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Applying the Philosophy

Interview with Asle Toje

Dr. Asle Toje, deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, talks at Soka University of America, Aliso Viejo, California, January 31, 2023. Photo by Marina Inoue/ Soka University of America.

On January 31, Asle Toje, deputy leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, gave a talk titled “The Nobel Peace Prize: Can It Influence World Peace?” at Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California. Living Buddhism sat down afterward with Mr. Toje to discuss the SGI’s role in contributing to world peace.

Living Buddhism: Hello Mr. Toje, we look forward to discussing fundamental issues facing humanity. Where do you think the SGI stands as a peace movement?

Asle Toje: During the Cold War, there were many peace movements out there. Go to the center of any major Western city and you’d see [them] out in force. Now, the rapidly rising tensions between the great powers has increased the chance of nuclear war, but where are the peace movements? Nowhere to be found. Many of the peace movements of the Cold War have withered.

Soka [Gakkai] is one of the few examples of a peace movement that has not withered. This is no small thing. From its inception, Soka [Gakkai] has focused on the nuclear issue because of Japanese history and Josei Toda’s experience,[1] which allowed it to become one of the few organizations during the Cold War that was equally at home in the East and West. So, Soka Gakkai is one of the great peace movements in the world today. It’s a juggernaut, cannot be ignored. I think its members should have some self-confidence on that score.

What are your thoughts on Daisaku Ikeda as a peacebuilder?

Toje: Daisaku Ikeda is special, isn’t he? As a peace philosopher, he’s one of the best. I think one of the great problems is that in the West, the powerful have persuaded themselves that they’re going to “contain the Chinese” and “confront the Russians.” Where will this lead? To war. And with war among the great powers, there’s a very great chance it’ll be a nuclear war.

On the other hand, Mr. Ikeda’s peace message is one of charity and dialogue. I find the message that he conveys in his annual peace proposals[2] immensely useful. He’s given global issues serious thought and understands international relations, often better than our political leaders.

In his 2006 peace proposal, Daisaku Ikeda quotes the definition given by philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset of civilization as “the attempt to reduce force to being the ultima ratio [last resort].” In a world in which force is used so readily, what can we do as private citizens to create a society without war?

Toje: Each of us has to get up and move. There are so many things that we can do with our days, and there are so many worthy causes that one could be involved in. I make the claim that the most important thing that a peace movement can do is to stand up for peace—and it’s not easy. It was never easy.

We got a bit lazy. We got a little too comfortable. And the fortitude that Mr. Ikeda preaches—to prepare yourself—is perhaps a call to those in the movement to prepare for tumultuous times ahead, because the message of peace has never been more controversial. For example, in my own country, simply advocating peace talks between Russia and Ukraine invites the most horrendous accusations—of being a traitor or a spy.

We must be ready to make sacrifices and to create a peace movement that is visible. The majority of people want peace. Many in power, however, still believe that war can resolve issues. We’re at an inflection point of human history now. This is where it gets difficult because we invented nuclear weapons. We used them, we were horrified at the result and for 50 years or so, there was a memory that was kept alive that created a huge taboo against their use. During the Cold War, the superpowers occasionally thought about it, but this taboo kept us from stepping into a new, devastating reality.

We need to reinforce the nuclear taboo and make our voices heard. In order to do that, we need to go out and persuade people with whom we might disagree on very important things. But this sort of crazy mindset has taken hold in the West, where people say, “I cannot have a dialogue with you because you’re a [fill in the blank],” or whatever. And it’s not like that, is it? We go into the world and make our case, politely, insistently, with humility in the belief that an honest word of truth can never be spoken in vain.

Daisaku Ikeda is 95 years old and has been calling on the younger generations to stand up and continue his peace work. We honor him. It took him a lot of guts to go to the Soviet Union and China in the 1970s.[3] It wasn’t popular in Japan at that time. And now it’s time for us to show our colors, you know, to fly the flag of peace. And me as a Lutheran, I welcome standing shoulder to shoulder with my Buddhist family on this.

Daisaku Ikeda recently called for nuclear weapon-states to adopt a No First Use policy. However, some, including the United States seem hesitant to make such a pledge. This seems to be rooted in a lack of trust. How can trust be developed in the international arena to more successfully implement regulations on nuclear weapons?

Toje: No First Use is a stopgap to prevent ourselves from plunging into darkness. It’s the lowest ambition thinkable. If we had this discussion during the 1970s everybody would say: “No First Use? Of course.” China and India have No First Use policies in place. We need to pressure the other nuclear weapon-states to accept that No First Use is the least we can expect from a responsible nuclear power. Now, we’re in the new nuclear arms race. The Chinese are doubling their arsenal; the Americans are revamping theirs; and the Russians are basically threatening to use theirs. So, I think that we need to speak out for humanity. There must be someone who speaks out for us as a species. We need more leaders like Mr. Ikeda, who paint the bigger picture: that we want to have a planet that we as a species can inhabit.

We must seriously consider the Fermi Paradox, named after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, who, in the summer of 1950, walking to lunch with fellow physicists at Los Alamos, posed the question: Why hasn’t our planet been visited by other intelligent life? One potential conclusion was that civilizations destroy themselves before they master intergalactic travel; that intelligent life is something dangerous, destroying [its home planet] before it can leave it. We need to consider the big picture, and that is that we need our planet to survive. Unfortunately, this perspective is rarely heard—we’re all caught up in the prevailing logic of geopolitics: our side against theirs.

This is why, I imagine, Mr. Ikeda built the structure of the SGI. As one of the largest intact peace movements in the world, your number’s been punched; this is your time. The job has been left to you, and me. We can’t sleep on this, can’t afford to. We can’t simply be concerned with our own spiritual enlightenment but need to go out and speak with others. This is your time, and this is your world.


  1. In 1943, Josei Toda was imprisoned by militarist authorities as a “thought criminal” along with his mentor, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi. Mr. Makiguchi died in prison, a martyr to his beliefs, while Mr. Toda was released shortly before the end of the war. Both remained steadfast in their faith until the end. ↩︎
  2. Since 1983, Daisaku Ikeda, as the SGI president, has issued 40 peace proposals, exploring the interrelation between core Buddhist concepts and the diverse challenges global society faces. ↩︎
  3. As a private citizen, Daisaku Ikeda visited both China and Russia in 1974 to encourage interaction among nations on the private versus official, political level, in order to foster peace. During his September 1974 visit to Russia, Daisaku Ikeda asked Premier Aleksey Kosygin whether the Soviet Union had any plans to attack China. The premier responded that it had no intention of either attacking or isolating China—a message the Soka Gakkai president relayed to Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping during a visit to China later the same year (July 27, 2007, World Tribune, p. 3). These actions played a crucial role in easing tensions between the countries at a time when they were having military skirmishes along their shared border. ↩︎

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