[Vision2020] Buddhists Cheering as the Bombs Dropped on Pearl Harbor?

nickgier at adelphia.net nickgier at adelphia.net
Tue Dec 4 14:43:48 PST 2007


Life can't get better than this.  As I write, I can see Mt. Fuji from my hotel window and beautiful fall colors down below, made possible by a 6-week delay of Tokyo's winter. 

We've enjoyed the exquisite food and the hospitality of the most well mannered people in the world. Yesterday I also received excellent feedback on my paper, which I've reduced to the column below.

Back in Moscow today, arriving before we leave Narita airport!

Nick Gier


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.  This was certainly true of Christian countries such as late 15th Century Spain, where Jews and Muslims were given three choices: conversion, immigration, or death.  

In the 20th Century we have seen the unfortunate development of Hindu nationalists, some of whom who declare that Indian Muslims and Christians are aliens in their own country.  I have also written about Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka, who say the same about their Muslim, Christian, and Hindu minorities. 

One other Asian country followed a similar policy earlier in the 20th century. Using the authority of State Shinto, Japanese authorities convinced most of their people that their nation had a divine mission to transform Asia and even to conquer the world.

It is strange to think that Japanese Buddhists, following a religious leader as opposed to war as Jesus Christ, cheering the attack on Pearl Harbor 66 years ago, but sadly it is true.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 had a liberal side, with the importation of Western learning and technology, but also a conservative aspect in the return of the emperor and the establishment of Shinto as the state religion. 

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." Race, soil, and blood played the same role in Japanese fascism as it did in Nazi Germany.

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

Some militant nationalists criticized Buddhism as an alien religion, but Buddhists answered with poetic pleas such as the following: "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.” For the nationalists to now demand a divorce after such a long, successful marriage was very offensive to these Buddhists patriots. 

There were two major exceptions to Buddhist accommodation: Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871-1944) and Josei Toda (1900-58). During the 1890s Makiguchi distinguished himself as an innovative and caring teacher on the island of Hokkaido. On mainland Japan he served as head of five schools over the next 30 years. 

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 died in prison in 1944. 

Josei Toda, Makigushi’s friend and very 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 Gakkei (Value Creation Society), to join a world-wide movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons. 

For over 40 years Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), has extended Makigushi's and Toda's vision around the world, growing SGI into the largest lay Buddhist organization in the world, whose 12-million members are dedicated to world peace, interfaith dialogue, and nation building in the developing world.  

By means of Ikeda's leadership, SGI has established two campuses of Soka University (one in Tokyo and other in Orange County) and dozens of schools around the world, whose curricula avoid narrow sectarian viewpoints.  SGI's Research Center for the 21st Century in Boston has drawn scholars from around the world to dialogue on issues of world peace.

One could argue that 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.  

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