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Zen Terror in Prewar Japan: Portrait of an Assassin (Asian Voices)

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Written by a Zen priest, this book explores the myth of Zen Buddhism as a peaceful religion.

Can Buddhism, widely regarded as a religion of peace, also contribute to acts of terrorism? Through an insider's view of right-wing ultranationalism in prewar Japan, this powerful book follows a band of Zen Buddhist–trained adherents who ardently believed so. Brian Victoria, himself a Zen priest, tells the story of a group of terrorists responsible for assassinating three leading political and economic figures in 1932.

Victoria provides a detailed introduction to the religious and political significance of the group's terrorist beliefs and acts, focusing especially on the life and times of the band's leader, Inoue Nisshō. A deeply troubled youth, Inoue became a spy in Manchuria for the Japanese Army in 1909, where he encountered Zen for the first time. When he returned to Japan in 1921, he determined to resolve his deep spiritual discontent through meditation practice, culminating in an enlightenment experience that resolved his long-term doubts. After engaging in "post-enlightenment training" under the guidance of Rinzai Zen master Yamamoto Gempō, Inoue began a program of training the "patriotic youth" who formed the nucleus of his terrorist band.

After the assassinations, Inoue and his band were sentenced to life imprisonment, only to be released just a few years later in 1940. Almost unbelievably, Inoue then became the live-in confidant of Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro, a position he held through the end of WWII. In the postwar era, Inoue reinvented himself as the founder and head of another band of ultranationalists known as the "National Protection Corps." His eventful life came to an end in 1967.

Victoria concludes with an assessment of the profound impact of the assassinations, culminating in Japan's transformation into a totalitarian state and setting the stage for Pearl Harbor. The author also examines the connection of Buddhism to terrorism more broadly, considering the implications for today's Islamic-related terrorism.


Having concluded his trilogy, Victoria can now be considered participating in a long tradition of Buddhist thinkers castigating Buddhism for its depravity and aiming, in this way, at a thoroughgoing reform.-- "Journal of Japanese Studies"

This volume adds a new chapter to the fascinating literature on Imperial Way Zen and offers still another precious antidote to simplistic views of Buddhism as an inherently peaceful religion. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in Japanese beliefs and religious ethics. -- "Religious Studies Review"

Brian Daizen Victoria, a Zen priest and a highly regarded senior research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, has written a thoughtful response to a fundamental question: Can Buddhism, universally regarded as a religion of peace that eschews all forms of violence, also allow for acts of violence including terrorism?.... Brian Daizen Victoria has provided his readers with a superb study of Japanese politics and society in the radical years before Pearl Harbor. The reader gets a ring-side seat to observe politics in Japan from the point of view of the minds of the terrorists themselves and the shockingly high degree of support they had in the upper echelons of the military. This book is a must-read for anybody interested in Japanese political history in the years before Pearl Harbor. -- "Virginia Review of Asian Studies"

For 20 years, Brian Daizen Victoria has written about the connections between Buddhism and militarism in Japan. . . . In this concluding volume, he . . . uses Inoue's remarkable life story to highlight the critical role that Zen Buddhism played in motivating the terrorists in Inoue's band. . . . An outstanding piece of scholarship, engaging and disturbing in equal measure. -- "Good Reads Reviews"

One of the great benefits of this book is bringing back more squarely into view an understanding of Japan's wartime aggression as a backdrop to understanding modern Japanese Buddhism in today's time of political correctness . . .and it is important to note that Zen Terror in Prewar Japan is not "Japan-bashing." . . . the book is sure to open new paths for researchers concerning the idea of modern Japanese Buddhism and political violence. It reinvigorated my interest in the topic and provided many vital leads to follow, particularly in connection with the role Buddhist philosophy may have played in the advice given to the emperor by his inner circle." -- "H-Net: Humanities and Social Science Reviews Online"

Studies like the present one are rare and shed light on the complex relations between religion and violence. The anchoring of the discussion in the close examination of an individual life amid the political complexities of his time wards off predictable ideology and provides fascinating material for ongoing reflection, as if on a tormenting koan. -- "Japanese Journal of Religious Studies"

A riveting account of the life and thought of Inoue Nisshō, one of the most infamous--and fascinating--ultranationalists in Japan of the 1930s. The first half of the work shows a man who was at once religious and violent, thoughtful and eccentric, a carouser who practised Zen meditation earnestly--but a man who always was influential. The second half of the book shifts tone as Victoria presents a forceful, provocative analysis of the impact Zen had on Inoue's leadership of terrorist groups during the early 1930s, as well as of the ongoing relationship between terrorism and religions generally. Providing a nuanced understanding of the mindset of Japan's pre-World War II terrorists, this is an essential read. -- James L. Huffman, Wittenberg University

Brian Victoria paints a rich, often moving, psychological and philosophical portrait. Probing deeply into the Buddhist worldview and the often abstract or even abstruse debates within Buddhist circles, he comes to the shocking conclusion that although 'no religion is free of having committed terrorist acts or providing the doctrinal/ethical justification for terrorism, ' Buddhism, especially in the Zen form, has a peculiar predisposition for it. Like today's Islamist cults, it learned to think of assassination as 'compassionate killing.' This book is bound to stir controversy not only in Japan, especially in Buddhist circles, but also in the United States, where Zen Buddhism has attracted many adherents, and any association of Zen with terror is unthinkable. -- Gavan McCormack, The Australian National University

Brian Victoria masterfully describes how peace-practising Zen Buddhism was utilized as an ideological weapon for justifying terrorist acts in prewar Japan, fervently supporting Japan's emperor system ideology. The book is not just a historical study but also a dire warning of the danger that, if abused, any peace-loving religion can be exploited to rationalize violence. -- Yuki Tanaka, author of Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II

This third volume completes a masterly trilogy exposing how the violent undercurrents in Zen surfaced in modern times in the form of a militaristic right-wing ideology. Rather than focusing on Zen warmongering, as in the first two volumes, the subject of the present book is terrorism. Buddhism and terrorism might seem unlikely partners, but Victoria's carefully documented research traces how a partnership of febrile nationalism and Zen ideology led to Inoue Nisshō becoming the leader of a terrorist group in pre-WWII Japan. The book makes sobering reading for those who still see Buddhism as exclusively a religion of peace and will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the chilling relationship between religion and terror. -- Damien Keown, emeritus, University of London Goldsmiths

Zen Terror completes Brian Victoria's landmark three-volume study of Japanese Zen Buddhist complicity with "Imperial Way Buddhism," which provided a religious pretext for Japan's violent expansionism in twentieth-century Asia and its participation in World War II. As a Zen priest, scholar, and moral being, Victoria digs deeply to uncover the disturbing racist and militarist pronouncements and actions of many teachers who remain pivotal figures in the development of Zen in Japan and here in the West. He argues convincingly that these distortions of Buddhist teachings of peace were not the aberrations of misguided individuals but the logical end of religion in the thrall of power. We owe an outstanding debt to Brian Victoria for intellectual courage, clear writing, and rigorous ethical standards. The depredations of Japanese Buddhism, including domestic terrorism, in the early twentieth century, echo through unfolding ethnic and religious crises in the present--everywhere that Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism find themselves entangled with the mechanisms of the nation-state. To ignore or deny this history is to invite its continuation. -- Rev. Hozan Alan Senauke, Berkeley Zen Center

Zen Terror in Prewar Japan completes Brian Victoria's trilogy that mines the seam of killing-facilitation in twentieth-century Japanese Zen, focusing here on the writings and statements of the leader of a small group of terrorists led by a Zen practitioner. Buddhism contains rich resources for supporting non-violence and peace, but some teachings have been used to fund violence. Victoria does a signal service to Buddhism by spotlighting harmful delusions that have arisen in some of its followers, which should help undermine these beliefs, drawing instead on more positive resources in the tradition. As a Zen teacher might have said, 'If you see "Buddhist" bullshit on the road, kill it!' -- Peter Harvey, emeritus, University of Sunderland; author of An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values and Issues

I am delighted to draw attention to the admirable work of Brian Victoria. His expertise in Zen Buddhism comes from intensive study of Japanese sources and his many years of personal experience. In both areas, he has devoted himself to finding and conveying the truth with unflinching honesty and complete clarity. His bold statements and candid judgments are supported by unambiguous evidence and deserve to be pondered upon by all who care about Buddhism and have humane values. -- Richard Gombrich, Boden Professor of Sanskrit Emeritus, University of Oxford

A wonderfully stimulating and insightful book. I continue to be grateful for the teachings I received from Yasutani Roshi many years ago, but the revelations in previous books by Brian Victoria concerning Yasutani's promotion of militarism have been disheartening. After leaving Yasutani Roshi, I spent five years as head-monastic at the Rochester Zen Center under Philip Kapleau and later moved to Maine to study under Walter Nowick. It is by way of books such as this one by Brian Victoria that one can share in exploring the topics of Buddhism, militarism, and nationalism. By basing his study on the character of Inoue, Victoria has illustrated the lethal blend that militarism and Buddhism can bring about. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is how Inoue uses his Zen experience of Kensho to justify his assassinations of key government people before WWII. I should note that Kensho, by itself, cannot overcome deeply rooted habit energies. Sustained precept training (e.g., training in the ethics of non-harming living beings) is needed. But despite lacking such an ethical base, Inoue justified his plans by referring to his enlightenment experience. Brian Victoria's book not only plumbs Inoue's motives but uses Inoue's own words from his journals. He also examines Buddhist ethics in terms of war and discusses differences between Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen ethics. To me, these discussions were the most valuable and impressive. However, the overall reading of Zen Terror had the added feature of providing insight into Japanese attitudes concerning family, clan, and attitudes toward militarism. With the above in mind, I strongly endorse Brian Victoria's book and believe it will be fascinating reading for all who are engaged in Buddhist studies and Zen practice. Research by scholars such as Victoria helps deepen one's understanding of the cultural context in which Buddhism has survived over the past two millennia. His book makes me more determined than ever to continue practising Zen and renew and deepen my vows to save all sentient beings. -- Hugh J. Curran, University of Maine

About the author:

Brian Daizen Victoria, a fully ordained Soto Zen priest, is currently a senior research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. His publications include Zen at War and Zen War Stories. Zen Terror in Prewar Japan is the third book in the trilogy.

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Buddhism - not such a peaceful religion after all?
  • Thorough and fascinating account of terrorist incidents in prewar Japan
  • A difficult read in places
State Shinto is considered to have played a large part in Japan's prewar militarism, with religion and state formally separated in the U.S.-written constitution, whereas Buddhism is associated with peace and compassion, with little examination of its role in justifying violence. Victoria, himself a Zen Buddhist, challenges this association by recounting how terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1930s perpetrated by Zen Buddhists helped topple Japan's fragile democracy, creating an environment where totalitarianism and militarism flourished. He describes the life of Nisshō Inoue (1887–1967), a larger-than-life Zen Buddhist who masterminded some acts of "right-wing violence". Victoria aims to take readers inside the mind of a terrorist leader to challenge stereotypes and show that such people "were once not all that different from the rest of us". He then considers why Zen Buddhism was able to act as a vehicle to justify terrorism, hoping that a critical examination of the religion will help avoid such a situation reoccurring in a country "that remains strongly hierarchical with leaders who are the descendants of prewar and wartime political dynasties" with "the continued presence of right-wing organizations … with close bonds to national leaders".

As a child, Nisshō Inoue was a troubled delinquent who left burning paper bags full of dog poo in the entrance of people's homes and developed an early taste for alcohol while also being haunted by ethical questions such as how we decide right and wrong. He concluded that "good" merely consisted of whatever was convenient for him. Such nihilism may have contributed to the drunkenness and womanising in his early life. He also saw little point in life, suffered from depression, and attempted to commit suicide. Indeed, throughout his life he seemed prepared to die at a moment of notice, which contributed to his decision to work as an auxiliary in the Russo-Japanese War and his bravery in violent escapades.

Hoping that a "new world" would help him escape his depression or at least give him the chance to die, Inoue went to China, where he worked for a railroad company. His ability in Chinese was soon noticed and he was recruited as a spy for the Japanese army. He spent several years performing nefarious activities that suited his mischief-making personality: infiltrating revolutionary groups to assist Japanese superiors, running reconnaissance missions, and fomenting revolution by groups that would advance Japan's interests through smuggling weapons, while continuing to drink heavily and carouse.

Inoue first encountered Zen Buddhism in China and was persuaded by a Zen Master that he could answer the ethical questions that continued to obsess him by practising meditation. From then on, Inoue assiduously meditated, and when he returned to Japan in 1921 to continue his religious training, he was considered to have progressed a long way toward enlightenment.

At that time, Japanese society was a battleground between the left, whose strength was increasing because of a labour shortage, and reactionary forces who wished to preserve their power and end the Taishō democracy. Shadowy groups of extremists attempted to break strikes, intimidate voters, and infiltrate unions under the guise of being "patriotic groups". Inoue was encouraged to lead such groups by people who knew of his activities in China, though he was initially more preoccupied with his religious training.

Inoue moved to the countryside, lived as a recluse and continued with his meditation. He started to receive visions, hear voices and doubt his sanity. He found that he could communicate with objects such as plants and rocks and developed a talent for healing. He acquired the reputation of a sage, though insisting that his healing was through a higher power. After further visions, he experienced the feeling of oneness that characterises enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, and his lifelong ethical doubts disappeared: he realised that good and evil only differ in the sense of whether actions are in accord with the truth of the universe. For example, killing another is morally defensible when done without hatred in the pursuit of a higher cause, which Victoria makes much of in his arguments that Zen Buddhism was used to justify acts of terrorism.

Inoue now felt ready to die but also felt entrusted with a mission to save all sentient beings from their suffering. He abandoned his life of wandering in the mountains "conversing with the birds and beasts" and returned to civilisation, where he immediately downed two bottles of sweet potato wine!

Inoue became familiar with the ultranationalist leaders of Japan, sharing their belief that Japan needed renewing to remove its "corrupt elements", which could only be done through destruction and the violation of current laws favouring the status quo. Inoue was persuaded to become a Buddhist priest in a "patriotic training temple", a cover for his real work of training a group of youths with a "do-or-die" spirit dedicated to Japan's reformation. He became involved in planning a domestic coup to coincide with the Manchurian incident in 1931, though as a reluctant participant because he believed the plan would fail.

However, a plan led by Inoue to assassinate 20 liberal politicians and wealthy businessmen the following year, the Blood Oath Corps Incident, came to fruition. In fact, only two of the targets were killed and the incident did not achieve its aim of establishing a military government, although, with the assassination of the prime minister a few months later, it further weakened the rule of law in Japan. Inoue's role in the act was suspected by the police. When about to be arrested, he initially decided to commit suicide by cutting his stomach open, asking a co-conspirator to then cut off his head, take it to the police station, and throw it at the police. He eventually turned himself in conventionally, where he was greeted by the smiling superintendent-general and treated leniently. The perpetrators were given respect in the trials, with Inoue allowed to expound on his Buddhist views. Inoue only spent six years in prison (1934–1940), where he thrived, devoting his time to studying Buddhism, stirring things up and rooting out corruption among the prison staff.

Victoria notes that the punishments of Inoue and his group were mild because they were seen to be acting out of patriotism. Inoue received a special pardon on the emperor's birthday in 1941, eliminating his criminal record. Shortly after his release, he was asked by the prime minister to become his live-in advisor and confidant as well as an invitation to visit the outer grounds of the Imperial Palace. He remained a key advisor during the war. Victoria stresses the extraordinary fact that a convicted terrorist was given such a central role, speculating on the presence of "fixers", people in power who harnessed the revolutionary zeal of Inoue and others to achieve their ends.

Victoria examines the motivation of Inoue and his group of revolutionaries, concluding that their worship of Emperor Hirohito as a god meant they assumed he would act as a benevolent ruler and improve the plight of the poor. The emperor's rejection of Inoue's proposal to sell off some of his assets to feed the poor did nothing to dampen Inoue's ardour for him.

After the war, Inoue was summoned for questioning by the American occupation authorities. He enjoyed his 27 interrogations, running rings around his interrogators, with one prosecutor even speculating on who was interrogating who. He impressed an American journalist so much that he was invited to write a book, which contains much of the material used as evidence by Victoria. Inoue was a prolific writer, a scourge of degeneracy (despite his own degenerate behaviour) and an elder statesman of Japan's ultranationalists until his death, remaining vehemently against land reforms, human rights and unions, despite his desire to "liberate the masses from the despotism of the rich and powerful".

AT the end of the book, Victoria discusses how a religion associated with peace and compassion had been used to justify terrorist acts. He concludes that Zen Buddhism in Japan had become a religion of action that had long abandoned key aspects of Buddhist morality, taking on the traits of Japanese conservatism, where there is "no choice to cut down even good people in the event that they seek to destroy social harmony". He also notes many favourable comments made about warriors by Zen Masters. This combination of social conservatism and tolerance of militarism enabled Zen Buddhism to diverge from traditional Buddhist values. Extending his discussion to the world's religions, he notes that every world religion has used its teachings to justify violence when expedient, giving recent examples in Sri Lanka and Myanmar for Buddhism. It seems that religion and its corruption to meet the ends of those in power are inescapable aspects of humanity.

Although the account of Inoue's life is highly readable, I found myself getting bogged down in the detail necessary to understand the context of prewar Japan, the terrorist incidents masterminded by him, and the manoeuvring of the different groups of a highly dysfunctional governing system. This is a heavyweight academic book that uses the history and teachings of Buddhism to discuss the development of Zen in Japan and is a difficult read in places; the speculation on the motivations of the emperor, the 'fixers' and the nationalist groups is probably more appealing to the specialist than to the general reader. This book complements Herbert Bix's excellent biography of Hirohito, providing further insight into his life and giving the reader both a greater understanding of prewar Japan and a more nuanced view of the world's religions and their transgressions.
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Brian Daizen Victoria
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Year of publication
14 February 2020
Number of pages
USD 36,00 (hardback), USD 34,00 (ebook)

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