Daisaku Ikeda's followers believe he is the earthly incarnation of a saint; those who believe otherwise suffer his god-like wrath.
Daisaku Ikeda should be powerful -- he has karma on his side. Enough karma to lure over 12 million followers to his radical Buddhist sect. Enough to pour trillions of yen into schools and plush "cultural centers" worldwide. Enough to ensure audiences with royals, business leaders and former prime ministers. In fact 65-year-old Ikeda has enough karma to achieve almost anything. So why is he thought to be so contemptible?
A small, plump man with a permanently smug look, Ikeda joined the religious group Soka Gakkai in 1947 and quickly earned a reputation as a phenomenally effective fund-raiser. This is said to have assured his rise through the ranks and proved a strong weapon in the battle for succession between Ikeda and a rival in 1960, when Chairman Josei Toda died.
According to Ikeda's former right-hand man Yukimasa Fujiwara -- one of many who have left the group to protest their leaders dictatorial style -- Ikeda won the chairmanship by quietly paying off executives.
Ikeda, then only 32, quickly persuaded followers that the more converts and money they brought in, the better their karma. The subsequent membership drive lured one-tenth of the nation's population and millions of others worldwide, including celebrities such as Tina Turner, Patrick Swayze and Herbie Hancock.
But conquering the spiritual realm wasn't enough for Ikeda. In 1957, he had thousand of members register as residents in a district where a Gakkai-backed candidate needed votes. The candidate won, but Ikeda spent 15 days in prison for violating election law.
His political aspirations took further shape in 1964, when he launched the Komeito party which, with huge funds and millions of votes, grew into the Diet's second-largest opposition party.
The Komeito has cast the deciding vote in debates such as the 1988 consumption tax and the 1991 PKO bills, giving Ikeda -- an unelected party leader -- awesome sway over crucial domestic issues. "The Komeito can't make any decisions without his consent," claims Tokyo Insideline's Takao Toshikawa. "President Ikeda," as he is called by his English-speaking followers, is a larger-than-life figure and a skilled orator.
He is also known as an arrogant and mean-spirited man who taunts Gakkai executives at meetings. Yet his combination of religious aura and political clout has proved devastatingly successful.
Soka Gakkai now has eight universities, schools, kindergartens and other centers around the world. It recently completed an extravagant international HQ on 580 acres of prime Santa Monica estate. Glossy press packs burst with photos of Ikeda meeting Gorbachev, Thatcher, Mitterand and Kissinger. Before Ikeda visits his many schools and centers, his aids are deployed to hand out gifts of soft drinks. After one visit to Soka University in Hachioji, students proudly displayed the empty cans in shoeboxes inscribed with the words: "Presents of encouragement from Ikeda sensei." It is also no secret that Ikeda desperately wants a Nobel Peace Prize; he has met with many Nobel laureates and donates huge sums to charitable causes such as Cambodian refugees, Ethiopian projects and Palestinian education.
Ikeda's followers consider him the earthly incarnation of the Nichiren Daishonin saint; those who believe otherwise have felt the wrath of this self-appointed god. When writer Hirotatsu Fujiwara tried to publish a critical book in 1969, Ikeda employed then-LDP Secretary General Kakuei Tanaka to persuade Fujiwara to halt publication (He had him arrested on bogus charges); the author also claimed that a KGB-Iike campaign against him included death-threats and surveillance.
The scandal that erupted after these revelations forced Ikeda's aides to apologize and soon after, to announce the formal separation of Soka Gakkai from the Komeito. This restructuring was little help to Komeito Diet member Toshio Ohashi, who complained about Ikeda's megalomania in 1988. On Ikeda's nod, Soka Gakkai withdrew its support on the grounds that Ohashi had been receiving illegal campaign contributions. Without Gakkai's funds and votes, Ohashi had no choice but to resign from the Diet. The message was clear: nobody argues with The President.
Such incidents have blemished Ikeda's saintly veneer, but have hardly dented his power base. Ikeda continues to be consulted by top politicians such as Noboru Takeshita and, according to the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, Soka Gakkai held four fund raising events this year for last month's elections.
Ikeda is reportedly wooing both strands of the nation's political future: Takeshita, the old style LDP godfather; and Ichiro Ozawa, the young iconoclast, whose party might soon prosper from Ikeda's generosity.
Japan's political map is being redrawn, and Daisaku lkeda -- statesman, billionaire, god -- seems intent to play his part.