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 dharmas – o 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.