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Zen Terror in Prewar Japan: Portrait of an Assassin

Brian Daizen Victoria
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (February 14, 2020)
reviewed by Vladimir K.

Brian Daizen Victoria shocked the Western Zen world with his first book, Zen at War (1997), which documented the support for Japanese militarism in the first half of the twentieth century by prominent Japanese Zen teachers, many of whom went on to teach in the West. His second book, Zen War Stories (2003), continued exploring the link between Japanese Zen Buddhism and the military during World War II. The two books uncovered the dark underbelly of support for violence and war in Japanese Buddhism and led to apologies being offered by some Zen schools in Japan. In the final volume of the trilogy on Japanese Zen and war, Victoria narrows the focus to a single individual, Inoue Nissho, an ostensibly enlightened Zen practitioner who advocated the violent overthrow of the Japanese government and the assassination of prominent Japanese politicians and businessmen. In other words, a terrorist.

Inoue was born in Kawaba village in 1886. He was a troubled youth and caused mayhem in the village with various pranks and youthful antics. However, it was in this childhood that Inoue developed what is called in Zen, a Great Doubt, a questioning about the meaning of life and how to determine right from wrong. Still in high school, Inoue expressed this doubt about life as “Even if I continue to live, there’s no purpose to it. If I die, I won’t be able to do good things, but at least I won’t be able to do anything bad. There is at least some meaning in that, so I chose to die.” (p. 27) This feeling that his life was meaningless was to lead him to seek answers in religion, specifically Buddhism. Not caring whether one lives or dies is a form of freedom that few can know.

book coverIn 1910, Inoue got a job as a shipping clerk for The South Manchuria Railway Company in China. However, soon he was working as a spy for the Japanese military and fermenting revolution and uprisings on behalf of the army. It was during this Chinese period that Inoue first encountered Zen via the Sōtō Zen priest Azuma Soshin (1883–1966) in 1912. Azuma introduced Inoue to zazen which he took up with great vigor and dedication in the hope of finding an answer to his doubts.

After various adventures in China, including fighting with a revolutionary army, Inoue returned to Japan in 1921 to finally settle his doubts about right and wrong. However, he spent quite a bit of time doing what he loved best, drinking and carousing with geishas, seemingly forgetting his doubts. It took over a year before he finally settled down in Santoku-an, a derelict hermitage where he began practicing zazen once more. A series of strange events, including strange visions and being able to heal others, culminated in an enlightenment experience when he realized the wholeness of the universe of which he was a part and that good and evil “do not differ [from each other].” (p. 68)

Brian Victoria goes on to describe how Inoue not only continued his Zen practice but how he became involved in right-wing revolutionary politics. Victoria gives a vivid description of the political events in Japan in this period which helps explain the appeal for men such as Inoue to take up right-wing politics. Japan was in turmoil and many saw the only escape from this was a strong emperor guiding the nation. The move towards extreme nationalism and the belief in the ethnic purity of the Japanese nation can also be found in fascist Germany and Italy of the day. We hear rumblings of this today in the rise of populist leaders in America, the U.K., Brazil, Austria and other nations that once valued democratic ideals. Likewise, in the Japan of the 1930’s, many saw democracy as a sign of weakness and yearned for a strongman leader, in this case, the emperor.

Inoue became involved in this extreme nationalist movement which culminated in the Blood Pledge Corps Incident in 1932. Gathering a group of young idealistic nationalists around him, the group decided to kill twenty prominent Japanese politicians and businessmen they saw as hindering Japan’s progress as a nation. On February 9, 1932, the former Finance Minister and head of the Rikken Minseitō political party, Junnosuke Inoue, was gunned down. Some three weeks later, on March 5, the Director-General of Mitsui Holding CompanyDan Takuma, was murdered. On March 11, Inoue turned himself in as the leader of the group and was subsequently put on trial. On May 15 Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi was assassinated by a group of young naval officers, some of which were associated with Inoue’s group although Inoue by this time was in jail. This third murder was the second phase of Inoue’s plan of revolution.

The trial of Inoue and the two assassins who had carried out the murders was a sensation as Inoue garnered considerable Inoue Nisshosympathy from much of the public who also believed in the politics Inoue espoused. Furthermore, Inoue’s cause was greatly helped by testimony from Rinzai Zen Master Yamamoto Gempo, Inoue’s spiritual mentor and one of the most respected Zen masters of the day.  Inoue was sentenced to life in prison along with the two assassins while others received sentences ranging from less than four years to fifteen years. Inoue was released in 1940 under a general amnesty and, remarkably, went on to become a senior advisor to the Prime Minister, Fumimaro Konoe (1891 – 1945) who ruled until October, 1941. Although Inoue was interrogated by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), he was never charged or put on trial. Once the American occupation ended in 1952, Inoue continued his right-wing activities to promote a ‘renewal’ of Japan in the post-war years. He died aged 81 in 1967

Although this book is focused on one man, his Zen practice and his politics, Victoria’s main thrust is to investigate the relationship between Zen and its support of violence in the name of the Buddha. Religious terrorism is not unknown in our modern 21st Century world and by looking back at how other religions support violence we can better understand our world of today. Victoria has spent years pointing out that while the teachings of Buddhism are based on compassion and the cessation of suffering in the world, the reality is far different. When it comes to violence, Buddhism is no different on the ground than any other religion. One only needs to look at the treatment of the Muslim Rohingya by the Buddhist government in Myanmar or the lengthy civil war in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Theravada Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority. The truth of the matter is that no religion is exempt from promoting violence if the state so decrees to promote its own agenda.

This is an excellent contribution by Brian Victoria to the discussion of religious violence. For those interested in Japanese politics, it gives an extensive background to the turbulent fifty years of Japanese politics to the end of the Second World War. This background illuminates some of the reasons behind the rise of the militaristic Japanese government of the 1930’s which led directly to the Pacific War. For those who haven’t read Victoria’s previous two books, this could be a good introduction to the social/political aspects that help to understand the background to the other works of Brian Victoria. Zen Terror in Prewar Japan has an extensive post-script with notes that discuss further the link of violence and religion and details about some of the main players as well as some fascinating photographs that put faces to the names and places.

Further Reading:

Brian Daizen Victoria: Zen Terror: a synopsis of the Inoue Nissho story and some thoughts on terrorism

Brian Victoria: Violence-Enabling Mechanisms in Buddhism;a look at how some religious doctrines can be turned around to justify violence, challenging the notion that Buddhism is solely a religion of peace. from Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies

Robert H Scarf: The Zen of Japanese Nationalism: Scarf focusses on "...the genesis of the popular view: How was it that the West came to conceive of Zen in terms of a transcendent or "unmediated" personal experience? And why are Western intellectuals, scholars of religion, Christian theologians, and even Catholic monastics so eager to embrace this distortion in the face of extensive historical and ethnographic evidence to the contrary?"

Moriya Tomoe: Social Ethics of New Buddhists at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A comparataive Study of Suzuki Daisetsu and Inoue Shuten. This paper concerns the discourses of two Japanese Zen Buddhists, Suzuki Daisetsu and Inoue Shūten, through analyzing their writings in a Buddhist journal called Shin Bukkyō, in order to examine their presentations of the role of Buddhism at the turn of the twentieth century and how their transnational contacts influenced the construction of their religious ideas.

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