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Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen's Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics (review)

From: The Journal of Japanese Studies
Volume 37, Number 2, Summer 2011
pp. 425-429 | 10.1353/jjs.2011.0050

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Ōtani Kōzui (1876-1948), the twenty-second abbot of Nishi Honganji, felt strongly about the importance of Japan's military preparedness. In 1929, he lamented that his country was "addicted to peace and vitiated by cultural pursuits" (p. 29). Two years later, at the time of the Manchurian Incident, he further "condemned diplomacy and advocated fighting" (p. 29), urging Japan to use military force to protect its interests throughout China. Similarly, in 1937, two Sōtō Zen leaders, Hayashiya Tomojirō and Shimakage Chikai, indicated how eternal peace could be established in East Asia: "We are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of 'killing one so that many may live' (issatsu tashō)" (p. 35). For them, killing was nothing other than Buddhist compassion serving the glory of Imperial Japan.

The Buddhist leaders who jumped on the bandwagon of Japanese militarism did not know how or where to stop. Hosokawa Kei'itsu, secretary general of the Myōshinji branch of Rinzai Zen, clarified what his sect's support of Japan's Sacred War meant in doctrinal terms: "If Shakyamuni Buddha had been born in Japan . . . he would have proclaimed, as the First Principle, the Imperial Way" (p. 53). Following Hosokawa's lead, in 1939 Zen Master Harada Sōgaku (1870-1961) explained how Zen and war could be united: "In accord with each situation one should forget all things and the self, and become one with the way (the work at hand) in that situation. March: tramp, tramp, tramp. Shoot: bang, bang, bang" (p. 68).

Buddhism is known as a religion that forbids killing, and its peace-loving missions are always blessed with a rich reservoir of doctrinal backup. Nevertheless, many Japanese Buddhist leaders did not shy away from exhorting their followers to kill as many enemies as possible and to sacrifice themselves for the glory of Imperial Japan. How do we make sense of Buddhist leaders who become obsessed with killing and destruction? What causes them to run counter to the peace-loving teachings they are supposed to deliver? Through the lens of Imperial-Way Zen, Ives tries to answer these questions. Was there any serious effort to prevent a repetition of Buddhist-backed destruction in post-1945 Japan?

Scholars have attempted to determine why and how Japanese Buddhism supported the war efforts of Imperial Japan and, in doing so, have revealed a dismaying amount of Buddhist hypocrisy in the blood-drenched march of Japanese militarism. Yet Ives is not fully satisfied with their explanations, which, he thinks, do not deal with the core of the problem. In an effort to evaluate Buddhist collusion with the Japanese state during World War II, Ives turns to the work of Ichikawa Hakugen (1902-86). Throughout his life, Ichikawa dedicated himself to chronicling and critiquing Imperial-Way Zen. And Ives's strategy of turning to the work of this foremost scholar of Imperial-Way Zen proves to be effective.

Based on a plethora of information available in Ichikawa's works, Ives offers his own reflections on wartime Buddhism, ideology, the emperor system, and Buddhist responsibility for the war. Unlike Brian Victoria, who suggests that, as Ives recapitulates, "Imperial-Way Zen was caused by the Zen connection to the samurai, swordsmanship, and the warrior ethos (bushidō)" (p. 3), Ives explores how, as Ichikawa suggests, certain aspects of the doctrine of Zen Buddhism helped entangle Zen leaders with the political ambitions inherent within Imperial Japan. These include "peace of mind" (anjin), "becoming one with things" (narikiru), "accepting and according with circumstances" (nin'nun), the "logic of sokuhi," karma, the idea that "differences are none other than equality" (shabetsu-soku-byōdō), indebtedness (on), and harmony (wa). By and large, Ives agrees with Ichikawa, who argues that the conservative social stance incubated by Zen Buddhism rendered Buddhists subservient to the goals of Imperial Japan. It did this "by accepting the given rather than by transforming the given" (p. 73).

Ives, however, goes beyond Ichikawa's analysis. Paying attention to history, which shows that Zen Buddhists have never hesitated to promote their interests by developing a symbiotic relationship with political powers, Ives suggests that Imperial-Way Zen...