Soka Gakkai's Human Revolution

The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan

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Levi McLaughlin
Contemporary Buddhism
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , December
     236 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization headquartered in Japan, follows the teachings of Nichiren (1222–1282), a medieval Buddhist reformer who was originally ordained in the Tendai Buddhist Tradition. It claims just over 8 million households in Japan, and is considered to be Japan’s largest new religion. Even so, a quick search reveals a paucity of scholarly English-language sources on Soka Gakkai. In Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan, Levi McLaughlin combines insights drawn from religion, political science, and anthropology to rectify this neglect.

In the Preface, McLaughlin notes that while many publications on Soka Gakkai have either been harshly critical of the organization or hagiographical material published by Soka Gakkai and its representatives, he intends to make a unique contribution by “combining ethnographic methods with text-based investigations to provide an account that privileges a grassroots-level perspective” (x). He then provides a brief discussion of how his ethnographic research was carried out and the implications of an ethnographic approach. While making clear that he is not now, nor ever was a Soka Gakkai member, McLaughlin writes that, “The members who appear in this book are my friends. I reject the term ‘informant’ as a disingenuous attempt to project impartiality” (x). This respect for the “friends” at the center of his study, combined with sensitivity to his role as a researcher, makes for a balanced account of Soka Gakkai.

Chapter 1 functions as an introduction and presents McLaughlin’s core characterization of Soka Gakkai in Japan as a mimetic nation. McLaughlin describes the structure of the organization and its spheres of activity in detail. He characterizes “Soka Gakkai’s appurtenances” as resembling the “features of a modern nation-state. The most obvious of these is the Gakkai’s influence on government through electioneering and its affiliated political party Komeito” (16). Yet, he argues that “we must look beyond Komeito to understand the comprehensive extent to which Soka Gakkai replicates nation-like institutions and practices” (16). His thesis here is that Soka Gakkai’s “mimesis of the nation-state’s authority-bearing institutions and practices—particularly those rooted in modern standardized education—proved compelling to converts who flock to Soka Gakkai, especially those who joined in the decades following World War II” (19). This is followed by a sophisticated analysis of the features of this mimesis, its consequences, and theories of the nation-state, drawing on a diverse range of sociologists, historians, and political theorists. McLaughlin’s characterization of the Soka Gakkai as a mimetic nation is carried throughout the rest of the book. For those familiar with the Soka Gakkai, his analysis, prompts a question for further research: if we accept McLaughlin’s thesis that the Soka Gakkai is mimetic of the Japanese nation-state, what does it mean to import that model into other countries under the aegis of Soka Gakkai International?

Chapter 2 details the history of the Soka Gakkai. It gives a detailed account of the first and second Presidents’ lives and their aims in founding the organization that would become Soka Gakkai. It also explains key concepts found in Soka Gakkai, such as kōsen rufu, or to widely declare [the dharma of the Lotus Sutra] (36), seimeiryoku or life force, and dependent origination or engi dependent origination (46). The chapter situates these concepts in terms of the larger vocabulary of Buddhism as understood by Nichiren and certain lineages associated with him. Discussing the founders’ philosophies, usage of doctrine, and propagation methods, the chapter provides a nuanced discussion of Soka Gakkai’s use of militaristic methods and symbols of authority, as well as the organization’s entry into politics.

The chapter also discusses the rise and leadership of the third president of Soka Gakkai—currently the Honorary President—Ikeda Daisaku, and the subsequent schism between Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shōshū. The chapter closes with a discussion of Ikeda’s “Abiding Presence” (or lack thereof) in the organization (65). Since Ikeda’s last public appearance in 2010, there have been media reports that Ikeda has passed away. The implication is often that Soka Gakkai has nefariously kept Ikeda’s death a secret.  McLaughlin is to be commended for writing about this sensitive topic in a way that both respects the “friends” he has made in the organization and makes a serious attempt to understand what is at stake in questions about Ikeda’s presence or absence.

Chapter 3 provides a detailed analysis of the construction of Soka Gakkai’s canon through Ikeda’s two autobiographical novel series: The Human Revolution and The New Human Revolution. It is from here that McLaughlin’s book draws its name. McLaughlin connects these novels to the mimetic nation-state metaphor that he introduced in chapter 1, explaining that “The Human Revolution is more than just a Soka Gakkai strategy to buttress leadership claims by refuting its temple Buddhist parent [referring to Soka Gakkai’s former affiliation with Nichiren Shōshū]. It also serves as the kernel for a mimetic equivalent to a national literature. It is a body of texts Gakkai adherents rely on for guidance in their ethical formation, an inspiring narration of their collective origins, and a justification for their personal sacrifices through discipleship” (86). Chapter 4 presents ethnographic accounts of Soka Gakkai members who treat these novels as scripture.  Here, McLaughlin draws on “canon-related scholarship from both religious studies and literary studies  in the same way that Soka Gakkai producers draw liberally from religion and literature to build their textual bases,” causing the reader, and scholars of religious studies, to reconsider the roles of novel, narrative, text, and canon formation in the development of a religion (90).

The final three chapters—chapters 5, 6, and the Afterword— situate McLaughlin’s foregoing analyses of the Soka Gakkai in the context of shifts in social and demographic trends in modern and contemporary Japan. Chapter 5 is true to its title “Cultivating Youth: Discipleship through Standardized Education,” turning to Soka Gakkai’s focus on youth cultivation and discipleship under Ikeda, while connecting the reader back to the organization’s founding as an educational society, as discussed in chapter 2. Chapter 6 discusses gender issues in the context of discussing women’s roles as “good wives, wise mothers, and foot soldiers of conversion” in the structure of the organization (137). The Afterword discusses  the “opportunities for meaningful self-sacrifice” (175) that are a significant feature of the life of Soka Gakkai members, and the longevity of such self-sacrifice.

Soka Gakkai’s Human Revolution: The Rise of a Mimetic Nation in Modern Japan is well-written and contributes to the fields of Buddhist Studies and Japanese religions specifically, as well as Religious Studies more broadly, in various ways. First, it is a book length study of Soka Gakkai, a lay Buddhist organization that has received relatively minor attention in English-language scholarship. Second, through a combination of text-based analysis, extensive usage of primary and secondary literature, and nearly twenty years of ethnographic research, McLaughlin provides a much needed corrective to the unbalanced presentations of Soka Gakkai that have prevailed thus far. By taking an ethnographic approach combined with theories and methodologies drawn from political science, anthropology, and religion, McLaughlin is able to make significant contributions to the study of contemporary issues in Japan and Japanese religions. Finally, the book’s detailed examination of the Soka Gakkai’s novels, The Human Revolution and The New Human Revolution, put the book in dialogue with contemporary trends in Religious Studies, such as attention to text, narrative, scripture, and processes of canon formation.



About the Reviewer(s): 

Ralph Craig III is a doctoral student in Buddhist Studies at Stanford University.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Levi McLaughlin is Associate Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University.


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