Lying in the hospital after a gallbladder operation in January, Toshio Ohashi, an eight-term member of Japan's lower house of Parliament, experienced a religious conversion of sorts--in reverse. His illness, he decided, was divine punishment for the many years he suppressed a growing urge to denounce the Buddhist godfather who had made his political career possible.
Ohashi, 62, stunned his colleagues in Komeito, or Clean Government Party, by becoming a heretic. After recuperating, he penned a diatribe published in a popular magazine in which he "declared war" on Daisaku Ikeda, the charismatic leader of Soka Gakkai, Japan's largest religious organization, and, according to Ohashi, the autocratic figure behind one of its most powerful political parties.
"He's evil, a great hypocrite," Ohashi said in a recent interview. "On the surface he acts like a Buddha, but underneath he's a devil king. We have to bring him down."
300,000 Believers in U.S.
Soka Gakkai, which claims a following of about 10 million Japanese and more than 300,000 believers in the United States, was quick to respond to this unprecedented criticism from within. It excommunicated Ohashi.
Komeito, the opposition party spawned by Soka Gakkai that receives almost its entire support from disciplined voters belonging to the religious movement, also ejected Ohashi, apparently belying the principle, avowed by both Soka Gakkai and the party, that the two organizations operate independently.
Ohashi's auto-da-fe was more than an internal political squabble, critics of Soka Gakkai contend. It raised profound questions about the separation of religion and politics in Japan, where an entire generation was once swept up in a militaristic whorl revolving around emperor worship.
Preaches Peace, Compassion
The dispute also offers a revealing window on one of the most important institutions in Japan. Soka Gakkai outwardly displays an exuberant and cheerful character, preaching peace and compassion, and claims credit for helping establish Japan's social welfare system. But internally, its critics and some scholars say, it functions as an intolerant machine that attempts to exploit what some see as greater-than-usual susceptibility to the influence of mass psychology.
While Japan evolved into a pluralistic secular society, abandoning Shinto as the state religion after its defeat in World War II, Soka Gakkai has thrived during the postwar years. It still recruits multitudes of alienated souls with a formula of aggressive persuasion--critics say brainwashing--that promises material reward and happiness in exchange for unquestioning faith.
Soka Gakkai's ultimate goal, according to its literature, is to take political power and install a government based on Buddhist law.
Leaders of the sect say that goal is a philosophical concept rather than a practical plan of action. Indeed, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party has become so entrenched as a ruling party that it may never lose its grip on the electorate.
But Soka Gakkai's political ambitions raise alarm among some Japanese who believe their people remain susceptible to authoritarian mass movements.
"Ikeda wants to run Japan--he just won't say it openly," said Hirotatsu Fujiwara, an author and political commentator who likens the 60-year-old Soka Gakkai leader to Hitler, or to Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and sees ominous potential in an Ikeda personality cult.
'Want an Absolute Leader'
"There's a tendency in Japan to want an absolute leader," Fujiwara said. "When the emperor became a human being, (Gen. Douglas) MacArthur became a god. We're still looking for a small god."
Ikeda, who nominally retired to the post of honorary president of Soka Gakkai after a previous public controversy over the group's political activities, was not immediately available for an interview.
But Isao Nozaki, one of Soka Gakkai's vice presidents, rejected Ohashi's charge that Ikeda is a Machiavellian manipulator as "delusion" motivated by personal ambition. He conceded, though, that there is no room for dissent within Soka Gakkai, particularly when it comes to expressing views contrary to Ikeda's.
"You cannot believe in the faith if you don't agree with Honorary President Ikeda," Nozaki said.
Founded in 1930s
Ironically, Soka Gakkai was founded in the 1930s by an educator who was persecuted by fascist authorities because he campaigned for freedom of religion and denounced the tyranny of state Shinto, a religion enshrining the emperor that wartime leaders used to legitimize military aggression.
The founder, Makiguchi Tsunesaburo, died in prison and his organization was suppressed during World War II. But his disciples emerged under the allied occupation to pump the group's membership of a few thousand into a formidable network encompassing hundreds of thousands--later millions--of families, filling a spiritual vacuum in impoverished postwar Japan.
The preferred method of conversion has been a controversial one: shakubuku , literally "to break and subdue," a persistent process of cajoling and wearing down the resistance of potential recruits.
Ikeda took the reins of the organization in 1960 at the age of 32 and used his youthful vigor and organizational genius to build a solid foundation among the increasingly affluent middle class. He established Komeito, the political party, and took the Soka Gakkai movement overseas, where it has earned a high reputation for its advocacy of peace and disarmament.
A Financial Powerhouse
Soka Gakkai now is a financial powerhouse, collecting between $1.1 billion and $1.5 billion in donations each year, according to Ohashi, who remains an independent member of Parliament after his expulsion from Komeito.
The group has an extensive publishing empire, and says that its newspaper, Seikyo Shimbun, is Japan's third largest daily, with a circulation of 4.7 million. Ikeda is one of the world's best-selling authors, with more than 200 titles in print.
Komeito is the third most powerful party in Parliament, after the ruling Liberal Democrats and the Japan Socialist Party. When local mayors and city assembly members are counted, Komeito has more elected officials than the Socialists and can be considered the top opposition party in terms of grass-roots support.
"Religious power is really fearful," said Masayuki Fujiwara, a Komeito member of the Tokyo Municipal Assembly who is allied with Ohashi, along with scattered dissident groups, in the fight against Ikeda.
His Power 'Unimaginable'
"Hitler didn't control people's spirits like Ikeda," said Fujiwara, who is not related to the political commentator Hirotatsu Fujiwara. "He has power that's unimaginable to most people."
The group's religious tenets are based in the 700-year-old tradition of the Nichiren Shoshu sect of Buddhism, which teaches that all other religions are heretical and that salvation can be attained in this world only by chanting the name of the Lotus Sutra: Namu Myoho Rengekkyo.
Soka Gakkai members say the chanting has a balancing, enriching effect on their lives, bringing them health, social success and sometimes material rewards.
One believer who stresses the spiritual benefits is Stephen H. Whitney, 28, an American working for a Japanese trading firm in Tokyo, who said his life has been transformed since he converted to the faith as a student at the University of Oklahoma eight years ago.
Altar Dominates Room
The living room of Whitney's small apartment in western Tokyo is dominated by an altar enshrining the gohonzon , or sacred scroll depicting the calligraphy of Nichiren, founder of the Buddhist sect. Whitney prays there twice a day--for about 45 minutes in the morning and 35 minutes each evening--chanting and meditating on the meaning of the Lotus Sutra.
"It really shakes you up," said Whitney, an athletic man with intense, gray eyes. "It grabs you by the roots and enables you to see your mind. It has an actual effect--you don't zone out on nothingness like in zen, and it's not self-hypnosis."
To Whitney, Ikeda embodies the essence of Soka Gakkai teachings.
"The more you chant, the more you realize President Ikeda practices correctly," he said. "He emits a tremendous life force."
Soka Gakkai counts among its followers several prominent Americans, including jazzman Herbie Hancock and popular singer Tina Turner. The steady growth of Nichiren Shoshu America, based in Santa Monica, suggests that the religion has universal appeal.
In Japan, Soka Gakkai's most remarkable achievement has been attracting large numbers of young people while other organized sects of Buddhism sustain themselves on elderly worshipers.
"Japanese society does not provide young people with dreams these days," Whitney said. "The Gakkai offers a noble path."
Hiroshi Mizuochi, 28, an office-automation equipment salesman, attributes his "self-growth" to the faith, so much that he has been trying to share it with his friends. He has converted four so far.
'A Wonderful Thing'
"We're always thinking about shakubuku . You need a lot of courage to do it," Mizuochi said. "But we know what a wonderful thing this religion is, and we want the people close to us to understand Buddhist law."
A recent meeting of a local Soka Gakkai chapter in a residential neighborhood in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward was marked by energetic regimentation. About 500 people knelt on tatami mats in a large hall as several members sat at a dais describing the wordly benefits of Soka Gakkai.
The testimonials were punctuated by cheerful applause, in perfect unison, giving the room the orchestrated feel of a television game show. On the wall was a large color photograph of Ikeda, whose praise was sung in several of the testimonials.
Ohashi's crusade has little chance of dislodging Ikeda, but it succeeded in reviving a brand of prurient muckraking that has long plagued the Soka Gakkai leader. Of particular fascination in the pulp magazines is the charge that he is a womanizer who uses sexual liaisons to spy on and manipulate Soka Gakkai members.
Accuses Leader of Perjury
Fujiwara, the Tokyo assembly member, is the most outspoken proponent of this sordid view of Ikeda's personal life, asserting that his sister-in-law was involved in a love affair with Ikeda while married to a Komeito lawmaker. He accuses Ikeda of perjuring himself in court in a libel suit against a magazine that reported the alleged liaison. Ikeda won the suit.
"He doesn't have ordinary relations with women," Fujiwara said. "He uses them to exert his power. He robs people of their pride."
So far, no major Komeito or Soka Gakkai officials have defected to join Ohashi and Fujiwara in their war on Ikeda. But there are signs of some soul-searching within the ranks. An aide to a Komeito member of Parliament said, reluctantly, that the younger generation favors more tolerance of dissent.
"A lot of people think the organization could benefit from a more open discussion of its weaknesses," the aide said. "There was a time when it was necessary to protect the Gakkai by stopping internal criticism, but I think we've outgrown that stage."
Asked if that meant allowing criticism of Ikeda, however, the aide said: "It should not apply to the teachings of the faith."