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History Zen Terror in Prewar Japan

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

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Buddhism - not such a peaceful religion after all?
Pros
  • Thorough and fascinating account of terrorist incidents in prewar Japan
Cons
  • 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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