TOKYO — He is, by some accounts, the most powerful man in Japan--and certainly one of the most enigmatic: Daisaku Ikeda, leader of the nation's largest religious organization, has been condemned and praised as a devil and an angel, a Hitler and a Gandhi, a despot and a democrat.
He is a grasping power-monger aiming for political control by rallying the 8 million families of the Soka Gakkai lay Buddhist organization, critics say. Ridiculous, his supporters retort: He is a crusader for common folk who unflinchingly fights the oppressive establishment.
He is an "evil slanderer" skewing Buddhist doctrine to glorify himself and deny the clergy's authority, say priests of Ikeda's Nichiren Shoshu sect, who excommunicated him in 1991 in a tumultuous split with the laity. No, followers say, he is an inspired teacher who helps them understand Buddhism as a personal communion between the inner self and divine law.
Ikeda is a glory-hound who covets meetings with world leaders yet is himself void of scholarship, said writer Kunihiro Naito.
Wrong, countered Claremont McKenna professor Alfred Balitzer. He said Ikeda, whom he met in 1992, can embrace all cultures and see connections between the Western philosophy of Plato, the Eastern metaphysics of Buddhism and the social problems of the day.
"He reminds me of a great rabbi, a man of deep learning with followers of great passion, commitment and loyalty," Balitzer said.
Perhaps no other figure in Japan today presents such a puzzle of conflicting perceptions. Ikeda resembles a prism, reflecting people's greatest hopes and worst fears.
But he chooses another metaphor.
As he began a rare interview, this 68-year-old man blown up to mythic proportions presented an ordinary appearance of spectacles and slicked-back hair.
His handshake was soft; his eyes escaped prolonged contact. He confessed intimidation at being laid bare, then issued the invitation:
"Please begin cutting up Daisaku Ikeda," he said. "I'm like an onion: No matter how you slice me, I'm the same."
Understanding Ikeda is a daunting task. Japan is home to a frenzied anti-Ikeda industry, where tabloid coverage has affected his public image and blurred the lines between suspicion and fact, imagination and reality.
The Soka Gakkai also seems to trigger deep emotions unusual in a society where black-and-white judgments are rare.
No one seems able to explain why. It is possible to view Soka Gakkai members as conscientious citizens who get out the vote, donate to charitable causes and hold deeply to their religious beliefs. In six decades, they say, they have expanded abroad with 1.2 million followers in 115 countries. That includes 300,000 in the U.S. branch, which is based in Santa Monica.
The group boasts tremendous organizational strength, discipline and wealth--including ownership of Japan's third-largest newspaper, Seikyo Shimbun.
Ikeda also has started a political party, education system, art museum and cultural programs that have taken him to 50 countries--deeds that will establish his legacy as one of modern Japan's most remarkable religious leaders, said Shin Anzai, a Roman Catholic scholar.
Yet the prevailing view portrays him as a tyrant and his followers as brainwashed zombies, poised to undermine Japan's democratic process.
The decline of farmers and labor unions has made Soka Gakkai the nation's biggest voting bloc--and its decision to ally with opposition forces was the greatest factor behind the New Frontier Party's upset win in last year's elections for parliament's upper house.
Alarmed, the government has stepped up attacks on Ikeda as it faces crucial general elections amid sagging popularity caused by outrage over financial scandals.
The leading Liberal Democratic Party freely admits that its electoral strategy is to equate the New Frontier Party with the Soka Gakkai.
"We will not stop our campaign until we get Ikeda to testify in the parliament," LDP Secretary-General Koichi Kato recently declared. "He wants to control our country."
But at least some of the criticism against the Soka Gakkai appears to be deliberate fear-mongering.
Writer Atsushi Mizoguchi unblinkingly said Ikeda would probably kill his enemies if he ever took power. Others imagine tax harassment or steps to remove the current separation of church and state and declare Nichiren Buddhism the state religion.
Soka Gakkai's affiliated Clean Government Party--known mainly for pacifism and promoting welfare--attempted no such actions when it held power as part of the coalition governments of Morihiro Hosokawa and Tsutomu Hata in 1993 and 1994. And even if its members did desire sole political rule--which they deny--they make up only 20% of the voting electorate.