Soka Gakkai and Polly Toynbee

April 25 2007

Who is Daisaku Ikeda of the published Toynbee-Ikeda dialogue, quoted in the last post?

He was born (in 1928) into a poor family of seaweed farmers near Tokyo. In his late teens he came across the teachings of the Japanese monk Nichiren (1222-82).

Nichiren Buddhism has had strong influence at several points in Japanese history, especially after the Second World War. It emphasises each individual’s ability to attain Buddhahood in his present lifetime. Nichiren was persecuted for his optimistic teaching.

Ikeda joined a lay organisation which propagated Nichiren Buddhism, especially among the rootless urban, called Soka Gakkai, which had been founded in 1930. He became its President in 1960.

In 1975 he set up Soka Gakkai International as an umbrella organisation for Soka Gakkai-affiliated groups around the world. He resigned as President of SG in 1979 because of a dispute with Nichiren Shōshū, but remains its Honorary President and President of SGI. The Nichiren Shōshū priesthood cut off relations with both SG and SGI in 1991, making the breach complete, and excommunicated Ikeda in 1992.

Japanese institutions are not always what they seem to be: see Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power (1990). Soka Gakkai is rich and is extremely influential in politics and (apparently) in the entertainment industry. Its political influence comes through the New Komeito Party. But it has not entirely lost the sense of being a religious organisation. I don’t believe that its hold on parts of Japanese society is more sinister than a religious group’s usually is on a society. As far as I know, it is not tied up with the extreme right wing or with the yakuza. In fact, I think it is disliked by the right wing for having opposed, at the time, Japan’s actions during the Second World War. Its doctrines seem to me to be respectable. Perhaps its techniques and governance aren’t. There is a smell of money around it. Its opponents describe it as a cult. Its hold on some individuals has been held to be damaging.

Polly Toynbee is a British left-of-centre journalist. She writes in The Guardian. She is Arnold Toynbee’s granddaughter and the daughter of Philip Toynbee, who was at different times, and perhaps at the same time, a Christian and a communist. Polly Toynbee, unlike her grandfather, is vehemently atheist. On social questions, she takes after Arnold Toynbee’s uncle, the other Arnold Toynbee (1852-83), the economic historian and social reformer, after whom that powerful institution in the East End of London, Toynbee Hall, established in 1884, is named. Toynbee Hall is a centre for social work and education. It helped people from poor families rise in society in the days when we had real social mobility. (For example, a figure such as Thomas Okey, who began as an East End basket-weaver and became in 1919 the first Professor of Italian in Cambridge.)

In 1984 Ikeda invited Polly Toynbee to Tokyo. Her entertaining account of her stay was published in The Guardian on May 19. You can read it here (the paper is given its old name, officially scrapped in 1959, of Manchester Guardian). Ikeda never stood a chance of softening her up to provide him and his court with more reflected Toynbee glory, and perhaps make her into an advocate for the publication of additional, still unseen, Toynbee-Ikeda material.

Polly Toynbee (who seems to lack any basic sympathy for things Japanese) said of Ikeda in a 1995 BBC broadcast (quoted here): “I think it would be hard to imagine a less spiritual man. […] A powerful megalomania; we got this aura of power from him that was extremely alarming. We then went, on another day with him, to some huge Nuremberg-style rally in a stadium, where everything was to the greater worship of him.” Arnold Toynbee, on the other hand, respected Ikeda and is almost deferential to him.

She begins the Guardian piece by saying: “On the long flight to Japan, I read for the first time my grandfather’s posthumously published book, Choose Life – A Dialogue, a discussion between himself and a Japanese Buddhist leader called Daisaku Ikeda. My grandfather […] was 85 when the dialogue was recorded, a short time before his final incapacitating stroke. It is probably the book among his works most kindly left forgotten – being a long discursive ramble between the two men over topics from sex education to pollution and war.”

He was 83 when the discussion began and over two years away from that stroke, but I agree with her. It is the weakest of Toynbee’s published dialogues. There is something plodding about it and it is too long. Too much of it is like a weary traversal of predetermined ground, and although it is the most interactive of the later dialogues (Ikeda does much of the talking), there is little spontaneity. It sinks into truisms. It appeared posthumously. I assume that OUP heard the recordings and that Ikeda did not embellish his part. But there are a few good things in it, and I have done some posts from it (search under Ikeda). Polly Toynbee might find Ikeda both sinister and ridiculous, but he is, it seems to me, an at least competent interlocutor and hard to square in this capacity with Polly Toynbee’s portrayal of him – which I believe. Most younger Japanese regard Ikeda as a bad joke and good mainly at raising money from gullible people.

She is unkind in implying that her grandfather was losing his intellectual grip. I don’t think he was, though the dialogue doesn’t sparkle. She concludes her article by saying: “I like to think that if my grandfather had not been so old or if he had met Ikeda in his own bizarre surroundings [rather than in London], he would not have lent himself to this process of endorsement. He was a frail man at the time, and by nature trusting. If our trip to Japan was intended to bind him yet more tightly to Ikeda, I hope the effect will have been the reverse.”

The Wikipedia articles on both Ikeda and Soka Gakkai seem to lack neutrality. I say a bit about the circumstances of the Toynbee-Ikeda dialogue in a comment at the end of this post.

22 Responses to “Soka Gakkai and Polly Toynbee”

  1. nagaijin Says:

    I’ve seen Toynbee’s photo on Sokka Gakkai magazine adverts on the trains here lately (I live in Osaka, Japan), so either SG is rehashing the old material or they’ve finally wheedled their way into the unpublished archives. Every week, there are photos (of varying vintage) of Ikeda and a world leader (past or present) or noted academic (alive or dead). I used to wonder how he got so chummy with so many people, but, thanks to your post, I don’t wonder any more. Thanks a lot!

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Thank you for this. I tried to be fair to SG. But I have also lived in Japan and I know its reputation. Why does using a photo of Toynbee mean that they are using unpublished archives?

  3. nagaijin Says:

    “Why does using a photo of Toynbee mean that they are using unpublished archives?”

    It doesn’t necessarily mean that, but Polly Toynbee’s article was written nearly 25 years ago and she does refer to unpublished material, which she hoped that OUP would not release to SG. She does suggest, however, that the SG crowd can be very persuasive. From the subway posters, I could tell that there was a Toynbee interview featured in the magazine (this was sometime last year, I think), but at the time I saw them, I was unaware of Toynbee’s significance in Japan. So, like I said, the article was probably the same old thing reheated from 25 years ago (which is entirely possible), or maybe OUP was finally persuaded to release some more of the Ikeda/Toynbee “dialogue”. Just idle speculation.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Or the mag is just talking yet again about Ikeda having met Toynbee. Can you get hold of a copy?

  5. nagaijin Says:

    Afraid not. It was sometime last year, and I don’t know anyone who reads it. I have no SG connections and I like to keep it that way. You could try SGI’s homepage.

  6. davidderrick Says:

    I’ve done as you suggest, and will do a new post on what I found.

  7. […] and Ikeda June 22nd, 2007 In an earlier post I linked to Polly Toynbee’s article in The Guardian describing a visit to the President of the […]

  8. […] and Ikeda June 21st, 2007 In an earlier post I linked to Polly Toynbee’s article in The Guardian describing a visit to the President of the […]

  9. davidderrick Says:

    Article online at

    Tokyo Journal, August 1993

    “Daisaku Ikeda – statesman, billionaire, god

    Daisaku Ikeda’s followers believe he is the earthly incarnation of a saint; those who believe otherwise suffer his god-like wrath.

    Daisaku Ikeda should be powerful – he has karma on his side. Enough karma to lure over 12 million followers to his radical Buddhist sect. Enough to pour trillions of yen into schools and plush ‘cultural centers’ worldwide. Enough to ensure audiences with royals, business leaders and former prime ministers. In fact 65-year-old Ikeda has enough karma to achieve almost anything. So why is he thought to be so contemptible?

    A small, plump man with a permanently smug look, Ikeda joined the religious group Soka Gakkai in 1947 and quickly earned a reputation as a phenomenally effective fund-raiser. This is said to have assured his rise through the ranks and proved a strong weapon in the battle for succession between Ikeda and a rival in 1960, when Chairman Josei Toda died.

    According to Ikeda’s former right-hand man Yukimasa Fujiwara – one of many who have left the group to protest their leader’s dictatorial style – Ikeda won the chairmanship by quietly paying off executives.

    Ikeda, then only 32, quickly persuaded followers that the more converts and money they brought in, the better their karma. The subsequent membership drive lured one-tenth of the nation’s population and millions of others worldwide, including celebrities such as Tina Turner, Patrick Swayze and Herbie Hancock.

    But conquering the spiritual realm wasn’t enough for Ikeda. In 1957, he had thousand of members register as residents in a district where a Gakkai-backed candidate needed votes. The candidate won, but Ikeda spent 15 days in prison for violating election law.

    His political aspirations took further shape in 1964, when he launched the Komeito party which, with huge funds and millions of votes, grew into the Diet’s second-largest opposition party.

    The Komeito has cast the deciding vote in debates such as the 1988 consumption tax and the 1991 PKO bills, giving Ikeda – an unelected party leader – awesome sway over crucial domestic issues. “The Komeito can’t make any decisions without his consent,” claims Tokyo Insideline’s Takao Toshikawa. ‘President Ikeda,’ as he is called by his English-speaking followers, is a larger-than-life figure and a skilled orator.

    He is also known as an arrogant and mean-spirited man who taunts Gakkai executives at meetings. Yet his combination of religious aura and political clout has proved devastatingly successful.

    Soka Gakkai now has eight universities, schools, kindergartens and other centers around the world. It recently completed an extravagant international HQ on 580 acres of prime Santa Monica estate. Glossy press packs burst with photos of Ikeda meeting Gorbachev, Thatcher, Mitterand and Kissinger. Before Ikeda visits his many schools and centers, his aids are deployed to hand out gifts of soft drinks. After one visit to Soka University in Hachioji, students proudly displayed the empty cans in shoeboxes inscribed with the words: “Presents of encouragement from Ikeda sensei.” It is also no secret that Ikeda [like Klaus Schwab of the WEF] desperately wants a Nobel Peace Prize; he has met with many Nobel laureates and donates huge sums to charitable causes such as Cambodian refugees, Ethiopian projects and Palestinian education.

    Ikeda’s followers consider him the earthly incarnation of the Nichiren Daishonin saint; those who believe otherwise have felt the wrath of this self-appointed god. When writer Hirotatsu Fujiwara tried to publish a critical book in 1969, Ikeda employed then-LDP Secretary General Kakuei Tanaka to persuade Fujiwara to halt publication (He had him arrested on bogus charges); the author also claimed that a KGB-Iike campaign against him included death-threats and surveillance.

    The scandal that erupted after these revelations forced Ikeda’s aides to apologize and soon after, to announce the formal separation of Soka Gakkai from the Komeito. This restructuring was little help to Komeito Diet member Toshio Ohashi, who complained about Ikeda’s megalomania in 1988. On Ikeda’s nod, Soka Gakkai withdrew its support on the grounds that Ohashi had been receiving illegal campaign contributions. Without Gakkai’s funds and votes, Ohashi had no choice but to resign from the Diet. The message was clear: nobody argues with The President.

    Such incidents have blemished Ikeda’s saintly veneer, but have hardly dented his power base. Ikeda continues to be consulted by top politicians such as Noboru Takeshita and, according to the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, Soka Gakkai held four fund raising events this year for last month’s elections.

    Ikeda is reportedly wooing both strands of the nation’s political future: Takeshita, the old style LDP godfather; and Ichiro Ozawa, the young iconoclast, whose party might soon prosper from Ikeda’s generosity.

    Japan’s political map is being redrawn, and Daisaku lkeda – statesman, billionaire, god – seems intent to play his part.”

  10. […] the next and longest part of these extracts Ikeda expounds some Buddhist principles. Whatever Polly Toynbee and others think of him, he is, as far as I can judge, at least a competent exponent and his […]

  11. juan .e.k. Says:

    the most important is all the energy coming from the practice, human nature is programmed to destroy the benefices of the Message. so sorry for that

  12. yl Says:

    dr ikeda has won over 200 honorary doctorates and thousands of other awards, does he care over a nobel prize? and tell me, how does he win so many prizes if what ppl say of him is true? i think Japanese are just biased against him.

  13. yl Says:

    and pls tell me churches aren’t forcing ppl to give 10% or even of their pay?

  14. davidderrick Says:

    “I assume that OUP heard the recordings and that Ikeda did not embellish his part.”

    Hearing extracts from the tapes (see Toynbee and Ikeda 3 in An Ikeda sequence: link in the Categories on the left) convinces me that he did not.

  15. Malem Says:

    Nagaijin says: “Just idle speculation.”
    On the one hand we have the subjective account of Polly Toynbee, and attacks from the japanese press (the hysterical article quoted from the Tokyo journal – and there are many more in this vein).
    On the other hand, let’s just take this simple fact (among others): to this day, D. Ikeda has received over 240 honorary doctorates from universities over the world… (and anyone familiar with the scholastic world will appreciate what this means)
    so? who’s right?
    I think that whatever this whole matter really is about, it deserves to be looked into more carefully. not just “speculated” upon…
    So please be a little more accurate and fair before making your judgement: go check for yourself, meet SG people, find the evidence. Make an effort to understand the true nature of SG.
    and finally, out of respect for A. Toynbee, I think it would be a mistake to discard his book with D. Ikeda so lightly. why did a man like Toynbee got involved with Ikeda?
    think about it…

  16. davidderrick Says:

    This is one of several posts here on Ikeda. Please go to a group called An Ikeda sequence. The link is in the Categories column on the left.

  17. Sunny Says:

    Living in England I know what reputation Polly Toynbee enjoys in the country. She is nowhere close to What Daisaku Ikeda has achieved and stands for. Ikeda himself would still respect Polly as he is a true Buddhist and conveys a message that everybody is worthy of respect. SGI is a rich organisation and what’s wrong in that? If people benefit from the philosphy and wish to contribute then what’s the problem? SGI has invested in Schools and Universities and not Casinos or Football clubs. Pick any great human being from history books , none of them have escaped criticism. Gandhi was murdered so was Martin Luther King. All great men have enemies. I find an early comment about Daisaku Ikeda wanting a Nobel PEace Prize as rediculous. I am absolutely sure that if he is ever offerred the prize he would refuse it as Nobel Peace Prize is just over advertised award. Daisaku Ikeda doesnt chase prizes but People across the world just keep showering him with doctrates and honorary citizenships. I’m sure people are aware that universities just dont hand out doctrates for nothing and I’m sure they are not for sale.

    Britishers are bad travellers and struggle to adapt to different cultures. Polly Toynbees comments on Ikeda on her trip to Japan is coming from her lack of understanding of Japanese culture.

    Daisaku Ikeda is a great Human being and exemplifies what a single man can achieve. He never had any formal higher education but still has so many awards. People who hate him are just jealous. The first president of the Soka Gakkai was imprisoned for his stand against the World War and eventually died in prison. Was he wrong? But with a history like that SGI is still hated in Japan by a jealous bunch. Why do you think Head of states from so many countries agreed to have a dialogue with Ikeda? I’m sure he didnt pay for it.

    • Tii Says:

      Yes, universities simply do not give out honorary doctorates like they hand out promotional brochures, and neither can these be bought from the market. Neither can you bribe your way through honorary citizenship of so many different cities in the world. To accuse Daisaku Ikeda or SGI members of possible bribery or related acts seems like an insult to the many cities and universities in the list.

      If anything, Daisaku Ikeda never fail to mentioned that these awards were presented to him on behalf of his mentor, Josei Toda who gave him a thorough education in his youth, when he had to give up his studies due to a terminal illness. Ikeda often show immeasurable gratitude to the various institutions and the members of SGI for the awards.

      I guess before making any assumptions and opinions about what we have read, it doesn’t hurt to find out more about the truth behind many of the points made.

      SGI members do not worship Daisaku Ikeda. Moreover, i think it is ridiculous to claim without evidence that the members think of him or themselves as the incarnation of whichever saint, Nichiren Daishonin or not.

      The basis behind the practice of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo is to strengthen one’s faith and realize that every single person, whether a Buddhist or not, has a Buddha nature within them. In other terms, a potential within their lives to create a change, no matter how impossible it seems. There is no God to worship to.

      The object of devotion, that many might be mistaken as a deity that SGI pray to, is instead, a focal point where practitioners can concentrate and therefore manifest a higher life state. Buddhism is about daily life. We are all human beings and therefore, will err.

      But to recognize that at every moment that ‘this action i’m about to take will have an effect in another’s life or the society’, will remind practitioners to take full responsibility of their actions. It’s not easy. In fact, it might even seem like a chore to some people.

      Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King… (just to name a few, im not saying they are the same) Daisaku Ikeda is just showing the world an exemplary model of how we can live our lives to the fullest. Yes, it’s going to be tough. In fact, people are definitely going to criticize and persecute you. But are you going to be defeated this way?

      If we just show a little more perseverance, a little more courage and offer more compassion for those around us, then, we will be able to understand why despite all the harsh persecutions he faced, Ikeda never gave up this path towards peace.

      Just because it’s the ONLY right thing to do. Upholding justice and peace is tough. You might even get killed for it. But you still do it. Because you know that your vision, your beliefs, your example will continue to shine for the sake of future generations.

  18. Viv Says:

    Thank you last commentor.

    Sensei is my mentor in faith. I have absolute gratitude to have met the practice and to have an anchor in the SGI organisation.

    The lack of understanding upset me. This is why we have wars, confused and very unhappy people.

    Just try one Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

    Believe in yourself and others.

    Peace out x

  19. Krishnan Says:

    Came acoross this site recently. It is amusing and disppointing to see supposedly educated people paint SGI in such a simplistic maner. There are many Indians like me who are reasonably educated and find Ikeda a good mentor and the SGI a good influence on society. No one has asked us to donate money.

  20. Rick Daccardi Says:

    SGI members do not believe president Ikeda is the reincarnation of any one else – especially not a saint or God or Buddha. Anyone at SGI that believed anything of that nature would be immediately corrected. Making that claim proves there is little, if any, veracity in what the person is writing because that notion is WRONG.

  21. […] are much better. Even the Ikeda dialogue is not as bad as the Philip, though Polly Toynbee has called it the book among her grandfather’s works “most kindly left […]

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