Daisaku Ikeda, Who Led Influential Japanese Buddhist Group, Dies at 95


Daisaku Ikeda, the president of Soka Gakkai International, the global arm of a Buddhist movement in Japan that spawned an influential political partner to the country’s governing party, died on Nov. 15 at his home in Tokyo. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by Soka Gakkai in a statement.

Mr. Ikeda (pronounced ee-KEH-da) was the third leader of that Buddhist association, which was established in 1930 and is Japan’s largest organized religious group. He was its honorary president at his death.

In his two decades at the helm, beginning in 1960, Mr. Ikeda was credited with broadening the group’s appeal; it says it now has followers in 192 countries, including more than 8 million households in Japan and 2.8 million members in the rest of the world.

His biggest legacy was in leading Soka Gakkai into parliamentary politics with the formation of a political party, Komeito, or Clean Government, in 1964. The party, which Soka Gakkai says is now independent of the religious organization, has been a coalition partner for Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party since 1999. Relying on a base of electoral volunteers who can tap into Soka Gakkai’s membership, Komeito regularly delivers a bloc of voters to help shore up the ranks of the Liberal Democrats, who have governed Japan for all but four years since 1955.

The party was founded in part to represent vulnerable people in society but also to sustain Japan’s postwar pacifist stance. On another front, Mr. Ikeda asked that the party push Japan to recognize the People’s Republic of China; the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. Two years later, Mr. Ikeda met with Zhou Enlai, then the premier of the People’s Republic, at a hospital in Beijing, where Mr. Zhou was being treated for cancer.

Describing himself as “anti-authority,” Mr. Ikeda pressed for the abolition of nuclear arms. “The real enemy that we must confront is the ways of thinking that justify nuclear weapons,” he wrote in a 2009 peace proposal. “The readiness to annihilate others when they are seen as a threat or as a hindrance to the realization of our objectives.”

Mr. Ikeda was at times a divisive figure, accused of being a cult leader with dictatorial tendencies; at one point he apologized publicly for trying to censor a book critical of Soka Gakkai and his leadership. He was also accused repeatedly of sexual and financial abuses — none of which were proved — and was acquitted of charges of violating electoral laws in 1957.

His charisma helped draw followers, including those abroad, as well as celebrity admirers, among them the jazz musician Herbie Hancock and the actor Orlando Bloom. When Mr. Ikeda presided in 1972 over the dedication of a new main temple for the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, from which Soka Gakkai derived its spiritual tenets, congratulatory messages were sent by political leaders like Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau of Canada and Gov. Ronald Reagan of California and Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama.

Mr. Ikeda founded schools and universities based on the principles of Soka Gakkai, including kindergartens in five countries, elementary through graduate schools in Japan, and a liberal arts college in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

In a speech at Columbia University Teachers College in 1996, he said he believed education could contribute to the cause of world peace.

“The fundamental task of education must be to ensure that knowledge serves to further the cause of human happiness and peace,” he said. “It must be the propelling force for an eternally unfolding humanitarian quest.”

Daisaku Ikeda was born on Jan. 2, 1928, in Tokyo, the fifth son of Nenokichi and Ichi (Komiya) Ikeda, who were involved in seaweed farming. As a child, he was diagnosed with chronic tuberculosis.

All four of his older brothers were conscripted into Japan’s military during World War II, and his eldest brother was killed in Burma (now Myanmar). Witnessing his mother’s grief was “the starting point of my activities for peace,” Mr. Ikeda wrote in a 2006 essay.

He was drawn to Soka Gakkai when he met its postwar leader, Josei Toda, in a philosophical reading group. Having graduated from a night school course at Toyo High School in 1948, he enrolled in Taisei Gakuin University (now Tokyo Fuji University) and majored in political science while working at a publishing company headed by Mr. Toda. Mr. Ikeda dropped out of college in 1950 to work full time, and Mr. Toda instructed him privately.

In 1952, Mr. Ikeda married another follower, Kaneko Mori, and they had three sons. Their middle son, Shirohisa, died in 1984. Mr. Ikeda is survived by his wife and sons Hiromasa and Takahiro.

Mr. Ikeda took over the leadership of Soka Gakkai at the age of 32. He traveled extensively outside of Japan to recruit followers and enjoyed the publicity that came with meeting world leaders. In 1975, he was named founding president of Soka Gakkai International, a title he still held at his death.

He wrote or co-wrote more than 250 published works, including collections of essays and poetry as well as children’s literature and multivolume novelizations of Soka Gakkai history.

Soka Gakkai dipped its toes into political waters in the 1950s, but it was Mr. Ikeda who consolidated the group’s influence in 1964, when he founded the Komeito political party, which began backing candidates for Japan’s Parliament. He insisted that the party was separate from the religious group, but many Japanese were skeptical, seeing the two as intertwined and the party as Mr. Ikeda’s personal instrument.

In 1970, Hirotatsu Fujiwara, a university professor, wrote a sensational exposé of the inner workings of Soka Gakkai, saying the group was composed of a “bunch of fanatics” and that Mr. Ikeda maintained “a dictatorship.”

The group’s attempt to block publication of the book provoked a public outcry. Mr. Ikeda apologized, pledging “not to repeat the same mistake in the future.”

When, in 1999, Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi named a new coalition cabinet and formally allied the Liberal Democratic Party with Komeito, public opinion polls registered widespread disapproval. Many Japanese, shaken by the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subways by another obscure religious sect, worried that Soka Gakkai was also a cult.

By then Mr. Ikeda had stepped back to become honorary chairman, and Komeito went on to be a crucial partner for the Liberal Democrats as they sought to maintain power.

Over the last decade, Mr. Ikeda kept a lower profile but continued to write and was known to ride past Soka Gakkai’s headquarters and greet followers from his car.

Since 1983, he had been writing annual peace proposals to the United Nations. And to the end he remained committed to abolishing nuclear weapons.

Soka Gakkai International, he wrote, “will continue to advance, growing the solidarity of civil society with a special focus on youth, toward the creation of a culture of peace where all can enjoy the right to live in authentic security.”

Hikari Hida contributed reporting.

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