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Soka Gakkai - Mystery with a Reason?


Sunny Sunday morning at the beginning of June. I am sitting on a wooden bench, birch trees around me, no car anywhere in sight. It is true what they say: the birds exist out there and they really sing. It is as close to Heaven as one can get, including the feeling that I am not welcome here.

The building behind my back is Caledon Centre for Culture and Education, an estate worth tens of millions, that belongs to Soka Gakkai International (SGI). It is the final day of the Conference on Evolution of World Order (WOC), organized-according to the official documents of the event-by Science for Peace, a renown and well respected organization among NGOs all over the world, Ryerson Polytechnic University, SGI, UN Association of Toronto and others. Out of 140 participants, only around 40 decided to come here today, for the plenary session, which is strange.

I am alone outside, going through some of the papers submitted here, trying to see if there is something that would explain this odd feeling of secrecy that I got. Michael Greenspoon, one of the associate chairs of this conference, appears from the building with an unknown man and approaches me. After few formal words, Greenspoon goes down to business: “I wonder if it would be possible for you to send me a draft of your article before it’s published...”

"Imagine that someone says about your father how he raped some woman long ago!"

I respond by question: “Any special concerns regarding Soka Gakkai?”

“Well, yes,” says Greenspoon, “they are trying to build a positive image...”

He gives me his E-mail address and leaves with another man. They take a walk through a small strip of woods that surrounds the building, occasionally looking at me from the distance. You know: the thing you do when you want to talk so nobody hears. But you do that only if someone with the electronic equipment is around you. Is this such a case? Not at all, if you exclude a dozen of well mannered guys in black pants and white shirts with the walkie-talkies in their hands, but they need it to organize the scientific crowd, which is rather known as wild. And yes, every now and then somebody comes out of the building and just passes by me, checking if the freshly planted trees are growing properly. Since the trees are neatly tied and fixed in a vertical position (Soka Gakkai hates weakness), guys return to the building, not even looking at me. Except for one, up there, on the second floor. But I really am suspicious: I smoke in Heaven.

Everything in Caledon that day functions perfectly well, thanks to almost military precision of Dr. Walter Dorn, chairman of this conference, and Helen Izumi of SGI-who, as we learn later, is the main organizer. We are greeted by Elizabeth Izumi, president of SGI Canada, and Ian StClair, from the local City Council, which only adds to the written messages from the Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan and Mayor Barbara Hall. A high-level summit. Topics include reorganization of UN, international law, role of military in the next century, new energies...

On the way back to Toronto, I am even interviewed by Lynne Hussey, a member of SGI who says that the President of SGI, Mr. Daisaku Ikeda, wants to know the personal feelings of the participants. I do not see anyone else being interviewed on this occasion, but I already understand that the SGI is highly sensitive to a journalist presence.

So I decide to start my little investigation, which, a month later, results in four books, several magazines, three tapes, and over 200 pages of faxes, E-mail messages and other documents, sitting now on my desk.

I started the easy way: doing research on the Internet. Home page of the Conference, tidy and well done, gave no credit to Soka Gakkai International. Then I typed the name of this organization into the AltaVista search engine and ten seconds later a full screen of accusations stared right into my face: alleged rapes (a case against the president of SGI, Daisaku Ikeda), unresolved deaths, Victims of Soka Gakkai Association, all mixed with the reports on cooperation with the United Nations, promotion of culture, science and research, foundation of a University in Tokyo, two art museums, one political party and many other praise worthy undertakings. Even the Church of Scientology does not have this kind of controversy around it.

SGI is the most powerful lay group in Japan. It owns Japan’s third largest newspaper, Seikyo Shimbun, as well as Soka University. Its political arm, the now defunct Komeito (The Clean Government Party), has formed the core of the New Frontier Party, which promotes itself as a left-oriented party (fights against new taxes, for welfare, etc.), but was rocked by scandals few months ago, when its two high-ranking members (Toshio Yamaguchi and Keisuke Nakanishi) got in troubles with the law. Ikeda is a charismatic figure famous for jetting around the world to hold “dialogues” with such luminaries as John Kenneth Galbraith, Arnold Toynbee, Johan Galtung, Mikhail Gorbachev or Anatol Rapoport here.

But why, I kept asking myself, such secrecy about the role of SGI in a promotion of such event as this conference in Toronto?

Even the Church of Scientology does not have this kind of controversy around it.

Exchanging E-mail messages with Michael Greenspoon, trying to learn more about the sponsorship of WOC by Soka Gakkai, I noticed that the copies of our correspondence were sent to Walter Dorn and Helen Izumi. Walter Dorn was obviously the next person I would have liked to meet.

E-mail messages I got from other people around this conference became really controversial. It seemed that the SGI gave anywhere between sixty and a hundred percent of the money needed for this conference (total cost was around $24,000), and it seemed also that SGI was either registered as a member of Science for Peace, or an organization with which Science for Peace did not have any ongoing relationship, depending on whom did I ask. Some of the messages, according to the “envelopes”, were copied for Walter Dorn.

I met him two days later in his office at University of Toronto. He kindly gave me his sixteen-pages-long Curriculum Vitae and offered that we go together through some of the sites on the Internet. We didn’t have much time to talk, though, partially because of me being late, partially due to (un)expected calls coming all the time, from Michael Greenspoon, Helen Izumi and others, whom I could not identify. Dr. Dorn repeated that SGI gave sixty percent of the money for the conference, that his position was paid (170 hours of work, he said, price unknown) and that he believed in “the essential integrity of Soka Gakkai”. He said that he offered to SGI to have its promotion during the conference, but they refused, although having some 5,000 members in Canada. Asked for his personal opinion about the case against Ikeda, he responded that if only I saw Mrs. Ikeda, I wouldn’t believe in something like that either, and besides, Daisaku Ikeda is a man of great integrity. “So you met Ikeda when you visited SGI in Japan?” I asked. “No,” he replied. I told him that I spoke to Kazue Akita, lawyer of the woman who accused Ikeda, and we parted.

By this stage of my investigation the rumors were already spread. Some members of Science for Peace I asked for opinion on the whole case were reluctant to comment in public. Some of them did not respond at all. Two of them (names withheld by request) told me that they were really surprised to learn of so tight connection between the two organizations. To their knowledge, first contacts happened regarding the WOC, and now that they had a chance to do their own research on SGI, they didn’t like that connection.

The rumors also got to Japan. Three days after I spoke to Walter Dorn, I got E-mail from Rie Tsumura, SGI Director of Communications, based in Tokyo. Although I never contacted her, she found it important to inform me further on two cases that are obviously bothering SGI: one is the rape case and the other is the Asaki case. Akiyo Asaki was a Higashi-Murayama-area city councilwoman who was a vocal critic of SGI. She jumped into her death in September 1995, under unresolved circumstances.

The same day I received this letter (Tuesday), I got a call from Andrew Gebert, director of public information at SGI. He was in New York and expressed a wish to see me during the coming weekend. When I responded that it would be too late, since my deadline was Thursday, he explained that, in fact, he wanted to come to Toronto sooner, and proposed to meet me the next day.

And so we meet the next day, at high noon, on Charles Street , but not alone-as the time would suggest. Tony Meers, vice-chair of SGI Canada, joins Gebert. I take out my recorder and we start talking, but every now and then Gebert and Meers ask me to turn it off, since they want to say something off the record. I give up, shut my recorder off and offer them a plain, simple conversation. It works better this way.

Since that interview was not recorded, I cannot quote, but I can tell you that SGI certainly looks like a happy family according to my new friends (“I have never seen such compact group of white, black, oriental people, West Indians, and everybody else!”-Gebert) . They had a hard time explaining how it happened that SGI in USA had more than 300,000 members few years ago and it went to only 50,000 today. They say that president Ikeda is just an equal between equals, but talking about the rape case, they say that their feelings are extremely hurt by these allegations: “Imagine that someone says about your father how he raped some woman long ago!”

They said that Komeito was founded to protect the rights of SGI members in Japan . Asked if they would want to do the same in Canada or USA , they denied. “So, the rights of, say, West Indians are well protected in USA ?” I ask. “We don’t think we need a party here,” responded Gebert, “but we lobby with other groups to protect the religious rights of our members. We lobbied, for example, against prayer in schools.”

“If, instead of an obligatory prayer, it would have been a chant, a meditation, what would be your stand?” I ask. “We would be against it,” they say, “because we don’t think that religion and politics should be mixed.”

He was in New York and expressed a wish to see me during the coming weekend. When I responded that it would be too late, since my deadline was Thursday, he explained that, in fact, he wanted to come to Toronto sooner, and proposed to meet me the next day.

I wanted to ask again about the political party founded by SGI, but I gave up. Instead, we turned to the literature. I was supplied by articles, books and other promotional material.

Interestingly, in one of the books SGI members like to quote, since it comes from two Oxford professors, I found a detail which explains much of the media attention given to SGI in Japan: “The growth of the movement was largely the result of the theory of conversion which Toda endorsed- shakubuku (often translated as ’break and subdue’). [...] Otherwise, shoju , a more moderate and conciliatory approach through dialogue and example, would be appropriate, in particular in non-Buddhist countries.” (A Time to Chant, Wilson & Dobbelaere, Oxford University Press. 1994. p10-11)

Yoichi Shimatsu, co-editor of the Archipelago magazine and former editor of The Japan Times Weekly, sent me several major files describing the political situation in Japan . Officially, he said, Komeito does not exist anymore, but its voters are supporting The New Frontier Party (Shinshinto), formed with the splinters of Japan ’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Komeito was frequently accused of conspiracy to install the religious dictatorship, but Shinshinto is more sensitive and cautious to these issues, presenting itself as a centrist party.

Masaru Kohno, professor of Political Science at University of British Columbia , says: “Many believe that, although there is no official connection between Komeito and SGI, Ikeda shook his hands with Ichiro Ozawa, founder of Shinshinto, before the deal was done. This could be the rise of the right wing in Japan , but there is still a gap between that and a religious dictatorship. I believe that Japan is fundamentally democratic country.”

However, in Japanese House of Representatives Shinshinto currently holds 173 out of 511 seats, second after LDP’s 207 representatives.

And, finally, here we are. Why such a secrecy in all this? Why does everything in regards to Soka Gakkai International stir so much emotions? Why SGI refused to publicly announce its funding-and the organization-of the World Order Conference? Why did it need Science for Peace and why this left-oriented organization with high reputation agreed to give its credibility to the event funded by a religious organization, so much different from itself, except for the declaratory support of peace?

Are we facing an organization with two faces, one of shakubuku for Japan , and one of shoju for the rest of the world? Once shoju is not enough, will we see shakubuku, too?

Similar set of questions remains for the members of Science for Peace. The most important one is: How far can you go and still retain your independence?

[Published in NOW magazine, July 1997]
© 1997 Dragan Todorovic, All rights reserved.
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