I have a friend in London who is a member of Soka Gakkai. He has a little wooden shrine on the wall of his living room, and last time I stayed with him, I overheard him chanting ‘nam yo ho ren ge kyo.’

I’m not religious myself, and I’ve always been scrupulously polite about his beliefs. But my curiosity got the better of me, so I asked him what he got out of chanting.

He told me that he chanted as a way of praying for the things he wants in life. For example, he wanted a new job, so he chanted for it and sure enough, he found one.

This struck me as an unlikely explanation for finding a new job, not to mention a rather self-interested justification for religious belief, but I didn’t say a word. All the same, my curiosity was piqued, so I did some reading up on Soka Gakkai.

I saw that they are a more interesting bunch than I’d given them credit for. For a start, they are much bigger than I realised. They claim to have 12 million members in 190 countries around the world. Eight million of them are in Japan, where their newspaper, the Seikyo Shinbun, has the third-highest circulation of any daily paper.

Soka Gakkai is also richer than I thought. Anyone passing through Shinanomachi in central Tokyo can see their wealth writ large. Judging by the number of Soka Gakkai flags fluttering from atop high buildings, the entire neighbourhood seems to belong to them. Forbes magazine has estimated that the organization has an income of at least $1.5 billion per year.

Soka Gakkai’s Brazilian headquarters. | Dornicke / CC BY-SA

Soka Gakkai is a Buddhist organisation that takes its lead from the teachings of the 13th-century monk Nichiren Daishonin, as interpreted by its first three presidents. It was founded in 1930 and its name means ‘the value-creation society.’ Its website says the organization is based on, “Empowerment of the people, by the people, and for the people – individuals taking the initiative to realise their infinite potential as they contribute to society.”

The website goes on to say that Soka Gakkai aims to tap the creative life force or inner universe inside each of us. Its followers believe that everyone is capable of achieving Buddhahood, which is to say, all life has dignity and is capable of infinite inherent potential.

Like Falun Gong in China, Soka Gakkai has often met with outright suspicion on the part of the government. The organization was disbanded during World War Two after falling foul of the government of the day, which accused it of disrespecting the emperor. Most of its leaders were imprisoned for violating the Peace Preservation Law, which had been introduced in 1925 as a way of suppressing communists and socialists but was used by the militarist government to clamp down on all forms of dissent.

Post-1945, this draconian law was repealed by the Americans and Soka Gakkai’s membership quickly rebounded. Home visits and small group meetings between mentors and disciples were organized and over the course of the 1960s and ‘70s, the movement grew.

Nonetheless, the authorities continued to view Soka Gakkai with suspicion, perhaps because many of its early adherents came from communities that had been marginalized or dislocated after the war. Official suspicions only grew when Soka Gakkai established the Komeito, or ‘Clean Government Party,’ in 1964.

Only since 1999, when Komeito went into alliance with the ruling LDP, has Soka Gakkai been accepted by mainstream society. These days, the media largely leaves the organization alone and Komeito, which no longer has any formal relationship with Soka Gakkai, regularly wins 10-15% of the vote in general elections, making it Japan’s third-largest political party.

Soka Gakkai International was founded in 1975. Among its most famous members are singers Tina Turner and Belinda Carlisle, and actor Orlando Bloom. SGI says it aims to promote world peace, culture, and education. Its second president, Daisaku Ikeda, wrote that “Nichiren Buddhism is about human beings . . . Nationality, social position, ideology - none of that matters.”

SGI has participated in many activities and exhibitions in conjunction with the United Nations and has won international respect for its longstanding campaigning for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

By - George Lloyd.