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The Buddha Dharma in Japan 70 Years On (Part I)

Brian Daizen Victoria

The year 2015 has been very eventful in Japan, including for the Buddha Dharma in this country. For starters, there were multiple discussions, including a proclamation by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (aka Asia-Pacific War in Japan). Whereas in the US, World War II is fast being forgotten, the war years in Japan, given its disastrous defeat, continue to weigh heavily on the public mind. This awareness is even stronger in such countries as China and South Korea where the viciousness of Japan’s wartime occupation and aggression is neither forgotten nor forgiven.

My own contribution to the 70th anniversary was an opinion article published in the Japan Times on August 5, 2015 entitled: “Mount Koya sites exemplify ‘parallel universe’ where war criminals are martyrs.” This article revealed the way in which graveyards in Japan, most of which are attached to Buddhist temples, continue to serve as arenas for advocating the righteousness of Japan’s wartime aggression. The vast graveyard on Shingon sect-affiliated Mt. Koya, for example, contains signage identifying all of Japan’s convicted war criminals as “martyrs” for their country.   

A second major event this year was the passage of a series of security laws making it possible for the Japanese military (aka Self-Defense Forces) to once again engage in combat anywhere in the world in the name of “collective self-defense.” While Japan provided critically important logistical support for the US military during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, its troops did not directly engage in combat. Now, however, with the recent passage of the new security laws it is possible for Japanese soldiers to fight alongside their American counterparts (and other allies) without geographical restriction.

Given the war renouncing content of Article Nine of the Japanese Constitution, this was a momentous and highly controversial change. Article Nine reads:

  Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.
(2) To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.

In light of Article Nine, it is not surprising that numerous Japanese constitutional law experts identified the new security laws as clearly unconstitutional. In addition, tens of thousands of Japanese demonstrated day and night against these war-affirming proposals while public opinion polls all showed a majority of voters in Japan were opposed to their passage. Nevertheless, most traditional Buddhist sects in Japan remained silent. The major exception was the Otani branch of the Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land) sect (aka Higashi Honganji). Attached to the entrance gate of their headquarters temple in Kyoto, the opening paragraph of the branch’s declaration read:

We, the Shinshu Otani-ha [branch] denomination, must admit to a negative history of blindly following the policy of the Japanese government at the time of World War II and voluntarily cooperating with the war by pushing many people to the battlefields. We, as Buddhists who have sincerely repented the mistakes that we made in wartime, express strong opposition to the security-related bills that were recently submitted to the Diet. We would also like to appeal once again not only to the Japanese people but also to the global community to work toward the realization of “true peace” together with those who are deeply concerned about the future of this country and the world.1

Needless to say, I am in complete agreement with the sentiments expressed in this paragraph and the declaration as a whole. In particular, I admire the honesty of this branch in both admitting and repenting of their wartime collaboration. It is exactly for this reason that I also deeply regret the silence of Japan’s other traditional Buddhist sects, especially those associated with Zen, i.e., the Soto, Rinzai and Obaku sects as well as the Sanbo Kyodan religious foundation.

With regard to Zen organizations, their silence is not surprising. Or at least it wouldn’t be surprising to Zen Master Kono Taitsu, former head of the Myoshinji branch of the Rinzai Zen sect. In a 2009 documentary film entitled Zen and War, he described, or more accurately lamented, the failure of Zen priests, even then, to become involved in the struggle to preserve Japan’s peace constitution. Kono said:

The Japanese Constitution prohibits armament, but there is a movement now to have Article Nine removed from the Constitution. If we don’t speak up now it will be too late. It will be just like it was in the past when those who claimed to be enlightened remained silent. Then all that is left for us to do is remain silent. That is why I would like to see every monk speak up courageously now. It is possible to speak up nowadays but few do.2

Sadly, in the intervening years nothing has changed regarding the “silence” of Zen monks vis-à-vis Article Nine. What did change, however, was the Japanese government’s approach. As Deputy Prime Minister Aso Taro proposed in a speech on July 25, 2013, Japan should learn from the way in which the Nazis transformed Germany’s constitution under the Weimar Republic before anybody realized what was happening:

Germany’s Weimar Constitution was changed before anyone noticed. It was changed before anyone was aware. Why don’t we learn from that technique?3

Accordingly, the Japanese government abandoned (at least for the time being) the difficult procedure of directly altering Article Nine’s prohibition on going to war. Instead, the government of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo decided to reinterpret the meaning of Article Nine so as to allow for so-called “collective self-defense” thereby effectively making this article meaningless.  

There was, however, one group of lay Japanese Buddhists who did not remain silent as Japan laid the legal groundwork for future war participation. That group was Soka Gakkai, founder and supporter of the Komeito political party that is now the junior member of the ruling government coalition. Komeito’s support made it possible for Japan’s conservative ruling party, the Liberal Democrats, to pass the security legislation, for its 35 seats in the House of Representatives (Lower House) comprise the swing vote for the governing coalition’s super-majority in the National Diet.

Yet, since the end of WW II Soka Gakkai, together with Komeito, has taken the lead in presenting itself to Japanese voters and the world as staunch advocates of world peace in accordance with Buddhist principles. Komeito’s official founding statement of July 17, 1964 states that “ ‘it is only through the singular path of the Buddhist philosophy of absolute pacifism’ that the world will attain salvation from the horror of war.” 4

Given this, it is not surprising that a number of Soka Gakkai adherents strongly opposed Komeito’s support for the new security bills. In fact, for perhaps the first time, more than a few Soka Gakkai adherents broke with Komeito and joined tens of thousands of secular protestors demonstrating in front of the Diet building.
soka gakkai

In addition, a Soka Gakkai member named Tatsushi Amano launched an online campaign to gather signatures opposing the bills after they were rammed through the Lower House. Amano explained his campaign as follows:

It is ‘war legislation’ that will threaten human lives, drastically change Japan’s history to not engage in war and goes against the policy that pacifist Komeito was founded on. . . . The more I hear explanations from the government side in Diet deliberations, the more I feel arrogance. The idea of increasing deterrence by use of force is against the peaceful philosophy of Soka Gakkai.” 5

Based on my own personal experience, I can well understand the pain and disappointment behind Amano’s words, for I too once believed that Buddhism, especially Zen, was a religion of peace. As I noted in Zen at War, it was deeply painful to discover that the Zen masters under whom I trained at Daihonzan Eiheiji and the scholar-priests who guided my graduate studies at Soto Zen-affiliated Komazawa University had once been fervent, even fanatical, supporters of Japanese aggression thereby contributing to the deaths of many millions of human beings, most especially in China, the birthplace of Chan/Zen. 

Nevertheless, I personally was not the least surprised to learn that Komeito had adopted a pro-war stance. Why? Because as Levi McLaughlin recently pointed out in his article, the founder of Soka Gakkai, Makiguchi Tsunesaburo and his disciple, Toda Josei, “were imprisoned in 1944 by Japan’s wartime authorities for violating the Peace Preservation Law when, in keeping with orthodox Nichiren practice, they refused to enshrine State Shinto talismans from the Grand Shrine at Ise; Makiguchi died of malnutrition while incarcerated.” 6(Emphasis mine)

McLaughlin is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at North Carolina State University who has spent fifteen years of sustained ethnographic fieldwork as a non-member researcher of grassroots-level Soka Gakkai activities in Japan. I mention this because he independently reached the same conclusion concerning the cause of Makiguchi’s wartime incarceration as I had in a 2014 article available on the Web. 7 In short, neither Makiguchi nor Toda’s imprisonment was connected to opposition to either war or Japanese aggression based on Buddhist principles. Instead, it was based on their intolerance of any faith other than their own (including, it should be noted, non-Nichiren sects of Buddhism).  

Disguising this fact, the narrator of a postwar Soka Gakkai-distributed videotape extolling the life of Ikeda Daisaku (b. 1928), then president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), described the wartime imprisonment of Makiguchi and Toda as follows: “In 1943 they [Makiguchi and Toda] were arrested and jailed for their antiwar beliefs. In the face of maltreatment and abuse, Makiguchi died in prison at the age of seventy-three.” 8(Emphasis mine)

For his part, Ikeda claimed that Toda’s wartime imprisonment was the critical factor influencing his decision to join this organization:

The initial reason I joined the Soka Gakkai was because I thought I could believe in Mr. Toda since he had spent two years in prison during the war for opposing militarism. I didn’t understand anything about the content of the Buddha Dharma. I believed in the person of Mr. Toda, and following “the path of unity between master and disciple” with Mr. Toda became “the path of [my] human revolution.” 9 (Emphasis mine)

In short, despite their claims to the contrary, the leaders of Soka Gakkai and their political arm, Komeito, have never been committed to peace other than as a means of attracting adherents in a postwar Japan exhausted by war. In this, they have been amazingly, even spectacularly, successful not only in Japan but also throughout the world where the naïve still view Buddhism as a religion of peace. Now, however, the leaders of Soka Gakkai and Komeito have finally shown their true colors.

Japan Times columnist Debito Arudou recently wrote the following about Japan’s likely future in the aftermath of the recent passage of the security bills in the Diet:

Get ready, everyone. Japan, as you’ve gotten to know it over your lives, is over. Barring a peace-inducing black-swan event, here comes the ruthless, duplicitous and scary elite-run Japan of your great-grandparents. Over time, it will revive the pain and suffering it inflicted on people both within and without. 10

Reluctantly to be sure, I must concur with this gloomy assessment, made even gloomier by the fact that a group who identify themselves as Buddhists served an important, even decisive, role in making Japan’s road to war possible once again. True, Soka Gakkai adherents do not represent the majority of Japanese Buddhists. Nevertheless, they are the best-organized and most politically powerful Buddhist organization in Japan. I trust I am not alone in my view that their endorsement of war, by way of Komeito, marks yet another sad day for the Buddha Dharma in Japan, Asia and the world.

Part Two of this article will reveal the final chapter of Soto Zen Master Sawaki Kodo’s wartime record.     

1. The declaration was issued on May 21, 2015 by the branch’s chief administrator. The English translation was provided to the author by a branch administrative officer.

2. Quoted in “Zen and War,” a 58 video documentary directed by Alexander Oey and produced by the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation of the Netherlands in 2009. This video, with English subtitles as needed, is available for purchase through the amazon.com website at: http://www.amazon.com/Zen-War-Alexander-Oey/dp/B00BF36WU8/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1419436014&sr=1-2&keywords=zen+and+war

3. Quoted in an article by Jeff Kingston, “Nazi gaffe tarnishes Abe’s agenda for constitutional revision” in the August 10, 2013 edition of the Japan Times. Available on the Web at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2013/08/10/commentary/asos-nazi-gaffe-tarnishes-abes-agenda-for-constitutional-revision/#.VjBJ1RDhC1g (accessed 28 October 2015).

4. Quoted in Levi McLaughlin, "Komeito’s Soka Gakkai Protesters and Supporters: Religious Motivations for Political Activism in Contemporary Japan", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 40, No. 1, October 12, 2015. Available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Levi-McLaughlin/4386/article.html (accessed 25 October 2015).

5. Quoted in an August 18, 2015 Japan Times article entitled, “Soka Gakkai members lash Komeito over support for security bills.” Available on the Web at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/08/18/national/politics-diplomacy/soka-gakkai-members-lash-komeito-support-security-bills/#.ViooqhDhC1g (accessed October 23, 2015).

6. Levi McLaughlin, "Komeito’s Soka Gakkai Protesters and Supporters: Religious Motivations for Political Activism in Contemporary Japan", The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 13, Issue 40, No. 1, October 12, 2015. Available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Levi-McLaughlin/4386/article.html (accessed on October 28, 2015).

7. See Brian Daizen Victoria, "Sōka Gakkai Founder, Makiguchi Tsunesaburō, A Man of Peace?," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 12, Issue 37, No. 3, September 15, 2014. Available on the Web at: http://japanfocus.org/-Brian-Victoria/4181/article.html (accessed on October 28, 2015).

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Debito Arudou, “Japan rightists’ patient wait is over as conveyor belt of death shudders back to life,” Japan Times, October 4, 2015. Available on the Web at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2015/10/04/issues/japan-rightists-patient-wait-conveyor-belt-death-shudders-back-life/#.VioxsRDhC1g (accessed October 23, 2015).