Buddhism and Japanese Nationalism: A Sad Chronicle of Complicity

Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho

Chapter Seven of The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective

Lexington Books, 2014

This chapter discusses Japanese nationalism and Buddhist involvement in the imperial war effort. Using the authority of state Shinto, Japanese authorities convinced most of their people that their nation had a divine mission to economically and spiritually transform Asia and even to conquer the world. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 had a liberal side, with the importation of Western learning and technology, but also a conservative aspect with the return of the emperor and the establishment of Shinto as the state religion. The general Buddhist reaction to these new religious policies, even after persecution by Meiji authorities, was to join the nationalist cause and submit to all imperial laws and Shinto ritual. Buddhist complicity with imperial rule, with some exceptions (primarily the Soka Gakkei), continued through four wars to 1945. Some militant nationalists criticized Buddhism as an alien religion, but Buddhists defended their 1,000 year history in their native land.

When one investigates the origins of religious violence, it becomes clear that one of the main causes is the fusion of religious and national identity.  When I first proposed a number of hypotheses about the origins of religious violence, I initially assumed that most of the confirmations would come among the Abrahamic religions. I have now realized that, in addition to exclusive national religions, there is one theory that applies only to Asia; and most accurately, only to some Hindu and Buddhist schools. When the doctrine of the mystical dissolution of the self is appropriated by the state, as it was proposed by Zen Buddhists such as D. T. Suzuki, then state sanctioned violence is the result. In the Abrahamic tradition mystics have always stood on the periphery of their traditions and have been often persecuted or at least marginalized. In stark contrast, mystics have operated from the very center of most Asian religions. In the Introduction we learned that some sādhus participated in violence against other yogis and against the Mughals and the British, but in most cases it was difficult to separate political, economic, and religious motivations. In imperial Japan politics and religion were definitely fused, as they were in Taiping Christianity in mid-19th Century China (see chapter 9).

            In the first section I will summarize the Meiji leaders’ resurrection of Shinto as the state religion; their concerted but failed attempt to eradicate Buddhism; and the Buddhists’ success in rehabilitating themselves as willing agents of the Japanese state. The second section will discuss the Japanese delegation to the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions and how the Buddhists promoted, either directly or indirectly, the concept of a unique Japanese Buddhism with a goal of dominating the world. Of particular interest here is one delegate Sōen Shaku, a leading nationalist and D. T. Suzuki’s Zen master, also of a militant nationalist persuasion. Anesaki Masaharu expresses the superiority of Japanese Buddhism in this way: “Our nation [Japan] is the only true Buddhist nation of all the nations in the world. It is thus upon the shoulders of this nation that the responsibility for the unification of Eastern and Western thought and the continued advancement of the East falls.”[1]

The third section will cover Buddhist attempts in 1934 to answer renewed charges by the Shinto Reform Association that Buddhists were not true patriots. Many Japanese Buddhists were quite willing to declare that the Buddha’s law and imperial law were one in the same. The fourth section will focus on D. T. Suzuki and his role in giving new meaning to the medieval notion of fusing Zen and the samurai sword, and his leadership in making Zen the most militant and nationalist of the Buddhist schools. It was Suzuki and others who proposed military self-sacrifice in the guise of mystical dissolution of the self. Enryō Inoue expresses this tradition most dramatically: “From ancient times, sacrificing one’s physical existence for the sake of the

emperor and the country was akin to discarding worn-out sandals.  It is this unique feature of our people which has caused the radiance of our national polity and produced the supreme beauty of our national customs.”[2]

The fifth section discusses religious nationalism in the Kyoto school of Buddhist philosophy with a focus on Nishitani Keiji and Nishida Kitāro. The last section will begin with followers of Nichiren who became militant nationalists, and then conclude with some Nichiren Buddhists who were critical of the corrosive mix of religion and the state. Of particular note is the Soka Gakkei, whose first two presidents were imprisoned during the war for refusing to accept the sacred amulet of the Sun Goddess and to pay obeisance to the emperor.

The Meiji Persecution of Buddhists and their Patriotic Response

            With the end of the Tokugawa Shoguntate and Meiji Restoration in 1868, imperial rule was reestablished and Shinto became the state religion. Missionaries from a new Department of Religious Ceremonies were sent to all regions to promote Shinto and denounce Buddhism and Christianity. An estimated 4,500 Buddhist temples were either closed or destroyed, statues were melted down to make cannons, and sutras and vestments were burned.  Thousands of priests were forced to return to ordinary life, and those 18-45 were drafted into the Imperial Army.  Following a pecking order of persecution, oppressed Buddhists turned on their Christian neighbors with vengeance, determined to “refute evil Christianity and exalt righteousness.” From 1870-73, peasants, mainly followers of Shinran and Nichiren, revolted against the anti-Buddhist campaign, and foreign governments complained bitterly about the loss of religious freedom for Japanese Christians. As a result, the Department of Religious Ceremonies was abolished in 1872. A new Department of Religious Instruction, however, was established in its place, and government support for Shinto continued unabated. 

In their defense, Meiji leaders claimed that Shinto is not actually a religion; rather, its ceremonies are essential to what it meant to be a Japanese citizen. After the pioneering work of Robert Bellah, one could say that Shinto is Japan’s civic religion. Criticism of mixing state and religion from groups such as the Meiji Six Society (meirokuska) was countered by imperial arguments that as an indigenous tradition, Shinto was Japan’s civil religion and it was institutionally different from Buddhism and Christianity. Even a leading Meirokuska thinker such as Nishi Amane was willing to accept the nationalist principle of kokutai, a nativist social, ethical, and religious polity with the emperor as its sovereign.[3] Even though he was inspired by Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace, Nishi was fully cognizant of the dangers of European encroachment in Asia and proposed that half of Japan’s budget should be given to the military.[4]

Japan’s emperor was named “coeval with Heaven and Earth” along the lines of Chinese rulers, and imperial authorities downplayed kami worship at Ise in favor of showing “reverence [for] the imperial household, because Ise had been built to honor the emperor’s ancestors.”[5] Shinto is essentially a form of ancestor worship based on the belief that all Japanese descended from the family of the first emperor Jimmu, son of the Sun Goddess, putatively born on February 11, 660 BCE. The final version of the civil code stated that “the Sun Goddess is the founder of our race, and the


throne is the sacred house of our race.”[6] Race, soil, and blood played, unfortunately, the same role in Japanese fascism as it did in Nazi Germany.

Hozumi Yatsuka, an influential conservative voice in the formation of Meiji Japan’s civil code rejected a rights-based draft drawn from French thought in favor of one drawing inspiration from Shinto, Confucianism, and German statist philosophy. In an act of nationalist bravado, the editor of The Essence of Bushidō, a volume published by the imperial army in 1941, made a connection to European Fascism. He boasted that Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki’s “writings are said to have strongly influenced the military spirit of Nazi Germany.”[7] The claim was not without foundation. A German translation of Suzuki’s book Zen and Japanese Culture published in 1941 was praised by one of Hitler’s advisors for putting “the fatherland and state before the family and the family before the individual.”[8]

Long before Pearl Harbor, Imperial Japan had begun its take-over of Korea in 1876 and finally annexed it in 1910.  Japan flexed its military muscles and it won impressive victories over China in 1894-95, by which it gained control over Northeast China and Taiwan. It an event that stunned Euro-America, Japan won a great victory over Russia in 1905, destroying most of the Russian navy, after steaming all the way from Europe, in the Tsushima Straits. These events reinforced nationalist fervor and convinced many Japanese that they indeed had become a world power with a divine mission. As a result, Shinto grew stronger during the 1894-1912 period.

            The general Buddhist reaction to the new Meiji religious policies was to submit to all imperial laws and to actively promote nationalism and militarism. As the imperial war machine moved in Manchuria in 1931, there were more and more attacks on Buddhists by militant nationalists, declaring that they were still not patriotic enough. The debate that followed, especially the eagerness by which the Buddhist defended their nationalist bona fides, makes for a sad chronicle of religious believers conforming to state ideology. Some Buddhist leaders even confessed that the Meiji campaign against their religion constituted a necessary purgation of an immoral and financially corrupt priesthood, and many were pleased to see that a “New Buddhism” arose—John Harding calls it a “Mahāyāna Phoenix”—one that conformed to modern scientific, rational, and new social welfare standards. James E. Ketelaar states that “Meiji Buddhists succeeded. . . not merely in refiguring Buddhism from the heretical to the martyr; they also succeed in producing a ‘new Buddhism’ that in fact has become to be viewed as a bastion of ‘true Japanese culture.’”[9] For an institution faced with total eradication in the early Meiji period, this was an incredible accomplishment.

Japanese Delegates at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions

A new Japanese Buddhism, with an implicit nationalist agenda, was dramatically revealed at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  The Shinto delegate Shibata Reiichi was no match for the five Buddhist participants, except for one newsworthy moment when he kissed several Christian women right on the platform.  In his account of the Parliament’s proceedings, Shibata completely ignored the Buddhists and they gladly returned the favor.  (The Zen priest Sōen Shaku also deleted the Pure Land presentation from his report.) The Asian visitors wowed the Americans with their exotic dress and mannerisms—made more assimilable as “biblical personages” with “their peculiar head gear and flowing robes”[10] —but Shibata’s kisses definitely received the PR prize.

The Asians brushed off the Christian chauvinism of many of the American delegates, and evidently ignored the racism of Alexander McKenzie, a Calvinist whose stated goal was to fashion “black material into noble men and women” and “red material into respectable men.”[11] The audience apparently did not mind the equally strong chauvinism and nationalism of the Asians.  Instead, the cheered on the Asian speakers, especially Swami Vivekananda who also carried strong Hindu nationalist credentials. Buddhist nationalists proposed the same hierarchical religious universalism, except that they placed Buddhism at the top rather than Hinduism.  Ashitsu Jitsuzen, a Japanese delegate representing Tendai Buddhism, explained his participation in the Parliament in nationalist terms, explaining that “the two ways of the Emperor and Buddhism are like two wings of a bird.”[12] Later Japanese Buddhists would rephrase this by declaring that there is no difference between the Emperor’s Law and the Buddha’s Law. 

Writing after his return from Chicago, Yatsubuchi Banryū, the Jōdo Shinshū representative, predicted that Buddhism, going beyond Auguste Comte’s three revolutions, would lead the fourth as “the general of the revolutionary army of the spiritual world.”[13] This was not solely a spiritual war, because he criticized monks who did not want to join the army, then preparing for war with China.  He stated: “What a sad and depressing attitude. Those monks really take out the energy from Japanese Buddhism, they are bad influences on the Japanese nationa and poison Japanese people’s idea of spirituality.”[14] In the decades to come Japanese perceived to be less than patriotic would be criticized for not demonstrating the proper Japanese spirit, which was interpreted as total obedience to imperial laws, commands, and conscriptions.

The lay delegate Hirai Kinzo was the only Japanese representative who was not a nationalist. In his writings he made it clear that religion should resist its innate tendency to become political, and it should always stand as a potential critic of national policies.  Japanese historian Murakami Senshō was also the exception when he warned that “it is extremely difficult to criticize war when one’s place of enunciation is located within the state.  It is only when one takes a position outside the state in religion . . . that war can be shown to be evil.”[15] Murakami’s wisdom was lost on philosopher Nishida Kitarō, who agreed to be an imperial army advisor in the late 1930s. He thought that he could somehow convince the generals that nations should participate equally in a “Co-Prosperity Sphere,” rather than the total Japanese domination in Asian politics and economics that was the imperial plan.

Hirai was loudly applauded by Christians in the Parliament audience, even though he defended the brutal persecution of Christianity under the Tokugawa Shogunate. (Chairman John Henry Barrows did not want him to give this speech.) Hirai justified these actions because he believed that Christian nations had unjustly interfered in Japanese affairs. Here is an example of his provocative rhetoric: “But admitting for the sake of argument that we are idolaters and heathen, is it Christian morality to trample upon the rights and advantages of a non-Christian nation, coloring all their natural happiness with the dark stain of injustice.”[16] Hirai then proceeded to quote from the Declaration of Independence to prove American hypocrisy. He concluded by embracing the morality and justice of the Christian Gospels, but he warned that goals of the Parliament could not be reached if Europe and America did not treat Asians equally and fairly. The Chicago Daily News reported that when Hirai “had finished, the people rose again to their feet and gave him three mighty cheers.”[17]

The enthusiastic reception of the Asian delegations gave them the false impression that Christianity was “on the ropes” and that it would easily succumb to the idea of either a Hindu or a Buddhist universalism. As we have learned in previous chapters, both Burmese/Sri Lankan Buddhist and Hindu nationalists, following what I have called a reverse Orientalism, used the Indo-European linguistic hypothesis as a racial theory to prove their superiority as true Aryans. Here is what the Buddhist representatives told Japanese audiences upon their return:

The Parliament was called because the Western nations have come to realize the weakness and folly of Christianity, and they really wished to hear from us of our religions and to learn what the best religion is. The meeting showed the great superiority of Buddhism over Christianity, and the mere fact of calling the meetings showed that the Americans and other Western peoples had lost their faith in Christianity and were ready to accept the teachings of a superior religion.[18]

The Asian delegation somehow failed to discern the strong Judeo-Christian agenda, obvious in these words from the opening speech by Parliament Chairman Barrows: “If anything great and worthy is to be the outcome of this Parliament, the glory is wholly due to Him who inspired it, and who, in the Scriptures which most of us cherish as the Word of God, has taught the blessed truths of divine Fatherhood and human brotherhood.”[19] Calling themselves “heathens,” the Japanese were at least aware of their exclusion from the Parliament’s Fifth Goal: “To indicate the impregnable foundations of theism, and the reasons for man’s faith in Immortality . . . .”[20]

The Japanese Buddhist speakers at the Parliament set the exclusivist tone that most of their coreligionists were to follow in the fateful years to come: not only was Buddhism the true religion, but its Japanese form was superior to degenerate schools in Korea, China, and India.  Many Japanese Buddhists were upset with the fact that, as Brian Victoria describes it, the first European Buddhist scholars had “identified the Buddhism of the Pāli canon found in the countries of South and Southeast Asia as ‘true’ or ‘pure’ Buddhism.”[21] The Japanese response to this perceived slight is summarized best in Outlines of Mahāyāna Buddhism, one of D. T. Suzuki’s bestselling books. (Although not present, Suzuki was the main translator of the Parliament papers presented by the Japanese.) The Japanese were convinced that once Buddhism’s Great Vehicle was properly understood in its Japanese form, Euro-American society would reject Theravāda Buddhism as narrow and monkish.

Even with this bias against other Buddhist schools, parliament delegate and Zen Rinzai priest Sōen Shaku, had allied himself with Col. Henry Steele Olcott, who was mentor to Sri Lankan Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala , who accompanied Olcott on a trip to Japan in 1889 and also spoke at the Parliament. Olcott was keen to unify northern and southern Buddhist schools and present a united front against Christianity. As he argued:

Why should the two great halves of the Buddhist church be any longer ignorant and indifferent about each other? Let us break the long silence; let us bridge the chasm of 2,300 years; let the Buddhists of the North and those of the South be one family again.[22]

At the Chicago meeting there was lots of confusion about the distinction between the two schools, and the Shingon (=Vajrāyāna) representative Toki Hōryū proposed bringing the two together as one vehicle (ekayāna): “Mahāyāna does not exclude Hināyāna, and together they are called Ekayāna . . . . We believe that finally these two views will come together without any contest according to the development of the human intellect and the progress of science.”[23] Given the Japanese Buddhists’ partisan program, it was clear that this fusion would only happen within a Japanese Mahāyānist framework.

During a stay in Sri Lanka (1887-89) Sōen Shaku came to realize that it was a good idea to promote Shakyamuni Buddha as the main figure of worship rather than the many Bodhisattvas of the Mahāyāna tradition, which were a confusing stumbling block for Euro-American audiences. While there Sōen also read Olcott’s highly influential Buddhist Catechism,and Olcott’s description of Buddhism as rational and scientific made its way into his speech in Chicago, which was read in translation by Chairman Barrows. (Drawing on one great advantage of British colonialism, Vivekananda and Dhamapala spoke in fluent English.) In his speech “The Law of Cause and Effect, as taught by Buddha,” Sōen criticized Christianity as supernatural superstition and not based on empirical evidence. As John Harding explains, Sōen “identified this causal law as the source of moral authority, and repeatedly insisted that there is no divine agency at work in the law of cause and effect.”[24]

Sōen’s second speech at the Parliament was entitled “Arbitration Instead of War.”  Starting with the Buddha’s principle that all humans are equal, Sōen proposed a universal brotherhood in which all nations and religions would participate. Sōen appeared to put all the great religious leaders on the same level, because the Buddha, as John Harding paraphrases Sōen, “shares the distinction of teaching universal love and fraternity with the other great religious teachers such as Jesus Christ and Confucius.”[25] When Sōen volunteered as a chaplain in the war with Russia, his views had become much less accommodating. He justified the taking of Russian lives with an appeal to Mahāyāna monism: there is no “worldly distinction made between friend and foe, tragedy and comedy, war and peace, saṃsara and nīrvaṇa.”[26] The broken bodies of war “are like the sheaths of the bamboo sprout,” and “from a broader [monistic] point of view these sacrifices are so many phoenixes consumed in the sacred fire of spirituality. . . .”[27]  This is the first confirmation of my thesis about the connection between mystical monism and religious violence. Sōen wrote that Japan had reluctantly entered into the war with Russia and pursues “no egoistic purpose” other than to overcome evil and prepare for the enlightenment of all people. This war was “not necessarily horrible, provided that it is fought for a just and honorable cause.”[28] As we shall see, Zen Buddhists such as Sōen were some of the most militant supporters of Japan’s later wars in China and the Pacific.

During the war with Russia, Leo Tolstoy appealed to Sōen, assuming that as a Buddhist he would share his pacifist views, but Sōen answered that “killing and war are necessary” to bring “into harmony those things which are incompatible.”[29] In a perverse dialectical reversal that we find in other Buddhist nationalists, Sōen declares that “what is shed by Buddhists is not blood—which, unfortunately, has stained so many pages in the history of religion—but tears issuing directly from the fountainhead of lovingkindness.”[30] In their two wars with China Japanese Buddhists believed that they had an obligation to correct the degenerate views of Chinese Buddhism, and a preemptive war fought out of compassion for the Chinese would forestall their spiritual demise. This is the same “compassionate” violence that we shall see that Bhutanese and Tibetan lamas practiced centuries before.  There was strong Māhāyana scriptural foundations—the Dalai Lama references them—for using any means to save all sentient beings.

Buddhists Answer Shintoists: “We are True Patriots”

At the end of 1933, members of the Shinto Reform Association challenged Japan’s Buddhists to answer seven questions on the topic of “Buddhism and the Japanese Spirit,” the latter phrase having a strong nationalist connotation. The questions were prefaced with insults and racial innuendo, accusing Buddhists of rejecting the kami and wasting large amounts of money on elaborate temples built in honor of “the blackie from the degenerate country India.”[31] The response by 45 Buddhist leaders in the journal Chūō Bukkyō was groveling and enthusiastic, using family metaphors to demonstrate how integral Buddhism was to the Japanese nation. Graciously accepting the passive and subordinate role, the Buddhists describe their faith alternately as a daughter, bride, and mother to an active, male Japan. Ōta Kakumin combines all three in this eloquent plea for religious and national unity: “With a sincere heart this wife [Buddhism] worked hard to take care of our home, having children and then grandchildren. Our home, not her original home [China], has been foremost in her mind. Indeed, from early on, more than a daughter from another home, she has been our wife and mother.”[32]

Ōta reverses the flow of brides by sending a Japanese woman to Manchuria: “For both peoples this is a spiritual marriage and, in terms of the friendly relations between them, this is cause for celebration.”[33] For others, such as Taniguchi Jōzen, Japan becomes the groom, who takes Buddhism as his “flower bride,” who then becomes the “womb of Japanese culture.”[34] Proposing a more assertive role for Buddhism, Takai Kankai states that the “Japanese spirit is the innate nature specific to the Japanese people, and Buddhism and Confucianism fostered its growth. Through the education it received from Buddhism and Confucianism, Japanese culture matured from a child into an adult.”[35] For the Shintoists to now demand a divorce after such a long, successful marriage was very offensive to these Buddhists patriots.

            Along less poetic lines, the Buddhist respondents reminded their accusers of Shōtoku Taishi and his acceptance of Buddhism as the essential new ingredient for the birth of the Japanese nation in the 6th Century Japan, for the first time known as Nippon and the country of the rising sun. They also mentioned the alliance of Buddhism and the Kyoto emperor and the building of the magnificent temple at Nara, described as the “realm-protecting temple of the four heavenly kings of golden light” and where Buddhists prayed for the well being of the nation. Finally, and most telling and fatal, the Buddhists told the Shinto accusers that they believed in the “unity of the emperor’s law and the Buddha’s law.”[36]

D. T. Suzuki, “Actualism,” and the Sword

Sincemedieval times Zen Buddhism had always maintained a close connection with the Japanese military, and it had a special vigor and masculinity that appealed to the samurai warriors. Citing Medieval Zen masters, Seisen Fueoka claims in his Zen Primer of 1927 that “the spirits of Japan’s many heroes have been trained by Zen” and that “Zen and the sword were one and the same.”[37] Even before its introduction into Japan, Chinese Ch’an had elements of violence not present in other Buddhist schools. Brian Victoria, however, has shown that Song Dynasty Ch’an masters meant that the “sword that kills” destroys only ignorance not human enemies.[38] The famous sayings exhorting monks to kill the Buddha and kill their families were meant as provocative rhetoric to prevent idolatry and attachment and to destroy the illusory self. Victoria does, however, admit that physical violence (blows to the body and head) and verbal abuse by Ch’an and later Zen masters was and continues to characterize Zen discipline.

More than any other Zen Buddhist, it was D. T. Suzuki who revived this connection between Zen and the samurai sword, and who urged Buddhists to support imperial warfare. Victoria, however, believes that Suzuki participated in a “pernicious abuse” of traditional Zen terminology, and “one can only marvel at the fact of the transference of these terms to the real battlefield by later generations.”[39] In the interest of fairness it is necessary to point out that scholars such as Kirita Kiyohide claim that Suzuki, in private correspondence, distanced himself from emperor worship and was critical of imperial war efforts.[40] A similar caveat is in order for Nishida Kitāro, who, as we will see in the next section, held strong private reservations about the actions of his country even while serving as a consultant for the Imperial Army.

In 1896 Suzuki published a book entitled A New Treatise on Religion, and he argued that the war with China was just and a necessary “religious action,” because the Chinese were “violent. . . unruly heathens” who interfered with Japan’s need to trade and get resources for its factories. He maintained that “religion should, first of all, seek to preserve the existence of the state, abiding by its history and its feelings.”[41] Suzuki claimed that Japan was justified in declaring war “in the name of religion” and “the progress of humanity” on any “lawless country” that “tramples on [Japan’s] rights.”[42] Suzuki believed that Buddhism actually went extinct in China during the Song Dynasty, and it was only because of its intimate relation with samurai culture that Buddhism was resurrected by the Japanese. Suzuki believes that the practice of Zen gives one an iron will, because Zen “is a religion of will power, and will power is what is urgently needed by the warriors.”[43] In this same passage, Suzuki claims that only Zen can provide the warriors with martial spirit because, as he repeats a Japanese saying, “Tendai [Buddhism] is for the royal family, [tantric] Shingon is for the royalty, . . . and [Pure Land] Jōdō for the masses.” Also in this passage he admits that Zen could be a “destructive force.”

In the book Zen and Japanese Culture Suzuki explains that the Zennist iron will is independent from one’s illusory ego will, because the solider has “no desire to do harm to anybody.”[44] Suzuki warns that “these powers may be devilish at times, but there is no doubt that they are superhuman and work wonders.”[45] Suzuki quotes from a 17th Century text as follows: “The book emphasizes very much the samurai’s readiness to give his life away at any moment [and] it states that no great work has ever been accomplished without going mad.”[46] In 1941 the Japanese military published a book entitled The Essence of Bushidō  and in his own chapter “Zen and Bushidō,” Suzuki states that the soldier must act as if he were “truly abandoning this life.”[47] These explicit statements stand in stark contrast to a line from a letter quoted by Kirita in which Suzuki contends that “Zen absolutely never teaches one to throw one’s life away.”[48] Nevertheless, Zen and the sword played an essential role in the Japanese war effort. At the signing of the Tripartite Pact in 1941, which brought the three Axis Powers together, Ambassador Kurusu Saburō declared, presumably unconvincingly to the rest of the world, that “the pillar of Japan is to be found in Bushido. Although Bushido employs the sword, its essence is not to kill people, but rather to use the word that gives life to people. Using the spirit of his sword, we wish to contribute to world peace.”[49] Zen Priest Hata Esho was delighted that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor coincided with the Buddha’s birthday, “a holy day for eternally commemorating the reconstruction of the world.”[50]

Suzuki was also instrumental in developing a conceptual framework for a philosophy of “actualism” that holds that everything that happens is as it should be.  This means that there is no distinction between the Is and the Ought, which leaves, as Christopher Ives states, “no impetus for social criticism or transformative activism.”[51] Suzuki actually admits that, because of this passive tolerance, Zen could wed itself to “anarchism or fascism, communism or democracy. . . .”[52] Ives argues that Suzuki’s ideas helped Nishida Kitāro “provide a philosophical foundation for the ‘holy war’ being waged in the name of the emperor.”[53] In the next section we will find mitigating evidence against this charge.

In addition to the theocratic immanence of the emperor, one finds yet another element of immanent spirituality. A quasi-spiritual scientism allied with the state could abuse its power just as easily as a materialistic one, and the Soviet Union and Communist China are good examples of this. We saw this scientism in the Buddhist delegates to the 1893 World Parliament; and this view, allied with the modernizing thrust of the Meiji Restoration, represented, as Ketelar explains, “a new scientism of cooperative global evolution.” He continues: “This New Buddhism is in a direct relation to the manipulation of the material world. . . . In other words, for the Meiji Buddhists, Buddhism is moral and is technological: it is also Japan.”[54] Meiji Buddhists warned that the scientific and technological innovations borrowed from the West would be “hollow husks” without the “immanent spirituality” upon which their Buddhist faith would confer.

Japanese Nationalism and the Kyoto School

Christopher Ives believes that among the members of the famous Kyoto School of Philosophy, “Nishitani Keiji, Kōsaka Masaaki, Kōyama Iwao, and Suzuki Shigetaka had a more enthusiastic attitude toward Japanese imperialism than Nishida Kitāro, and Tanabe Hajime explicitly changed his standpoint.”[55] In this section, I will focus on Nishitanti and Nishida, mainly because they are more known to American and European audiences. With regard to the Japanese invasion of China, Nishitani criticized those who compared it to previous colonial actions in Asia. Commenting on the Meiji principle of kukotai in his seminal essay “Overcoming Modernity,” Nishitani asks:

Why does the nation-state (kokka) demand a professional service from people (kokumin) that extinguishes their private sense of self? It is, quite simply, because the need to strengthen, as much as possible, its internal unity as a nation-state. And this unity is necessary for the nation-state to concentrate its total power as an individual totality and to act with a high level of energy. . . . Every Japanese [must] extinguish their private selves and be reduced as a totality, to the nation-state.[56]

I have been hesitant to use the term “fascism” in this chapter, but this worship of the state goes far beyond most forms of nationalism.  Again we see the dissolution of the self for the service of the nation, following the mystical monism of many forms of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

In the same article Nishitani argues that the modernism of European philosophy has led to alienation, colonialism, and destruction. He believes that a new concept of self, based on religion, is needed to forge a “Greater East Asia” and “new world order.” Moving through some of his trademark dialectical machinations, Nishitani arrives at a position of “subjective nothingness” as the True Self. Nishitani is convinced that only Japanese thought can provide this: “Even in the East itself, there is no country other than Japan where Eastern religiosity has been so closely bound to national ethics as to become the cornerstone of the nation and tap its primal energies.”[57] Minamoto Ryōen, however, reminds readers that when Nishitani talks about his “world ethic,” he does not mean that it should be established by war or through colonialism: “This sets him apart from collaborators who fanned enthusiasm for the war among the people.”[58]

            Ueda Shizuteru and Yusa Michiko strive to defend Nishida Kitāro from any strong formulation of the charge of nationalism. Yusa contends that Nishida is “a thinker who resisted fanatic nationalism and struggled against the attempts of the pre-1945 military government to impose its program of ‘thought control’ on Japan’s intellectual community.”[59] Ueda claims that critics do not realize that Nishida distinguishes between Japan as a “subject,” the aggressive imperial Japan, and the ideal concept of Japanese culture.[60] With regard to the former, Nishida always took a critical attitude, but with regard to the latter, Nishida believed that the Japanese, and the Asians in general, have made unique contributions to world culture and others should learn from them.

            During the war Nishida’s friends noticed that he never celebrated Japanese victories as others did; instead, they usually found him in a state of depression. He had experienced similar low moods during the war with the Russians, and he commented that victory celebrations were frivolous. In letters from 1944 he writes: “I get more and more disgusted at what I read in the papers. My ideas are not being understood at all. . . . I have already given up hope.”[61] Nishida’s grandchildren remember being confused when he took them for long walks in Tokyo’s parks and refused to bow at the imperial shrines on the way. His grandchildren told him that they had been taught that the emperor was a deity, but Nishida replied that he was “an ordinary human being whom we should feel sorry for because he had been deprived of his freedom.”[62] It is significant to point out that the divinity of the emperor did not become official until 1935, and that Hirohito himself rejected the title and predicted correctly that it would only cause trouble. Nishida’s defenders claim that he was a nationalist only in the sense that he believed in the unifying power of the imperial throne, not the person in it. The emperor brought the people together in a way that defines a very distinctive “Japanese spirit,” a phrase used by militant Shintoists, who charged that Nishida did not conform to their views. Opposed to the fascists, Nishida believed that kokutai was “grounded in humanity,” and that the imperial family was the symbol of the basic humanity of the Japanese people.[63]

Nishida made it clear in his writings that the American or British worldviews were equally valuable, and he envisioned a “New World Order” in which Euro-American cultures would enrich each other. Critics fail to notice that Nishida gives a very different interpretation of the slogan “East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.” The following passage from a work entitled “Principles for a New World Order” expresses a  positive multi-cultural view:

A peace that embraces all of humankind is possible only if all nations and peoples, awakened to their common world-historical mission, first form particular world or “co-prosperity spheres,” in line with existing geographical and cultural bonds; and further, if through the mutual cooperation of these different co-prosperity spheres, a world in the true sense of the word, a global world, comes into being.[64]

In a debate with a military officer, Nishida made it clear that he thought that Japan’s policy in the rest of Asia was a “simple coercion sphere, not a co-prosperity sphere.”[65]

            Even with all this mitigating evidence, one is still left to wonder why Nishida always accepted offers to sit on government committees. (One can of course understand why he was not critical in his comments to the emperor himself.) Yusa phrases the issue this way: “One has to wonder why Nishida would venture out into such an open minefield, and this in turn raises the possibility that his thought was in fact inherently nationalistic.”[66] Yusa defends Nishida’s actions assuming that he wanted to convince imperial authorities that their militant view of Japanese nationalism was wrong. Yusa does admit that some of Nishida’s remarks on kokutai are “problematic” and that he undermines his generosity toward Euro-American civilization when he states (Yusa admits that it is a “strong claim”) that “no other country has what we call kokutai.”[67]

Soka Gakkei Rejects Nationalist Readings of Nichiren

            Japan’s Nichiren Buddhists, with a few exceptions, fell right in line with imperial nationalism and militarism. Tanaka Chigaku (1861-1939) championed the unity of imperial law and the Buddha’s law. Nichiren was famous for his principle of skakubuku—”conquering evil aggressively”—which he thought should be used even against Buddhist sects that had lost their way. Tanaka thought that skakubuku should be employed against Japan’s enemies: “When it is said that the Japanese Imperial Army is an army of humanity and justice, for maintaining justice and building peace, it means that it is a force for compassion. The shakubukuof Nichirenism must be like this.”[68]

Nichiren scholar Christina Naylor points out that Nichiren never thought of shakubuku with the nationalist meaning that Tanaka gave it. She gives the example of Nichiren refusing to use shakubuku against the Mongol invaders, because he thought they were bringing divine revenge on a government that was persecuting him. Naylor does, however, point out a Buddhist imperialism in Nichiren: “Whereas previous sages had spoken of enbudai no Nippon (Japan of the inhabited earth), Nichiren had used the term Nippon no enbudai to include the whole inhabited earth in Japan.”[69] This of course could be used by Buddhist militarists to support a world-wide war.

Naylor states that Tanaka thought that the “Lotus Sūtra . . . was to be the sword, and in the work of unifying the world, Nichiren was to be Generalissimo, the empire the supreme command, the people of Japan the heavenly soldiers, and teachers devoted to Nichiren the officers.”[70] (I am reminded of a sign “Christ is the Commander in Chief” outside a Los Angeles church during the invasion of Iraq.) As with many other Japanese nationalists, Tanaka envisioned Japan ruling the world from its imperial throne, because “the extraordinarily great Emperor Meiji [had] appeared to become the axis of the world.”[71] Tanaka also believed that all the people of the world would in time worship at the imperial Shinto shrines.

            Ishihara Kanji (1889-1949), another follower of Nichiren, was awarded the imperial Order of the Golden Kite for his role in setting up the puppet state of Manchukuo. He was also given a mandala from the Pillar of the Nation Society, a fascist organization set up by Tanaka.  The mandala was supposed to have been drawn by Nichiren himself and was used to deter the Mongol invasion. As Naylor reports, there appeared to be only one person, Takayama Chogyii (1871-1902), who knew that the mandala was a fake and that Nichiren had actually prayed for Japan’s defeat. Takayama was especially offended by a 65-foot statue of Nichiren erected as a war memorial after Japan’s victory over Russia. The statue held the fraudulent mandala as it faces the Sea of Japan, looking west towards Russia and the place where two Mongol fleets were destroyed by storms.

Ishihara and Tanaka believed the war could be won only if the emperor accepted the Lotus Sūtra as the sacred source of the power of the throne. As Naylor states: “Ishihara believed that world unity would ultimately be achieved after a ‘final world war’ which was to break out 2500 years after the death of the Buddha.”[72] Nationalist followers of Nichiren liked to quote this prophecy from his writings: “The flag of the sun, of the country where the sun rises, as prophesied by the Buddha long ago, is now truly about to illumine the darkness of the whole world.”[73] (Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones to use scriptural prophecy to justify violence.) Unlike others mentioned in this essay, Ishihara wrote a letter of apology to General MacArthur confessing that he had been mistaken in believing that Nichiren’s prophecy meant that Japan would go to war with the Western powers.

            Naylor mentions only one follower of Nichiren, Seno’o Giro(1889-1961), who refused to follow the imperial program. Seno’o founded the New Buddhist Youth Federation in 1931, and he was jailed during the war because of his pacifism, but he continued his anti-war activities during the 1950s. Naylor demonstrates that Nichiren was not against military action, and she takes Soka Gakkai to task because its anti-war and anti-nuclear weapons policies are at odds with Nichiren’s views. This criticism seems misplaced and unwarranted. Most Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims have also rejected militaristic passages in their scriptures, realizing that blind adherence to a literal reading of prophet’s words is not the way to practice one’s faith.

It is odd that Naylor fails to mention the Sokka Gakkei’s first two presidents, Makiguchi Tsunesaburo (1871-1944) and Toda Josei (1900-58). During the 1890s Makiguchi distinguished himself as an innovative and caring teacher, and he poured much of this experience into a remarkable book The Geography of Human Life published in 1903. Moving to Tokyo he worked in the Ministry of Education, and he then served as head of five schools over the next 30 years. In 1928 Makiguchi converted to Nichiren Shoshu and established, with Toda as co-founder, the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Value-Creation Education Society). In his early years he debated with socialists in Tokyo, and he rejected their idea of radical change in the structure of government.  In the 1930s Makiguchi became a strong opponent of State Shinto and condemned followers of Nichiren who failed to speak out about the loss of religious and political freedom.  In 1943 Makiguchi was brought before Nichiren Shoshu’s high priest, and he was commanded to accept an amulet from Ise and affirm his belief in the divinity of the emperor. He refused and government officials arrested him as a “thought criminal,” subjected him to harsh interrogation, and he died in prison in 1944.

Toda Josei also converted to Nichiren Buddhism in 1928 and became a very successful textbook publisher. He was also imprisoned by imperial authorities and spent most of 1943-45 in a deep study of Buddhism, finding in it a powerful self-actualizing humanism. With the death of Makiguchi, Toda became the second president of Soka Kyoiku Gakkai, which soon changed its name to Soka Gakkai (Value Creating Society). Soka Gakkei’s version of Nichiren Buddhism was very attractive to many Japanese, and its missionaries were successful in taking their message door to door, although their leaders now realize that their overzealous use of shakabuku was counterproductive. (Shakabuku was only used in neighborhood proselytizing and was never conceived as a weapon to attack Japan’s enemies.) Toda was especially active in leading his organization to join a world-wide movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

For over 50 years Ikeda Daisaku, first as third president of Soka Gakkai in Japan and then as president of Soka Gakkai International, has extended Makigushi’s and Toda’s vision around the globe.  His leadership has resulted in making it the largest lay Buddhist organization in the world, one dedicated to world peace, interfaith dialogue, and nation building in the developing world. One could argue that the Soka Gakkai has taken the best ideas of the Meiji Restoration, rejecting the narrow nationalism and militarism that grew out it, and melding moral and spiritual values from Europe and America with a distinctive Japanese spirit. (It could very well be seen as a form of constructive postmodernism as explained in the final chapter.) I am certain that President Ikeda would embrace Nishida’s idea of “a peace that embraces all of humankind is possible only . . . [with] the mutual cooperation of these different co-prosperity spheres,” and from this “a world in the true sense of the word, a global world” will come into being.


[1]Quoted in Brian D. Victoria, Zen at War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2nd ed., 2006), 15.

[2]Quoted in ibid., 19.

[3]Thomas R. H. Havens, Nishi Amane and Modern Japanese Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970), 183.

[4]Ibid., 195.

[5]Kenneth B. Pyle, “Meiji Conservatism” in The Cambridge History of Japan: The Nineteenth Century, edited by Marius B. Jansen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), vol. 5, 702.

[6]Quoted in Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi,Modern Japanese Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 126.

[7]Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 111.

[8]Quoted in ibid., 242 note 32.

[9]James A. Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan: Buddhism and Its Persecution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), x.

[10]Ibid., 153.

[11]Quoted in Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs, 156.

[12] John S. Harding, Mahāyāna Phoenix (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 77.

[13]Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs,165.

[14]Harding, Mahāyāna Phoenix, 78.

[15]Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs, 173.

[16]Cited in Harding, Mahāyāna Phoenix, 85.

[17]Quoted in Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs, 169.

[18]Quoted in Judith Snodgrass, Presenting Japanese Buddhism to the West: Orientalism, Occidentalism, and the Columbian Exposition (Raleigh, NC: University of North Carolina, 2003), 246-47.

[19]Richard H. Seager, The Dawn of Religious Pluralism: Voices from the World’s Parliament of Religions, 1893 (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 1993), 24.

[20]Quoted in Ketelaar, Of Heretics and Martyrs, 158.

[21]Victoria, Zen at War, 14.

[22]Stephen R. Prothero, The White Buddhist: the Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996), 125.

[23]Quoted in Harding, Mahāyāna Phoenix, 108.

[24]Ibid., 124.

[25]Ibid., 125.

[26]Sōen Shaku, “At the Battle of Nan Shan Hill” in Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot: Addresses on Religious Subjects, trans. D. T. Suzuki (Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 1906), 200.

[27]Sōen, “A Memorial Address in 1905” in Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, 212.

[28]Ibid., 211.

[29]Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 29.

[30]Sōen, “A Buddhist View of War” in Sermons of a Buddhist Abbot, 194.

[31]Christopher Ives, “The Mobilization of Doctrine: Buddhist Contributions to Imperial Ideology in Modern Japan,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 26:1-2 (1999): 84.

[32]Quoted in Ives, “The Mobilization of Doctrine,” 86.

[33]Quoted in ibid, 87.

[34]Quoted in ibid.

[35]Quoted in ibid.

[36]Quoted in ibid, 85.

[37]Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 100.

[38]Ibid., 207.

[39]Ibid., 208.

[40]Kirita Kiyohide, “D. T. Suzuki on Society and the State” in Rude Awakenings: Zen, the Kyoto School, and the Question of Nationalism, ed. James W. Heisig and John C. Maraldo (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), 52-74.

[41]Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 24, 23.

[42]Quoted in ibid., 24.

[43]D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture (London: Taylor & Francis, 1970), 63.

[44]Ibid., 145.

[45]Ibid., 70.


[47]Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 110-111.

[48]Kirita, “D. T. Suzuki on Society and the State” in Rude Awakenings, 72.

[49]Quoted in Victoria, Zen at War, 112.

[50]Quoted in Christopher Ives, “Ethical Pitfalls in Imperial Zen and Nishida’s Philosophy” in Rude Awakenings, 18-19.

[51]Ibid., 25.

[52]Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, 63.

[53]Ives, “Ethical Pitfalls in Imperial Zen and Nishida’s Philosophy,” 25

[54]Ketelar, Of Heretics and Martyrs, 172, 167.

[55]Ives, “Ethical Pitfalls in Imperial Zen and Nishida Philosophy,” 39.

[56]Quoted in Kevin M. Doak, “Nationalism as Dialectics” in Rude Awakenings, 193-94.

[57]Quoted in Minamoto Ryōen, “The Symposium on Overcoming Modernity” in Rude Awakenings, 219.

[58]Ibid., 219-20.

[59]Yusa Michiko, “Nishida and Totalitarianism” in Rude Awakenings, 107.

[60]Ueda Shizuteru, “Nishida, Nationalism, and the War in Question” in Rude Awakenings, 84-85.

[61]Quoted in ibid., 90.

[62]Quoted in Yusa, “Nishida and Totalitarianism,”109.


[64]Quoted in Ueda, “Nishida, Nationalism, and the War in Question” in Rude Awakenings, 88.

[65]Quoted in ibid., 90.

[66]Yusa, “Nishida and Totalitarianism,” 126.

[67]Quoted in ibid., 130.

[68]Christina Naylor, “Nichiren, Imperialism, and the Peace Movement,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 18:1 (1991): 52.

[69]Ibid., 51-52.

[70]Ibid., 53.



[73]Ibid., 55.

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