Sunday, December 9, 2012

Religion and Militarism in Early 20th Century Japan


By the end of the 1930s Japan found itself embroiled in the second half of what later became known as the 15-Year War.  After launching offensives in Manchuria and China, Japan neared a time when it would challenge Western powers, as it had Russia during the Russo-Japanese War of 1903.  Just as that earlier conflict resulted from it's perception that it needed to maintain a buffer and gain access to natural resources, the 15-Year War against China and Western powers in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim resulted from the Imperial Japanese desire to industrialize and strengthen Japan in relation to European states.  In order to accomplish this, the Meiji Emperors sought to unify and modernize Japan in order to face outside threats while simultaneously separating itself from the corruption of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Religion became a key tool in unifying the people of Japan behind the Emperor.  Identifying Buddhism as inherently corrupt and emblematic of the Shogunate due to the high profile of Buddhists under the Tokugawa, the Meiji rejected the traditional amalgam of Shinto and Buddhism in favor a a new "State Shinto" focused on the person of the Emperor and the defense of Japan.  Adoption of State Shinto resulted in a broad persecution of Buddhists, including both priests and lay practitioners, as it became officially regarded as a foreign religion.[i]  At the beginning of the Meiji period, the developing Japanese nationalism required homegrown religion and ideology.[ii]  Not content to adopt the new Imperial religion or to face persecution, some Japanese Buddhists took the opportunity to reform Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, to address charges of corruption and to make it "useful" to the state.  The main line of argument for this generation of Buddhist reformers was to show that Zen Buddhism contained the unique spirit of Japan and that it was steadfastly loyal to the Emperor.  Through this reform effort Zen Buddhist leaders not only embraced Japanese Imperialism, but actively supported it as a matter of both policy and ideology.[iii] 

By the twentieth century, philosopher and reformer, Inoue Enryo could carry the Japanese Zen Buddhist argument to the extreme stance that the enemies of Japan were "also the enemy of the Buddha."  While Inoue's view had clear historical precedents reaching back to sixth and seventh century Chinese Ch'an Buddhism, it developed more as a direct response to the persecution of Buddhists immediately following the Meiji Restoration.  Writing at the height of the 15-Year War, Inoue depicted the war as a humanitarian effort to bring Enlightenment to other nations, particularly in Asia, claiming that, "it is the conduct of a bodhisattva seeking to save untold millions of living souls throughout China and Korea from the jaws of death."  In this, Inoue echoed Soto Zen intellectuals Hayashiya Tomojiro and Shimakae Chikai who argued that in “in order to establish eternal peace in East Asia… we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful.  We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one so that many may live’.”[iv]  Understanding how a religious tradition noted in the West for its doctrine of peace and compassion became wedded to Japanese Imperialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries requires deeper examination of Buddhism under the Meiji and its historical roots.

The change in Buddhist, especially Zen Buddhist, doctrine did not occur in a vacuum.  Criticism of Buddhism for ethical and economic reasons began under the Tokugawa, but became pronounced during the first eight years of the Meiji period.  Early attacks included disparaging priests as parasites on the poor, of focus on meditation and chanting rather than productive activity, and the rejection of separation between self and others.  Real persecution of Buddhists finally occurred during the first eight years of the Meiji.  When the government reduced the number of temples in Japan to one sixth of the pre-Meiji number of 465,049 and allowed priests to marry, the persecution became so severe that Buddhist leaders believed that the Emperor would soon ban the religion.  The result of the persecution was just the opposite – Zen Buddhism became a vocal supporter of the Meiji Imperial system and the modernization of Japan in both economic and military terms.[v]  This effort to use Buddhism as a tool to stabilize Japan and to strengthen it against outside materialism eventually evolved into support for Japanese imperialism in Asia and the Pacific.[vi]

Western academics have a tendency to ignore the possibility that individuals, much less societies, might be motivated by sincere religious devotion.  Instead, they tend to look for political and economic systemic reasons to explain apparent religious fervor.  In the case of Zen Buddhist reforms under the Meiji, systemic reasons for doctrinal changes provide the clearest explanation for reforms – in order to escape persecution, Zen Buddhist leaders needed to show that Buddhism was inherently Japanese, loyal to the Emperor, and useful to the state.  One interpretation is that changes in Japanese Zen Buddhism represent a deliberate effort to co-opt religion in the service of the state.[vii]  The connection between Buddhism and the Japanese state developed early in the Meiji period, as illustrated by the Pure Land doctrine.  In Japan, the Jodo Shinsu sect argued that the Pure Land doctrine's association of relative teaching with civil authority required absolute obedience of followers to the political hierarchy.  This doctrine not only attacked the moral authority of religions not explicitly aligned with the government, such as Christianity, but also added religious legitimacy to government slogans such as "rich country and strong army" or "revere the emperor and serve the Buddha."[viii] The efforts of Meiji Buddhists to demonstrate usefulness extended beyond justifying territorial expansion, to include famine relief, temperance movements, and work in prisons, but the most critical effort in the eyes of government and Buddhist leaders remained Zen Buddhist evangelism both in religious and secular terms.  Not only did Zen proselytizers promote their faith, but they worked to spread the Imperial ideology.[ix]

Going beyond mere obedience to the government, D.T. Suzuki argued that all religions in Japan must align themselves with the state's economic and military policy.  Only by aligning with these policies could believers remain moral.  Suzuki's tortured reasoning is that nations establish armies not to subjugate others, but to preserve themselves and their own freedoms.  The defense of the nation against aggression, whether economic or territorial, became a religious duty of the people.  Taking up arms, the people would seek justice against the aggressor in order to preserve the progress of humanity toward Enlightenment.[x]

Along with proselytizing priests and other Japanese intellectuals, Inoue helped spread knowledge of Zen Buddhism through the West with speaking engagements in North America.[xi]  This group developed and spread the reformed gospel of Japanese Zen in response to the Meiji persecution of their faith.  They argued that the solution to the problem of corruption in Buddhist institutions lay in reform, not persecution.  Shin buukyo, or New Buddhism, drew on European Enlightenment tradition of anti-clericism and social responsibility, and sought to be a "world religion" – a universal truth for all peoples. This idea of Japanese Zen Buddhism as a world religion led Inoue to argue that "Buddhism is the teaching of compassion, a teaching for living human beings," open to all people.[xii] 

Saving their faith and its adherents from persecution also drove Buddhist leaders to change the ideology and trappings of Buddhism in Japan.  Priests adopted the Shinto robes and preached a national ethic promoted by the Ministry of Doctrine.  Government propaganda became a key component of Japan's Buddhist message.  After Japan's successful military conquests in Manchuria and China, Buddhism's international acceptance became an asset – it allowed Japan to claim spiritual and moral authority over its new subjects while also claiming cultural affinity with them.  This set Japanese colonial and imperial mechanisms apart from those of the West, with their foreign creeds and ideas.[xiii]

Despite the new view of Zen Buddhism as a universal religion, or even as the core of all religions, intellectuals like D.T. Suzuki argued that both Zen and Pure Land Buddhism captured Japanese spirituality.  Because Zen reflected the unique Japanese mentalité, it was not a foreign religion, but a Japanese one dressed in the trappings of Chinese Buddhism.  The reason for this, according to Suzuki, was that Zen allowed the spirituality of the samurai class to fully develop.[xiv]  Zen, as the pure essence of Japanese spirit, became for Suzuki and others like him the "basis for Japanese character, thought, religious faith, and esthetic tastes."[xv]  Further, Zen was the starting point for a new global faith, and Japan's mission in the world was to Enlighten others.

Inoue and Suzuki together provide a glimpse at the keys of the relationship between Zen Buddhism and Japanese Imperial ideology.  Both argued for Zen as a universal world religion in the vein of Christianity or Islam, explicitly arguing for expanding their Faith through Asia in the areas of Japanese conquest.  The martial aspects of Zen also appear in their ideologies.  While Suzuki argued that Zen permeated Bushido, the code of Japan's samurai warrior-class that valued self-sacrifice, obedience, and fearlessness, Inoue made a more direct connection between Buddhism and warfare.  Discussing the potential for war between Japan and Russia in Manchuria and Siberia, Inoue contended that despite Buddhism's call for peace, Buddhists should willingly defend Japan against an aggressive Russia as partial repayment of their "debt of gratitude" owed the Buddha for a chance at Enlightenment.[xvi]

Suzuki extended Inoue's argument further in offering five propositions for Buddhists, that leader’s of Japanese Buddhist institutions adhered to through the end of World War II.  The most important of these were the principles that countries that opposed Japanese trading rights should be punished, that all religious groups should fully support punishing nations that challenged Japanese rights to ensure that justice prevailed, that soldiers must willingly sacrifice themselves for the state, and that serving in the military was a religious act.[xvii]  This conception of military service as a religious act had serious consequences for Japane as the doctrine filtered out from intellectuals like Suzuki into government and the rest of the Japanese populace.  After the end of World War II, the Rinzai Zen priest Ichikawa Hakugen believed that Suzuki’s five  principles led to holy war in China.  Thus, the goal of the Sino-Japanese war was to simultaneously punish China and promote the spiritual Enlightenment of the Chinese.  That China did not start the war, or attack Japan did not make an impact on Suzuki’s definition of the war as fundamentally religious.  Ichikawa contended that Buddhists equated the support for the war with support for the Emperor.[xviii]

To further promote the connection between Japan’s military and Buddhism through the lens of Bushido, thus providing additional support for the claim of Zen as a unique expression of the Japanese spirit, Suzuki claimed that the ethos of Bushido and that of Zen were the same.  In his estimation, the Japanese soldier’s calmness in the face of death and sense of fairness when dealing with the enemy were borne of Zen training rather than a pan-Asian ethos.  Beyond these traits of the co-mingled Zen-Bushido, Suzuki argued that Zen taught the discipline Japanese soldiers required for success in combat.  Zen’s focus on a single goal was key to success in battle.  By teaching soldiers to concentrate only on the objective at hand, ignoring distractions, this warrior ethos ensured Japanese success in war.[xix]  Intellectuals did not limit the practice of Bushido to the ancient samurai class or to modern soldiers.  As early as 1905, Nitobe Inazo asserted that Zen was the “ideal faith , both for a nation full of hope and energy, and for a person who has to fight his pwn way in the strife of life.”  Not content merely to promote Zen as the way to meet the world’s challenges, Nitobe contended that Bushido should “be observed not only by the solider on the battlefield, but by every citizen in the struggle for existence.  If a person be a person and not a beast, then he must be samurai – brave, generous, upright, faithful, and manly, full of self-respect and self-confidence, and at the same time full of the spirit of self-sacrifice.”[xx]  During the Sino-Japanese phase of the 15-Year War, Suzuki extended his contention that Zen spiritualism enabled soldiers to unflinchingly face death to the whole of the Japanese populace, arguing that “the spirit of the samurai deeply breathing Zen into itself propagated its philosophy even among the masses… even when they are not particularly trained in the way of the warrior, have imbibed his spirit and are ready to sacrifice their lives for any cause they think worthy.”[xxi] 

The desire to connect Bushido and Zen worked both ways.  Not only did Zen evangelists such as Suzuki and Inoue work to show the conjoining the two traditions, but so did the Japanese military leaders like General Araki Sadao and Navy Captain Hirose Yutaka.  The military shared Suzuki’s goal of promoting the ideal of self-sacrifice embodied by Bushido and Zen.  Individual recognition mattered little in the Bushido-Zen ideology, only service to the state by pursuing the warrior ideal.  At the heart of this doctrine lay Suzuki’s belief, which he shared with Japan’s military leaders, that only the “Zen-inspired Bushido code” could save Japan after the United States entered World War II.[xxii]  As the war continued into the 1940’s, with the United States pressing toward Japanese-held areas, Suzuki and other Buddhist leaders tried to rally the Japanese populace.  Building on his and Inoue’s earlier imagining of the 15-Year War as a holy war, Suzuki exhorted young Buddhists to fight, writing that the war was nothing less than an “ideological struggle for the culture of East Asia; Buddhists must join in this struggle for the culture and accomplish their essential mission.”[xxiii]  Suzuki’s intended his clarion call to young Buddhists to send them with renewed vigor into the holy war to bring Enlightenment to Asia and defend Japan’s sacred mission against the United States and its allies.



[i]   Joseph M. Kitagawa, "The Buddhist Transformation in Japan," History of Religions 4, No. 2 (1965), 331.
[ii]   Kitagawa, "The Buddhist Transformation in Japan," 333.
3   Christopher Ives, Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hukugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009), 1.
[iv]   Ives, Imperial-Way Zen, 35.
[v]   Winston Davis, "Buddhism and the Modernization of Japan," History of Religions 28, No. 4 (1989), 311.
[vi]   Ives, Imperial-Way Zen, 13.
[vii]   Davis, "Buddhism and the Modernization of Japan," 306.
[viii]   Davis, "Buddhism and the Modernization of Japan," 308.
[ix]   Ives, Imperial-Way Zen, 20.
[x] Brian Victoria, "D.T. Suzuki and Japanese Militarism," Buddhism and Violence, ed. Michael Zimmerman (Bhairahawa, Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006), 168.
[xi] Robert H. Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," History of Religions 33, No. 1 (1993), 3.
[xii] Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," 4.
[xiii] Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," 5.
[xiv] Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," 26.
[xv] Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," 27.
[xvi] Sharf, "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism," 6.
[xvii] Brian Victoria, "D.T. Suzuki and Japanese Militarism," Buddhism and Violence, ed. Michael Zimmerman (Bhairahawa, Nepal: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006), 169.
[xviii] Idem.
[xix] Brian Victoria, "D.T. Suzuki and Japanese Militarism," 172.
[xx] Ives, Imperial-Way Zem, 51.
[xxi] Brian Victoria, "D.T. Suzuki and Japanese Militarism," 173.
[xxii] Brian Victoria, "D.T. Suzuki and Japanese Militarism," 175.
[xxiii] Brian Victoria, "D.T. Suzuki and Japanese Militarism," 176.

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