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40 Years Since Stormy April 24, 1979—Part 4

The following article is the fourth in a five-part series describing the events leading up to April 24, 1979, when Daisaku Ikeda stepped down as third Soka Gakkai president to protect the members from the perverse machinations of the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, which sought to wrest control of the lay organization. This incident came to be known as the first priesthood issue. (The second priesthood issue culminated on November 28, 1991, with the Soka Gakkai being formally excommunicated by Nichiren Shoshu.) For more on the events leading up to April 24, 1979, see “Great Mountain,” chapter 1 in volume 30 of The New Human Revolution.

In the third installment of this series, we learned how the reckless comments of Soka Gakkai Vice President Genjiro Fukushima gave the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood and the duplicitous Soka Gakkai attorney Masatomo Yamazaki a pretext to call for Daisaku Ikeda to be removed as the leader of Nichiren Shoshu lay organizations and as Soka Gakkai president. In this month’s installment, we will cover the events of April 1979 that led to President Ikeda’s decision to officially step down as Soka Gakkai president on April 24, 1979, to both shield the members from the machinations of the priesthood and to also focus on expanding the SGI’s movement around the world.

Days after President Ikeda received Yamazaki’s legal advice to step down as Soka Gakkai President, April 2 arrived. On this memorial of his mentor, second Soka Gakkai President Josei Toda, he chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and recalled his mentor’s injunction:

I’m counting on you to achieve worldwide kosen-rufu! Have no fear! Boldly pursue the great path of your mission![1]

Recalling these words, the courage to face all adversity pulsed in President Ikeda’s heart.

The Nichiren Shoshu Priesthood’s Authoritarian History

Although the events of April 1979 are referred to as the “first priesthood issue,” the priests had, in fact, mistreated its lay practitioners for a long period of time. For instance, in 1943, Nichiren Shoshu priests called the top Soka Kyoiku Gakkai leaders to the head temple grounds, where they instructed the lay believers to accept and enshrine a talisman of the Shinto sun goddess, in support of the military’s war efforts. While the priesthood succumbed to government pressure, Mr. Makiguchi refused. Rather, he proclaimed boldly:

Buddhism is not an intellectual game. Its purpose is to save the land and the people from suffering. To stand by with folded arms and fail to do so when that time arises is to betray the Buddha’s intent.”[2]

The priests reported Makiguchi’s refusal to the special police, also known as the “thought police,” who subsequently arrested him and his disciple, Josei Toda, on charges amounting to treason. The priesthood had no intention of protecting these two men who had revived the heart of Nichiren Buddhism in modern times.

Mr. Makiguchi spent 500 days in prison and was repeatedly subjected to intense interrogation. On November 18, 1944—14 years to the day the Soka Gakkai was founded—he died in prison of malnutrition, a martyr to his beliefs.

Where did the authoritarian nature of the priesthood originate? It can be said to have grown in part out of the country’s temple-parishioner system, which required Japanese citizens to belong to a temple in order to enjoy full rights as a member of their community. This system, which became compulsory during the Edo Period (1603–1868) gave Buddhist temples and priests, including those of Nichiren Shoshu, power and authority close to that of feudal lords over local citizens, even in matters concerning life and death. Because local temple membership was required by law, temples came to focus primarily on conducting ceremonies and rituals, particularly funeral and memorial services, that were socially obligatory and for which donations were expected.

After World War II, the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood offered support to the Soka Gakkai such as bestowing the Gohonzon on new practitioners. However, their authoritarian ways remained. In accord with his mentor’s wishes, President Ikeda was determined to protect the Soka Gakkai at any cost from the corrupt and ossified priesthood. President Toda had declared:

Kosen-rufu will never advance without the Soka Gakkai. Those who seek to destroy the Soka Gakkai, a harmonious community of practitioners, are in fact obstructing kosen-rufu![3]

President Ikeda Considers Stepping Down as Soka Gakkai President

Based on the intensifying problems with the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood, President Ikeda considered stepping down as Soka Gakkai president to stop the priests from mistreating Soka Gakkai members. This, however, was not the first time he had considered stepping away from his administrative duties as president. On a number of occasions, he sought to name a successor, as he felt it would be healthy for the organization to have new leadership. About this President Ikeda writes in The New Human Revolution:

In 1970, after serving as president for just over a decade, he had informed the executive leadership a number of times of his intention to step down at some point. But they had been against the idea, insisting that the presidency was a lifelong appointment.[4]

President Ikeda continued to consider ways to have his disciples take on more responsibility for the Soka Gakkai. In 1974, he handed over full responsibility for chief representative of the religious corporation to Soka Gakkai General Director Hiroshi Hojo. In 1977, he proposed again to the executive leadership that they appoint a new president, but again they refused.

In early 1979, President Ikeda once again strongly considered stepping down, this time thinking of the importance of taking more action internationally for the sake of peace. He writes in The New Human Revolution, in which he appears as the character Shin’ichi Yamamoto:

[Shin’ichi] wanted to take more substantial and broad-ranging action for world peace. He felt it important to meet and engage in dialogue with many more world leaders. He wanted to put even greater energy into promoting culture and education based on the ideals of Nichiren Buddhism. Above all, he felt the time had come to develop in earnest the worldwide movement for kosen-rufu.[5]

Amid the Storm, the Mentor Remains Immovable

On April 5, an emergency executive conference was held at the Tachikawa Culture Center. The topic: How to deal with endless attacks from the priesthood. President Ikeda finally asked the group if his resignation would resolve the issue. Silence ensued. President Ikeda asked one leader for his opinion to which the leader responded, “You can’t go against the flow of the times.” President Ikeda describes this moment, writing:

He realized he might have no choice but to resign … Still, he found it pitiful that they should now view the unfolding event as “the flow of the times.”

“If we just allow ourselves to be swept along by circumstances,” he thought, “then what’s happened to the Soka Gakkai spirit?! What matters is the powerful inner determination to protect the Soka Gakkai with our lives, for the sake of kosen-rufu!”[6]

What’s more, stepping away from his administrative responsibilities as president did not equate with relinquishing his role as the mentor of kosen-rufu. As President Toda had forewarned: “Protect the third president! Protect him as long as you live! If you do so, you will definitely be able to achieve kosen-rufu!”[7]

President Ikeda remained unswayed, as he continued to encourage members and meet with international delegations from countries such as China, India and the United States. He discusses this as follows:

Having decided to step down as Soka Gakkai president, Shin’ichi had already turned his attention energetically to the world. The war and conflicts troubling Asia and other regions deeply pained him. As a Buddhist and a human being, he resolved that now was the time to open the way to peace and human harmony.[8]

On April 12, President Ikeda met with Deng Yingchao, the wife of the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Their discussion focused on the importance of deepening ties of friendship between China and Japan. Toward the end of their dialogue, President Ikeda mentioned to Madame Deng that he was thinking of resigning as Soka Gakkai president, to which she said: “You mustn’t do that. You are still too young. And most importantly, you have the support of the people. As long as you have their support, you must not step down.”[9]

Although he appreciated Madame Deng’s sentiments, he had made up his mind. He was determined, however, to remain unchanged in his vow for kosen-rufu and to always fight alongside the people.

Stormy April 24

On the morning of April 24, 1979, an article by President Ikeda titled, “Thoughts on the Completion of the Seven Bells” appeared in the Seikyo Shimbun, the Soka Gakkai’s daily newspaper. The seven bells represent seven sets of seven-year periods that serve as milestones in the Soka Gakkai’s advancement. Having begun in 1930 with the establishment of the Soka Gakkai, the completion of the seven bells was fast approaching, on May 3, 1979. In the article, President Ikeda expressed his deep appreciation to all the Soka Gakkai members who had worked so hard over the years to develop the Soka Gakkai into a vast force for peace. He also described how the completion of the seven bells would mark a new departure for the organization’s development. Having happily read this article in the morning, the members had no idea what was about to come later that day.

At 10 a.m., a Soka Gakkai prefecture leaders meeting was held at the Shinjuku Culture Center. Its intended purpose was to celebrate the completion of the seven bells and mark an exciting new stage of development for kosen-rufu. The general director, Hiroshi Hojo, spoke first, discussing the significance of the completion of the seven bells. Then, in a somber tone, he announced President Ikeda’s resignation as Soka Gakkai president. The audience was aghast. Many couldn’t believe what they had just heard.

Understanding everyone’s shock, Mr. Hojo outlined the three reasons President Ikeda had given for stepping down: 1) to pass the baton to the next generation while he is still in good health; 2) to create a sound organizational and decision-making structure for the Soka Gakkai to develop into the distant future; and 3) to have the freedom to travel internationally to make efforts for world peace and help solidify SGI organizations overseas.

Although the participants could theoretically understand these reasons, they were gripped with grief, and many burst into tears.

President Ikeda entered the room shortly after Mr. Hojo finished his speech. The leaders present were overjoyed to see their mentor. Some pleaded with him not to step down. Others urged him to visit their prefecture to encourage the members. President Ikeda responded by saying that it was time to unite with the newly appointed Soka Gakkai president, Hiroshi Hojo:

The Soka Gakkai needs to advance in unity, with harmony and calm. If you share my spirit, then now is the time to warmly encourage the members and lift everyone’s spirits. You must all stand up and take the lead as individuals who embody the same commitment I do![10]

President Ikeda was determined to transform this challenging time into a bold new departure for the Soka Gakkai.

At around noon, the Japanese media unexpectedly began reporting on President Ikeda’s decision to step down and become the honorary Soka Gakkai president, with a new president, Hiroshi Hojo, named. This came as a shock to the millions of Soka Gakkai members who had still not heard the news.

While deeply saddened by the announcement, the members stood up valiantly for kosen-rufu more than ever with their mentor, President Ikeda. For example, that evening, leaders in the Kansai region gathered for an emergency meeting. One leader read aloud the poem that President Ikeda penned to his mentor, Josei Toda, on the day when Mr. Toda resigned as Soka Gakkai general director, which reads: “Still serving / an old / and mystic bond— / though others change, / I alter not.”[11]

With this, the Kansai members reconfirmed that although Daisaku Ikeda was no longer the Soka Gakkai president, they would continue to strive with him as their mentor.

The Test of True Disciples

Toward the end of a long day of meetings and press conferences, President Ikeda met with youth leaders, whom he planned to encourage with his whole heart as the future leaders of the Soka Gakkai. He said to them:

No matter what situation I may be placed in, as long as the youth strive in earnest, a bright future lies ahead. The true test for disciples is not when they are striving while receiving daily guidance and instruction from their mentor. That’s a period of training. Their real test is when their mentor is no longer directly taking leadership. But when the mentor steps back, some disciples take advantage of it to do as they please and forget the Soka Gakkai spirit. The same happened when Mr. Toda stepped down as general director. You mustn’t be like that. Stand up resolutely in my stead! You must each become a “Shin’ichi”![12]

President Ikeda wanted to ensure the youth division leaders had a proper understanding of the oneness of mentor and disciple.

It was around 10 p.m. when President Ikeda finally completed the day’s events. On his way home, he pondered the insidious workings of devilish functions and how much courage was required to not be swayed and to unflinchingly fight back.

After returning home, President Ikeda told his wife, Kaneko, that he was no longer Soka Gakkai president, to which she responded:

You have worked very hard all these years. I’m just glad you still have your health. Now you can meet with many more members. You can visit them all around the world. You have your freedom. Now you can begin your true work.[13]

True to his wife’s words, President Ikeda wasted no time in initiating a new struggle for kosen-rufu. He visited the homes of countless members and put even more energy into developing the Soka schools and encouraging SGI members overseas. In his international travels, he also met with influential figures to create bridges of friendship for the sake of world peace. President Ikeda’s actions truly embodied the principle of changing poison into medicine.


  1. May 12, 2017, World Tribune, p. 3. ↩︎
  2. June 6, 2014, World Tribune, p. 5. ↩︎
  3. June 2, 2017, World Tribune, p. 7. ↩︎
  4. June 9, 2017, World Tribune, p. 2. ↩︎
  5. June 9, 2017, World Tribune, p. 2. ↩︎
  6. June 9, 2017, World Tribune, p. 3. ↩︎
  7. April 2014 Living Buddhism, p. 12. ↩︎
  8. August 4, 2017, World Tribune, p. 3. ↩︎
  9. August 18, 2017, World Tribune, p. 3. ↩︎
  10. “Great Mountain” booklet, supplement to the World Tribune, p. 69. ↩︎
  11. Ibid. p. 79. ↩︎
  12. Ibid., p. 76. ↩︎
  13. Ibid., p. 78. ↩︎

Engaging in Dialogue With Bright and Open Hearts

Nanjo Tokimitsu–Part 1