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  • Seno'o Girō's Buddhist Socialism, Antiwar Movement, and Dialogue with Social Christianity in 1930s–1940s Japan
  • Kunihiko Terasawa

Seno'oGirō (1889–1961) founded The Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism (YLRB) on April 15, 1931. Seno'o Girō was an important Buddhist figure in prewar Japan as one of a few Buddhists who organized resistance movements against ultra-nationalistic war ideology and militarism. Seno'o not only worked among Buddhists, but also allied with non-Buddhists, such as labor unions, socialists, Christians, and Marxists unifying the Popular Front during the 1930s.

Many young Buddhists came to join the YLRB, bridging sectarian divisions, even though Seno'o was a lay priest of Nichiren Buddhism. The YLRB was the declaration of a social Buddhism. The motto of the YLRB was "To Bear the Buddha into the Streets and Villages." Seno'o was the chairperson of the YLRB. They proclaimed:

  1. 1. We have to return to Buddha, Sakyamuni himself beyond denomination.

  2. 2. We have to reform Buddhism that is now like a dead corpse, which is too stagnant, superstitious, and corrupt to fit the new age.

  3. 3. We have to fight against the exploitation by capitalism, and to create a new society.1

The YLRB's membership was three thousand people at its peak in 1936. The members were involved in peasant disputes as well as labor disputes.

There have been significant research articles on Seno'oGirō by Whalen Lai (1984), Stephen Large (1987), James Mark Shields (2012), and Eiichi Ōtani (2012).2 Lai's research is focused on Seno'o's prophetic voice based on his modern social hermeneutics of the Lotus Sutra. Large's article is an excellent historical analysis on Seno'o's political activities of the popular front, especially his affiliation with Shakai-Taishū-tō (Social Mass Party) according to Seno'o's own understanding of Buddhism and Marxism. Shields is focused on Seno'o's radical revolutionary ethos in comparison to the Marxist atheistic humanism and Derrida's deconstructionism. Shields points out that atheistic deconstructionism is compatible with the Buddhist notion of sunyata (emptiness) and interdependent co-arising resulting in the Seno'o's genuine humanism which considered the people's sufferings. Ōtani summarizes well in his sociological analysis [End Page 223] on how Seno'o's Buddhist social movement arose in the context of the rise of ultra-nationalistic Nihon Seishin (The Spirit of Japaneseness), Marxism, and the conflict within Buddhist groups to either support Nihon Seishin or counter it.3

These previous articles mention his hermeneutical circle among Buddhism, socialism, and Marxism. Though this is an important perspective, I would rather analyze Seno'o's thought and activities in the light of his constant dialogue with Social Christianity.

seno'o girō's life and thought

Seno'oGirō was born in the Hiroshima prefecture on December 16, 1889. In June 1908, he enrolled in the best junior college in Japan, Ikkō (一高; the first junior college in Tokyo, from which most students, then, enrolled in the Tokyo Imperial University). Nitobe Inazō 新渡戸稲造 (1862–1933), the principal of Ikkō, was a Quaker and the author of Bushidō, and later became the undersecretary general of the League of Nations in 1920. Nitobe was also a friend of Uchimura Kanzō 内村鑑三, who founded Mukyōkai 無教会 (Non-Church Movement). Both Nitobe and Uchiruma studied together and became Christians at Sapporo Nōgakkō 札幌農学校 (the Sapporo Agricultural School), guided by its principal, William Clark. Seno'o described in his diary during Ikkō that Nitobe became his ideal model, and that he was thinking of Nitobe every day, taking Nitobe's ethics class, and frequently meeting with Nitobe personally.4 Nitobe's knowledge and personality significantly influenced Seno'oin his humanism, internationalism, educational leadership, and, later, social activities. It should not be forgotten that Nitobe was a Quaker, a religious belief well known for its pacifism, inclusivity, and meditative practices.

Even before Seno'o went to Ikkō, his middle school principal, Yanai Michitami 柳井道民, influenced him in 1903. Yanai had also studied at the Sapporo Agricultural School, where Nitobe and Uchimura learned of Christianity.5 It is important to remember that Seno'o's encounter with independent and non-sectarian Christian humanists shaped his youth consciousness, even though...


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