From its origins as a movement for educational reform in pre-World War II Japan, to its current status as possibly the world’s largest socially engaged lay Buddhist association, at the core of the Soka Gakkai has always been a conviction in the unbounded potential of each individual and the right of all people to lead happy, fulfilled lives.
The Soka Gakkai (literally, “Society for the Creation of Value”) began in 1930 as a study group of reformist educators. Its founder Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) was an author and educator, inspired by Nichiren Buddhism and passionately dedicated to the reform of the Japanese educational system. His theory of value-creating education, which he published in book form in 1930, is centred on a belief in the unlimited potential of every individual and regards education as the lifelong pursuit of self-awareness, wisdom and development.
Makiguchi’s emphasis on independent thinking over rote learning, and self-motivation over blind obedience, directly challenged the Japanese authorities of the time, who saw the role of education as molding docile subjects of the state.
The 1930s saw the rise of militaristic nationalism in Japan, culminating in its entry into World War II. The militarist government imposed the State Shinto ideology on the population as a means of glorifying its war of aggression, and cracked down on all forms of dissidence. The refusal of Makiguchi and his closest disciple Josei Toda (1900-58) to compromise their beliefs and lend support to the regime led to their arrest and imprisonment in 1943 as “Thought criminals.”
Despite attempts to persuade him from his principles, Makiguchi held fast to his convictions and died in prison in 1944.
Josei Toda survived the ordeal and was released from prison a few weeks before the war ended. Amidst the confusion of postwar Japan, he set out to rebuild the Soka Gakkai, expanding its mission from the field of education to the betterment of society as a whole. He promoted an active, socially engaged form of Buddhism as a means of self-empowerment – a way to overcome obstacles in life and tap inner hope, confidence, courage and wisdom. This message resonated especially among the disenfranchised of Japanese society, and before Toda’s death in 1958 there were approximately one million members. In 1957, in a forceful statement, Toda called on youth to work for the abolition of nuclear weapons. This became the cornerstone of the Soka Gakkai’s peace activities.
Toda’s successor, Daisaku Ikeda, had also experienced the horrors of war as a youth and was determined to dedicate his life to building peace. He was 32 when he became president of the Soka Gakkai in 1960. Under Ikeda’s leadership, the organisation continued to grow and broaden its focus.
In 1975, in response to the needs of an increasingly international membership, the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) was founded. Today it is a worldwide network with 82 registered constituent organizations and members in 192 countries and territories, sharing a common vision of a better world. SGI’s Buddhist philosophy underpins a movement promoting peace, culture and education.