B o o
k R e v i e w
A Critical Analysis of Brian Victoria's Perspectives on Modern Japanese
Reviewed by Daniel
Professor of Asian Studies
Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Mary Baldwin College
the 1960s, increasing numbers of Buddhists have become involved
in varying forms of social activism that have challenged the social
or political status quo. Public figures participating in this "engaged"
form of Buddhism have included the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and
Aung San Suu Kyi. Scholars who have studied the phenomenon of "Engaged
Buddhism" generally have painted a very positive portrait of
the movement, commenting especially on the emphasis that these activists
place on non-violence and respect for the dignity of life.
Brian Victoria, however, wants us to pause and reflect more deeply
on this very positive image of Buddhist activism. He asks us to
consider the possibility that during the twentieth century there
were numerous cases where Buddhist activism was not at all conducive
to the advancement of a peaceful and harmonious world order. His
research has uncovered so many examples of leading Buddhists who
have supported or even encouraged acts of violence and even barbarism
that one must wonder if "Engaged Buddhism" deserves such
a hallowed name today.
published work, which includes two monographs, Zen at War (1997)
and Zen War Stories (2003) as well as a 2001 article in
the Journal of Global Buddhism, "Engaged
Buddhism: A Skeleton in the Closet," focuses almost entirely
on the behavior of Japanese Buddhist leaders. Victoria investigates
the role that Japanese Buddhists have played in the country's political
and social life since the Meiji era (1868-1912), with a special
focus on the 1930s and 1940s when Japan was making war first in
China and later in the whole Asia-Pacific region.
Victoria is critical
of those Buddhist scholars closely associated with socially engaged
Buddhism who state that their doctrine offers solutions to the world's
"multiple problems, most especially Western materialism, as
well as the danger of nuclear holocaust and environmental degradation"
(Victoria 2001, p. 73). Victoria wonders whether these Buddhist
leaders can be believed. Could they, Victoria asks, "through
either 'wishful thinking' or simple ignorance, be guilty of ignoring
or minimizing the distress that the Buddhist tradition (or at least
its leaders) has produced, especially in the modern period?"
One potential problem
with Victoria's work is that his focus is quite narrow. He provides
convincing evidence to damn the cooperation between Japanese militarists
and Zen and other Buddhist leaders in the 1930s and 1940s. He is
on less satisfactory ground, however, when he criticizes the likes
of Makiguchi Tsunesaburo, the prewar founder of the Soka Gakkai.
Further, Victoria's overall work would be more credible if he were
to examine the work of other non-Japanese Buddhists.
Victoria's Zen at War and Zen War Stories
contribution is the publication of two books, Zen at War and
Zen War Stories, in which he explores the intimate relationship
between Japanese institutional Buddhism and militarism in the 1930s
and 1940s and demonstrates the critical role that most of Japan's
Buddhist leaders had in preparing the ideology and indoctrination
of the millions of Japanese troops who would later commit so many
crimes against humanity in East and Southeast Asia.
theme is his admonition, found in the conclusion to Zen War
Stories, concerning the culpability of the leaders of virtually
all world religious leaders when their governments have gone to
war. Victoria suggests that adherents of all the world’s major
faiths need to look more critically at the historical relationship
of their own faith to state-initiated warfare. He suggests that
there is huge disparity between the ideals of peace and universal
well being found in most major religions and the "historical
reality of their consistent endorsement of governmental war policies"
(Victoria 2003, p. 229). Too often nations launch "just wars"
with the blessing of their religious hierarchy in the firm belief
that wanton killing and destruction of the enemy is warranted because
of the necessity to remove evil from the world and to preserve the
lives of one's own people. Victoria writes that,
When their countries
go to war, Buddhist and Christian believers alike are encouraged
to ignore the ethical prohibitions against killing so fundamental
to their respective faiths. Equally important, there is no suggestion
of any personal responsibility for their murderous acts. Instead,
it is an expression of Buddhist compassion to kill; it is God's
will to kill… (Victoria 2003, p. 230).
Victoria uses the
collaboration between Japan's Buddhist hierarchy and the militarist
leaders of the 1930s and 1940s as a case study to illustrate this
of the cooperative role that Zen and other Buddhist leaders played
with Japan's military hierarchy during the 1930s and 1940s came
gradually, after several years of study in Japan. Victoria, a native
Nebraskan, arrived in Japan as a Methodist missionary in 1961. He
studied Japanese religions to better understand the people he was
hoping to convert and soon found himself drawn to Buddhism, especially
Zen Buddhism, because of its emphasis on peace and harmony and its
apparent lack of a history of violence, which had such a pronounced
effect on Western religions. After several visits to Eihei-ji in
Fukui Prefecture, he eventually embraced Zen and was ordained as
a Soto Zen priest in 1964.
Victoria soon embarked
on a personal quest to discover "what is and what should be
the relationship of a Zen Buddhist priest to society and its members,
to the state, to warfare, and to politics and social activism"
(Victoria 1997, p. ix). He read the writings of numerous Zen scholars
and priests and made what to him was a horrifying discovery: that
many of the men he had come to respect as exemplars of the highest
qualities of Buddhist practice, such as D. T. Suzuki, had enthusiastically
supported Japan's war effort in China and the Pacific:
The ideas and
people I encountered in this subterranean world of Buddhism were
the exact inverse of those on the surface. Down below, warfare and
killing were described as manifestations of Buddhist compassion.
The "selflessness" of Zen meant absolute and unquestioning
submission to the will and dictates of the emperor. And the purpose
of religion was to preserve the state and punish any country or
person who dared interfere with its right of self-aggrandizement
(Victoria 1997, p. x).
led him to the conclusion that while the relationships that existed
between Zen Buddhism and warfare and Zen and the state were at their
most exaggerated form between the Meiji period (1868-1912) and the
end of World War II, the "unity of Zen and the sword,"
of Buddhism and the state, has deep roots in Japanese history (Victoria
1997, p. xi). The Zen monastery provided both the physical and mental
training that proved to be most attractive to Japan's military and
government officials of the past, but also to Japan's corporate
elite today. "Discipline, obedience, conformity, and physical
and mental endurance" as well as the "traditional Buddhist
teaching of the non-substantiality of the self" are among the
many features of Zen monastic life that has appealed to Japan's
various elites throughout history (Victoria 1997, p. 184).
a senior lecturer at the University of Adelaide in Australia, asserts
in an interview published in The New York Times just prior to the
publication of Zen War Stories in early 2003, that while
more traditional forms of Zen stress an inward search for understanding
and mental discipline, Japan’s wartime military trainers instead
transformed the self-denying egolessness of Zen into a "form
of fascist mind-control." Zen priests and writers who cooperated
with the militarists helped by "romanticizing" the links
between Zen and bushido. They stressed a connection between
Buddhist compassion and an acceptance of death, which eventually
led to collective martyrdom and the killing of one's enemies. Indeed,
Victoria believes that the fanaticism of some of Japan's Buddhist
leaders of the era approached that of today's murderously militant
Islamists (Jalon, 2003).
that the same spirit of self-renunciation that characterizes the
contemporary Zen master's exhortations to be a good worker can be
found in those of Harada, Suzuki, and others to be a good soldier:
The only difference
between them is the object of loyalty and devotion. In premodern
Japan, absolute loyalty was owed to one's feudal lord. From the
Meiji period onward the focus shifted to the central government
and its policies as embodied in the person of the emperor. In postwar
Japan the focus shifted once again, this time to the corporation
and its interests which are of course very closely connected
in Japan with those of the state (Victoria 1997, p. 184).
The close relationship
between Japan's Buddhist leaders and the state emerged in the middle
of the Meiji period when several leading Buddhists formed the United
Movement for Revering the Emperor (Sonnō Hōbutsu Daidōdan).
This organization "represented the organizational birth of
a Japanese nationalism that was both exclusionist and aggressively
anti-Christian in character" (Victoria 1997, p. 118). Buddhist
leaders strongly supported Japan's war efforts against China and
then Russia, and the subsequent subjugation of Korea as a Japanese
colony. One line of reasoning that they adopted was based on Japanese
Buddhism's supposed preeminent position within all of Asian Buddhism
that "Japanese Buddhists had a duty to 'awaken' Chinese
and Korean Buddhists from their indifference to war, an indifference
which allegedly stemmed from the pessimistic nature of the Buddhism
in those two countries" (Victoria 1997, p. 20).
By 1905, D. T. Suzuki
and other Buddhist leaders had developed a philosophical platform
that guided mainstream Buddhist thinking through Japan's defeat
(1) Japan has
the right to pursue its commercial and trade ambitions as it sees
fit; (2) should "unruly heathens" (jama gedō)
of any country interfere with that right, they deserve to be punished
for interfering with the progress of all humanity; (3) such punishment
will be carried out with the full and unconditional support of Japan's
religions, for it is undertaken with no other goal in mind than
to ensure that justice prevails; (4) soldiers must, without the
slightest hesitation or regret, offer up their lives to the state
in carrying out such religion-sanctioned punishment; and (5) discharging
one's duty to the state on the battlefield is a religious act (Victoria
1997, p. 25.)
and government leaders promoted the idea of a link between Zen,
the ideal of bushido, and the modern Japanese military as early
as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Zen promoted the ideal of
a self-less soldier or citizen who would willingly give his life
to serve the emperor and the state. Since the goal of Zen is to
free oneself from "attachment to the small, egocentric self"
(Victoria 1997, p. 122), a Zen-based ideology would unite the people
behind the military's drive to make Japan the dominant power in
The emergence of
"imperial way Buddhism" (kōdō bukkyō)
of the 1930s, which represented the total subjugation of the Law
of the Buddha to the Law of the Sovereign (and the subjugation of
institutional Buddhism to the state and its policies) was a direct
progression from the Buddhists' activities during the Russo-Japanese
War (1904-05). Shiio Benkyo, a Joodo sect priest, asserted that
the key historic characteristic of Japanese Buddhism was its "nationalism"
(kokkateki). Since the emperor embodied the state, and since Buddhism
and the state were one, the emperor and Buddhism must also be one
and the same (Victoria 1997, p. 82).
insisted that Japan's war effort was both just and glorious because
victory meant the spread of Japan's superior civilization and Buddhism
to all of the oppressed peoples of Asia. Japan would liberate Asians
from the tyranny of the Western Christian imperialists and would
provide them with the keys to the modernization and improvement
of their own lives. The Japanese soldier may take a few lives here
and there, but that was a small price to pay for the glorious new
way of life that would dawn on Asia with the final Japanese victory.
an interesting chapter wherein he presents the views of a number
of prominent Japanese Buddhists who opposed this close Buddhist
support for and attachment to the state as well as Japan's war effort.
The largely lay-run Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism (Shinkō
Bukkyō Seinen Dōmei), founded in the 1920s, not only
took exception to institutional Buddhism's explicit subservience
to the state, but also was deeply involved in social action on a
variety of fronts. It denounced the excesses of capitalism and took
notice of the suffering of Japan's farmers and laborers. The League's
leaders put forth the proposition that international cooperation,
rather than narrow nationalism, was the Buddhist approach to world
activities of Youth League leaders and other Buddhist groups and
individuals who opposed the government were closely monitored by
the police. By the late 1930s, many of these individuals had been
arrested or harassed by police and the organizations had been very
effectively shut down. Those Buddhists who opposed government policies
lost any opportunity to express their opinions.
on 15 August 1945 brought an end to imperial way Buddhism and imperial
state Zen and the sects of institutional Buddhism quickly changed
certain aspects of their daily liturgy to reflect the demise of
imperial Japan. However, they were a lot slower in responding to
questions of how to explain their wartime conduct and whether their
actions had been a legitimate expression of the Buddha Dharma or
a betrayal of it. Victoria notes that a few individuals, like D.
T. Suzuki, did talk about mistakes that Buddhists had made during
the militarist era, but even he chose to blame state Shinto for
the war crimes (Victoria 1997, p. 150) and could not resist trying
to find positive aspects to Japan's war effort. Victoria also presents
the work of postwar Buddhist scholar Ichikawa Harugen, who painstakingly
identifies twelve historical characteristics that affected the manner
in which institutional Buddhism reacted to the development of a
To Victoria's chagrin,
when he began his investigations there were only four declarations
addressing war responsibility by leaders of traditional Buddhist
sects and none of these declarations was issued until more than
four decades after the end of the war.
War Stories picks up right where he ended Zen at War,
six years earlier. Victoria in this work examines the writings and
conduct of Japan's military government to demonstrate how the regime
acquired the cooperation of Buddhist leaders and embraced Buddhist
teachings in a state ideology that justified the obligation of every
citizen to unquestioningly serve the state and support its murderous
expansion across Asia.
Lt. Colonel Sugimoto Goro, whose posthumous book Great Duty
(Taigi) became especially popular among young officers after
his death in China in 1937:
The reason that
Zen is necessary for soldiers is that all Japanese, especially soldiers,
must live in the spirit of the unity of the sovereign and subjects,
eliminating their ego and getting rid of their self. It is exactly
the awakening to the nothingness (mu) of Zen that is the
fundamental spirit of the unity of sovereign and subjects. Through
my practice of Zen I am able to get rid of my self. In facilitating
the accomplishment of this, Zen becomes, as it is, the true spirit
of the imperial military (Victoria 2003, p.124).
The concept of selfless
devotion was the key theme of the Japanese army's 1941 manual, the
Field Service Code (Senjinkun). Japanese military leaders
hoped that the publication of this booklet would recapture the essence
of the traditional bushido warrior code, which emphasized
the samurai's willingness to give his life away at any moment in
service to his lord. The army, through the Code, told the
young army recruit "That which penetrates life and death is
the lofty spirit of self-sacrifice, for the public good. Transcending
life and death, earnestly rush forward to accomplish your duty.
Exhausting the power of your body and mind, calmly find joy in living
the eternal duty" (Victoria 2003, p.118).
questions the moral responsibility of Japan's wartime Zen leaders
who in his view did everything in their power to transform not only
soldiers, but also civilians as well, in to a mass collection of
They did so by
interpreting the Buddhist doctrine of the non-existence of the self,
coupled with the oneness of life and death, in such a way as to
produce an unquestioning willingness to die on behalf of the emperor
and the state. In infusing the suicidal Japanese military spirit,
especially when extended to civilians, with the power of religious
belief, Japan's wartime Zen leaders revealed themselves to be thoroughly
and completely morally bankrupt (Victoria 2003, p.144).
Victoria is especially
critical of the many Zen and other Buddhist leaders and writers
who, while glorifying the Japanese military tradition and demonstrating
strong support for the Japanese soldier fighting in China and elsewhere,
show complete and utter indifference to the millions of victims
of Japanese aggression. This feeling of callousness towards Japan's
former enemies continues to this day, as is evidenced in the refusal
of the Japanese government to admit and apologize for such wartime
brutality as the trade in "comfort women."
Victoria has carried
on his discussion about Zen and Japanese Buddhism since the publication
of Zen at War in 1997, not only in Zen War Stories,
but in other interviews and articles. His ideas about institutional
Zen in Japan have hardened to the extent that he seems to have little
use for these sects and their priests. He clarified his sentiments
in an interview published in April of 2003:
There is a Zen
belief that you can transcend good and evil. And once you've done
this, you act in a spontaneous and intuitive manner. But once you
believe that discriminating thought is no longer important
in fact, that not only is it not important, but that it has to be
discarded then all ethical concerns disappear. I see that
disappearance as a very self-serving development in Zen history
in Japan that enabled Buddhists to work with the warriors, who were
basically trained killers and who wanted to ensure that their privileged
position in Japanese society would be maintained forever. In this
way, Zen became the handmaiden of the warrior class which
was itself, of course, the State. I
will go so far as to say that institutional Zen Buddhism in Japan
is not Buddhism. And therefore, what has passed as Zen has for a
very long time been a distortion of Buddhist teachings. When Buddhism
was introduced to Japan in the sixth century by Prince Shotoku,
it was introduced as "nation-protecting Buddhism." In
the teachings, as we know them, of Shakyamuni Buddha, there is no
suggestion that Buddhism protects the nation. This is the fundamental
error, in my opinion, in Japanese, and for that matter, Chinese,
Korean and Vietnamese Buddhism they lost their ability to
be independent and became servants of the State. And in Japan, it
offered the warrior a method of overcoming his fear of death on
the battlefield and gave him a method of mental concentration through
meditation that actually enhanced his martial abilities. If the
Zen tradition in Japan is to realize its potential, it has to clearly
separate itself from these two traditions (Stephens 2003).
Zen at War and Zen War Stories are disturbing
studies of how Zen and other Buddhist leaders seem to have seriously
violated traditional Buddhist teachings about love, compassion and
non-violence. The strong sense of jingoistic Buddhist nationalism
and the strong sense of compatibility between Buddhist and militarist
leaders is an important aspect of Japanese history that needs to
be explored in greater depth.
us with carefully documented studies. His greatest strength is his
introduction of many of the leading Buddhist leaders of the era
and what they had to say on such subjects as Buddhism and the state.
Rather than making sweeping, bold statements, Victoria, working
in a very lawyer-like manner, builds his case step by step, scholar
by scholar. After reading the words of so many Buddhist supporters
of the war effort, the reader comes away with the strong feeling
that there was indeed strong complicity between the Buddhist establishment
and Japan's militarists during the Pacific War.
The reader is, however,
going to be disappointed by Victoria's lack of in-depth conclusions.
He makes the coherent point that governments and the military routinely
co-opt religion and religious leaders to advance their own war aims,
a conclusion dramatically demonstrated in both his Zen war books.
Victoria might insist that his case is so strong that a more comprehensive
closing argument is not necessary, but he could have used a broader
concluding section to raise further questions and to discuss the
broader implications of his very troubling findings. In any case,
Zen War Stories when coupled with Zen at War is
must reading for any serious scholar of Japan's involvement in World
with Victoria's work is that a person who reads both of his volumes
will see a lot of repetition of major themes. Victoria says that
Zen War Stories is a logical continuation of Zen at
War, but the fundamental message is the same. Although there
is no question that the author's research and writing in both volumes
is superb, one may wonder why he chose to write a companion volume
rather than updating and revising Zen at War.
Portrayal of Makiguchi Tsunesaburo
on his themes in the "Engaged
Buddhism: A Skeleton in the Closet" article wherein he
argues that three other prominent Japanese Buddhists, Makiguchi
Tsunesaburo, Fuji Nichidatsu, and Yasutani Haku'un, supported Japanese
militarism and its agenda of conquest throughout Asia, before and
during the Pacific War. I am not qualified to discuss the assertions
against Fuji and Yasutani, but having studied the Soka Gakkai for
nearly four decades, it is possible to make a few observations on
Victoria's appraisal of Makiguchi.
asserts that Makiguchi (1871-1944), a career educator, was an avid
supporter of Japanese militarism and that his perception of the
role of education was the creation of loyal subjects to the state
who would support the Emperor and the government in its militarist
agenda. These accusations run contrary to the Soka Gakkai's perception
of Makiguchi as a pacifist and sincere follower of Nichiren Buddhism,
who was imprisoned along with the Soka Gakkai's first postwar leader
Toda Josei (1900-1958) because of his avid opposition to the government's
Makiguchi, who died
in prison in 1944, has become the martyr for the Soka Gakkai movement,
which today touts its peace and antiwar themes in all of its writings
and teachings, and which stresses the suffering of its founders
as evidence of the movement's long and sincere record of pacifism.
If Makiguchi is guilty as Victoria charges, much of the historical
raison d’être of the Soka Gakkai would be severely
Two other scholars,
Dayle M. Bethel and Koichi Miyata (Bethel 2003, Miyata 2002), have
already published articles attacking Victoria's conclusions. They
correctly note that Victoria has quoted Makiguchi out of context
and through their own examination of the texts that Victoria uses
to draw his conclusions, they have skillfully provided longer versions
of Makiguchi's quotes which when seen in context tend to negate
his brief article by noting that:
[I]t is clear,
if one reads Makiguchi's work in its entirety, that in his passionate
commitment to education and educational change and transformation
his aim was to prepare children and young people for living fully
and productively, and as socially responsible participants, in a
Japanese state committed to a "more humanitarian way"
which would assure the "well-being and protection of all people."
To suggest, as Dr. Victoria does, that Makiguchi's sole aim in education
was to create fodder for the Japanese militarists' suicidal battles
is a gross misinterpretation of what Makiguchi wrote and stood for
(Bethel 2003, p. 208).
Makiguchi and Toda
began the Soka Gakkai (then known as the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai or Value-Creation
Education Society) in 1930 to study, discuss, and publicize the
educational theories of Makiguchi. Makiguchi, an educational philosopher
and writer, devoted his entire career to teaching, educational administration,
and the development of a philosophy of education. The latter was
based on the premise that the goal of human life is the attainment
of happiness and that man can only become happy if he becomes a
value-creator. Value consists of three related ingredients: Goodness,
Beauty, and Benefit or Gain. A happy person is defined as one who
maximizes his potential in his chosen sphere of life and who helps
others maximize theirs. In essence, in the 1930s Makiguchi's group
was very much an educational reform society, concentrating on the
need to make the creation of value a primary aim of education.
Makiguchi held that
the goal of education must be that of helping the student become
an independent and creative thinker. He denounced the educational
system of 1930s Japan as being too rigid. Rote memorization of facts,
noted Makiguchi, stifled a child's creativity and natural curiosity.
He wanted teachers to give students more personal attention, to
encourage independent learning activities, and to have the schools
teach the children more about their community. Nowhere does Makiguchi
focus, as Victoria charges, on training children to serve the State.
Quite the contrary, Makiguchi wanted to liberate children from the
power of the state.
It is clear from
my interviews with older Soka Gakkai members with connections to
that era, that Makiguchi and Toda, who had formally converted to
the Nichiren Sho sect of Buddhism, grew attached to their new found
religion. Makiguchi became increasingly convinced that people could
find deeper and more enduring value through the strict teachings
of Nichiren Shoshu, which endeavored to adhere exactly to the teachings
and practices of Nichiren (1222-82), the founder of Japan's Nichiren
school of Buddhism.
The start of Japan's
Pacific War at Pearl Harbor brought on a spiritual crisis for Makiguchi
and Toda. The Japanese government demanded the amalgamation of all
the Nichiren sects into one body and that all priests and followers
participate in Shinto worship. Nichiren had strongly advocated the
purity and independence of his faith from any outside teaching or
cooperation with any other religious school or sect. While some
Nichiren Shoshu priests adhered to government orders for reasons
of survival, Makiguchi and Toda refused because it would represent
a breach of the fundamental doctrines of Nichiren Buddhism.
and Toda defied the government and went to prison not necessarily
for anti-war beliefs, which the Soka Gakkai preaches today, but
because it was against their deeply felt religious principles to
adopt Shinto practices or to merge with another religious sect,
even if it had Nichiren connections. While Makiguchi may have indeed
made the pro-Emperor statements that Victoria alleges, his overall
thinking and demeanor was certainly not pro-militarist. The evidence
simply does not support Victoria's argument.
Victoria has made
a valuable scholarly contribution through his research on the activities
of many Japanese Buddhist leaders in the early and mid-twentieth
century. The fact that there has been no overt challenge to the
totality of his assertions gives general credence to his central
thesis. The activities of many Japanese Buddhist leaders during
the militarist era were abysmal and need to be brought to light.
We also need to remember that not every engaged Buddhist has had
an exemplary record. It is also possible that Victoria has erred
in some of his research findings.
Victoria is probably
right in asserting that Makiguchi was not exactly the anti-war zealot
described by the Soka Gakkai today, but Victoria misreads and misinterprets
Makiguchi's writing in his mistaken portrait of him as a pro-militarist
Bethel, Dayle M.
"Two Views of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi's Attitude toward Japanese
Militarism and Education," The Journal of Oriental Studies
(vol. 12, 2003), pp. 208.
Jalon, Allan M.
"Meditating on War and guilt, Zen Says It’s Sorry,"
New York Times, January 11, 2003.
"Critical Comments on Brian Victoria's 'Engaged Buddhism: A
Skeleton in the Closet?'" Journal of Global Buddhism
(vol. 3, 2002), pp. 79-85.
"Zen's Holy War: Christopher Stephens speaks with priest and
historian Brian Victoria," Kansai Time Out, April
2003. Available online: http://www.japanfile.com/culture_and_society/religion/zenholywar.shtml
(Daizen) A. Zen at War. New York and Tokyo: Weatherhill,
Buddhism: A Skeleton in the Closet?" The Journal of Global
Buddhism (vol. 2, 2001), pp. 72-91.
War Stories. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003.