Pearl Harbor Attack
Burning and damaged ships at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941 / The U.S. National Archives

Japanese Zen Buddhists Cheered Attack on Pearl Harbor, Making Dec. 7 a Holiday

Japanese Zen Buddhists Cheered Attack on Pearl Harbor, Making Dec. 7 a Holiday

Commentary by Nick Gier

In my study of violence in the Asian religions, I was surprised to learn that it was militant Buddhists in Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma and Japan that were responsible for the most violence. However, the Christian Taipings hold the world record for deaths in their bloody campaign against the Qing dynasty from 1850-1864.

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration saw the return of Japanese imperial rule and Shinto as the state religion. Shinto is a form of ancestor worship based on the belief that all Japanese descended from the first emperor Jimmu, son of the Sun Goddess.

Shinto religion promoted in Japan and Buddhism and Christianity denounced

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.

Buddhist 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.

Hozumi Yatsuka, an influential conservative voice at that time, declared that “the Sun Goddess is the founder of our race, and the imperial throne is the sacred house of our race.”

Growth of fascism in Japan and attack on Pearl Harbor celebrated

Race, soil and blood played the same role in Japanese fascism as it did in Nazi Germany. Japan joined the Axis Powers Italy and Germany when, in 1940, it signed the Tripartite Pact in Berlin.

The general Buddhist reaction to these new religious policies was to join the nationalist cause and submit to all imperial laws and Shinto rituals. Buddhist complicity with imperial rule, with some exceptions, continued through four wars to 1945.

It is painful to think that so many Buddhists, following a religious leader as opposed to war as Jesus Christ, cheered the attack on Pearl Harbor 81 years ago, but, sadly, it is true.

Zen Buddhist priest Hata Esho declared, “It is exceedingly wonderful that in 1941 we were able to make this very day (Dec. 7) a holy day for eternally commemorating the reconstruction of the world.”       

Zen Buddhism’s nationalist and militant branding   

D. T. Suzuki, the man who promoted Zen Buddhism in Europe and America, was a fervent nationalist, and his leadership made Zen the most militant of the Buddhist schools. He gave new meaning to the medieval notion of fusing Zen and the samurai sword, and Suzuki and others promoted military self-sacrifice and mystical identification with the emperor.

Enryo Inoue explained that “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.”

Japanese Buddhist schools that opposed violence

There were two major exceptions to Buddhist accommodation: Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda. In the 1930s, Makiguchi became a strong opponent of state Shinto and condemned Buddhists who failed to speak out about the loss of religious and political freedom.

In 1943, Makiguchi was brought before a Buddhist priest and was commanded to accept an amulet of the Sun Goddess and affirm his belief in the divinity of the emperor. When he refused, he was arrested as a “thought criminal,” subjected to harsh interrogation, and he died in prison in 1944.

Josei Toda, Makiguchi’s friend and successful book publisher, was also arrested. He spent his prison years in a deep study of Buddhism, finding in it a powerful self-actualizing humanism. 

Toda’s followers were so enthusiastic that they engaged in an aggressive door-to-door proselytizing campaign, the excesses of which they now regret. Toda was especially active in leading his organization, Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society), to join a worldwide movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Growth of Soka Gakkai

For 52 years Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), has extended Makiguchi and Toda’s vision around the world, making SGI the largest lay Buddhist organization in the world. SGI’s 12-million members are dedicated to world peace, interfaith dialogue and nation building in the developing world.

One could argue that Soka Gakkai has taken the best ideas of the Meiji Restoration, rejecting the narrow nationalism and militarism that grew out of it, and melding moral and spiritual values from Europe and America with a distinctive Japanese spirit.

This column was adapted from Chapter 7 in Nick Gier’s book, “The Origins of Religious Violence: An Asian Perspective.” 

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