Soka Gakkai International (SGI) presents itself as a world-renowned champion for peace, human rights and democracy. While Soka Gakkai does in fact, talk a lot about these important issues amongst members, it appears most of the organization's resources actually goes into strengthening itself, such as printing promotional materials, building new centers, etc.
It's status as an NGO (non-government organization) with the UN was essentially bought by paying dues, not because the UN actively sought out SGI.
The few charitable activities SGI performs is generally used as PR opportunities.
As far as democracy, there is no formalized voting mechanism for leadership within the organization. Leaders are appointed by other leaders. The current president, Daisaku Ikeda, has appointed one of his sons as vice-president and heir apparent.
When members complain about SGI policy or practice, a typical response from leadership is to question the members' faith in Buddhism and accuse them of slandering the organization.
The organization's publications are heavily filtered, so that little if any material that questions SGI ever reaches the eyes of the members.
The central practice promoted by SGI is chanting to the Gohonzon, a scroll inscribed by Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of Nichiren Buddhism.
To obtain a Gohonzon, newcomers must prove their interest in SGI by attending a few meetings and paying a $20 donation for the scroll. The Gohonzon they use is simply a mass-produced photocopy on a single piece of paper with a plastic rod and a piece of cord for hanging.
Newcomers must also allow leaders into their homes so they can make certain the scroll has a proper place to be kept, preferably in a butsudan or Buddhist altar with doors, so the scroll can be protected and hidden.
Obtaining a Gohonzon outside of SGI is forbidden, and there's a lot of double-talk about their reasons for this. They criticize another Buddhist sect, Nichiren Shoshu, as being superstitious for claiming SGI Gohonzons are evil. But they then say that if an SGI member obtains an unapproved Gohonzon, this is sure to bring them "bad karma."
The butsudan can cost anywhere from $30, for a plastic cabinet, to thousands of dollars. Members can also obtain a travel-sized Gohonzon, which is in a small plastic container on a chain, for a $50 donation.
Then there are the supplies. Most of these materials can only be purchased through stores with affiliated with SGI.
Leaving the organization requires that the Gohonzon be returned to SGI, despite the donation. Failure to return the Gohonzon after one has officially departed from the organization may result in regular, unexpected phone calls and in some cases home visits.
In the United States branch (SGI-USA), there seems to be no risk of violence.
SGI does not encourage members to distance themselves from non-believing family or friends, and actually does encourage members to pursue their individual interests. However, there's often little time for this considering the regular demands for various SGI publicity campaigns and meetings.
Many members are happy with the current situation in SGI. But the organization does fail to tell newcomers many things about itself, such as the need for members to develop a "master/disciple" relationship with the president of the organization, Daisaku Ikeda.
Very little about actual Buddhism is discussed by SGI, as most meetings and publications revolve around Ikeda and his writings, and a constant drama regarding the bad relations between SGI and it's parent organization, Nichiren Shoshu, which excommunicated SGI several years ago.
I hope this helps readers that may be considering joining this organization.
Honestly, SGI does not get involved in the personal lives of its members as long as one attends meetings and doesn't try to question the organization, you are free to live as you wish.
Keeping this in mind, I'm not sure if it qualifies as a cult 100%. That is, with the exception of its insistence that SGI is the only true Buddhist organization and Daisaku Ikeda is the only person truly dedicated to spreading Buddhism.