do as I tell you, and if things don’t work out as you want by the time I come to (this town) next (year), then you may come up here and beat me and kick me as much as you want. This is a promise.’ (Montgomery 1991: 185)

This passionate emphasis on personal empowerment and salvation was appealing to substantial numbers of Japanese, especially residents of Tokyo who had to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the Second World War (Montgomery 1991: 185). The focus on personal transformation continues to be a prominent feature, for example in the testimonies of SGI-UK members who have struggled with grief, addiction, divorce and abuse (SGI-UK 2017).