Was WWII a Holy War?

That the emperor was considered a god in antebellum and wartime Japan is mostly an undisputed fact. How that notion of godhood compares to the Abrahamic understanding of God in Western and Middle Eastern traditions is more difficult to decipher. While it would be a stretch to claim that religious fervor for the God-emperor was the only cause that sent Japan into world war in the first place, it was inarguably a strong motivation to keep troops fighting, as well as a way to boost morale on the home front. The Pacific Theater of World War II is often described as the result of economic stagnation, political infighting, colonial rebellion and rampant militarism during the 1920s and 30s, and yet a strong case can be made that religion played a pivotal role in leading Japan into war. Not merely the cult of the emperor, but more specifically Buddhism.

In recent years, public beheading, suicide bombings, and terrorist attacks have constructed a narrative of Islam being a cult of violence. Many critics of this notion are quick to point to the blood on the hands of the Christian Church for atrocities such as The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem witch trials. Meanwhile, the violence and destruction in the West Bank, and Gaza strip are often laid at the feet of Zionist Judaism. It would seem all religions have their own histories of terrorism, genocide and violence. But one religion that often escapes such a reputation, and in fact is often touted as a religion of peace, is Buddhism.

This notion is not only highly flawed, but easily refuted as well. Conflicts such as the Sri Lankan civil war come to mind, in which Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists clashed against the predominantly Hindu Tamils, including the assassination of the prime minister by a Buddhist monk. The ongoing persecution of the Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar has been described as everything from Buddhist terrorism to ethnic cleansing, and much of the violence is incited and perpetrated directly by monks themselves. But these incidents are not germane to the topic of Japan, and whether or not war in the Pacific could justifiably be considered a “religious war.”

Monks at Asakusa Temple, in Tokyo, perform air raid drills with gas masks in 1936

To understand the causes of war, it is first necessary to get into the minds, as best we can, of the important thinkers and people of influence from that era. Perhaps one of the most influential people of the early Showa era was an author, playwright, orator and fierce propagandist named Chigaku Tanaka. This man is credited, more or less with creating nichirenism – a political and religious philosophy that married the teachings of the 13th century monk Nichiren, and Japanese ultra-nationalism. According to Tanaka’s interpretations, Nichiren prophesied that a huge global conflict would usher in a golden era of peace and prosperity under the rule of Buddhism. After the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905, Tanaka claimed that it had been a message from Buddha to show the Japanese people their true path – of Buddhism conquering Christianity. He considered the invasion of Manchuria part of a divine plan to spread Nichiren Buddhism across the Asian continent.

Tanaka not only believed that Japan had been called to spread Buddhism throughout the world with the Emperor at its center, but he disseminated these ideas through vigorous propaganda campaigns. His pamphlets were distributed throughout the country, but it was his highly moralistic (and nationalistic) plays that captured the hearts of the youth, igniting in them a fierce and burning loyalty and patriotism. With thousands of disciples, and admirers including such writers as Kenji Miyazawa and Yukio Mishima, his influence cannot be understated.

If you follow Japanese politics, you may have heard a certain buzzword, favored by right wing journalists and politicians, called “kokutai.” This is a very politically loaded word that defies simple explanation. It literally translates as “national body” and at times refers to the state, namely the government. In other cases, it translates more accurately as “the people,” but most commonly it is used to refer to the “national character” with an emphasis on the noble, and pure nature of the Japanese as a race. The impact of this word, and the associated philosophy on pre-war Japan is of significance because it reinforced the notion that the Yamato people of Japan were unique, and in fact superior to other Asian races, and it was their duty to be a shining beacon as the leader of a united Asia. This concept was popularized by Chigaku Tanaka, and its influence can still be observed today.

One person heavily influenced by the writing of Chigaku Tanaka , who would later become a very important plank on the road to war, was a general of the Japanese Imperial Army named Kanji Ishiwara. Ishiwara also believed in the Nichirenist doctrine that violent conflict was the only path to lasting peace, and consequently in 1931 he and Seishirou Itagaki engineered what would later be called the Mukden Incident. This incident involved placing explosives along an important Japanese-owned train line in Manchuria, and blaming the attack on Chinese insurgents. The plan was a huge failure, as the line was not even damaged, but nonetheless, it was used as an excuse for a full-scale invasion of Manchuria by Japanese forces. The important part of this story is not even the occupation of Manchuria, which some credit as the beginning of the war in the Pacific. What had even more lasting implications was that the plan was so botched, so obviously faked, that the international community quickly saw it as a ruse, and almost overnight Japan found itself in complete diplomatic isolation. This was given as a primary cause for Japan’s sudden withdrawal from the League of Nations two years later. This political shunning, as it were, and voluntary isolation, is inarguably one of of the main causes of Tokyo’s decision to go to war.

At this point, the story begins to get bloody. In February of 1932, an ultra-nationalist, Buddhist terrorist group called “the league of blood,” led by a radical nichiren preacher named Nissho Inoue carried out a huge assassination plot of twenty key business and political leaders. Inoue believed that the nation was polluted by pro-western politicians and rich “zaibatsu,” (money clique) businessmen and that the nation required spiritual cleansing, with the ultimate goal of giving complete power to the emperor. Inoue called this ultimate goal the “Showa Restoration.” Under the slogan “ichinin issatsu” (one person, one kill) he set his wide-spread assassination attempt in motion. However, only two of his followers successfully carried out their missions, and as a result the director of Mistui holdings, Takuma Dan, and former finance minister Junnosuke Inoue, were murdered. Again, it was not the incident itself which was a precursor for war, since it was largely considered to be a tremendous failure. The importance of the case had to do with the trial, in which the guilty parties were essentially given a platform to spread their views through newspaper and radio, thereby getting their message into nearly every home in the country. The public reaction was largely sympathetic.

League of Blood, awaiting trial
Photograph from Mainichi Shinbun. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

A mere three months after the first unsuccessful assassination plot, the league of blood partnered with right-wing factions in the Imperial Navy and this time they succeeded in killing Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in what would be called “The May 15th Incident.” This is often considered to be the end of civilian government rule in Japan and the beginning of military rule, until the end of the war. In this attack, they also (very unsuccessfully) tried to kill several other political targets by throwing grenades into the Mitsubishi Bank headquarters. Interestingly, one of the proposed targets of the May 15th incident was actor Charlie Chaplin, who was visiting Japan at the time. According to Miriam Silverberg in her book Erotic Grotesque Nonsense:The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times, “Chaplin’s murder would facilitate war with the U.S., and anxiety in Japan, and lead to ‘restoration’-in the name of the emperor.” This incident, similar to its predecessor, was largely a failure, yet it gave the perpetrators an open platform to spread their right-wing, pro-emperor nichirenist agenda. Also of major significance was the verdict, an almost impossibly light sentence, which not only showed where the judge’s allegiance laid, but also set a dangerous precedent which would make it much harder for the government to punish terrorism, and elevated the cause of patriotism as a defense. This time around, the public reaction was even more sympathetic, with petitions in their favor of 350,000 signatures. A group of young boys in Niigata even requested that they be executed instead of the instigators, and sent eleven severed fingers as proof of their sincerity. Clearly the message was reaching people and winning hearts.

If multiple assassinations, arson and bombings don’t qualify these gangs as terrorist cells, it’s hard to imagine what will. So far these actions were all inspired by Nichirenism, a nationalistic Buddhist fringe group. What of the other sects of Japanese Buddhism? Evidence shows that the Tendai, Zen and other mainstream Buddhist sects were just as complicit. Professor, priest and activist Hakugen Ichikawa spent his life detailing Zen Buddhist support for Japanese imperialism and militarism throughout the early part of the 20th century. In his books, such as “The War Responsibility of Buddhists” (仏教の戦争責任), “Religion Under Fascism” (日本ファシズム化の宗教) and “Buddhism During the War” (戦時下の仏教), Ichikawa not only describes the Buddhist influence on militarism up until the war, but also the government’s use of Buddhism to justify and even glorify war. A devout Buddhist who lived through the war, he grants himself no reprieve as he confesses to having been “a strong advocate of Japan’s ‘holy war,’” to which he proclaims, “I should not forget to include myself as one of those modern Japanese Buddhist who did these things.” He was certainly not alone either. Brian Daizen Victoria, in his book “Zen at War” quotes renowned monk Daiun Sogaku Harada, “The unity of Zen and war of which I speak extends to the farthest reaches of the holy war [now under way].” At least in the minds of many priests, World War II was undeniably, a “holy war.”

Zen monks conduct military drills in preparation for war in 1939

This shouldn’t be all that surprising either. Buddhism has been associated with violence almost since it was introduced to Japan in the 7th century. As early as the Heian Period (794-1185) there are records of violent clashes between rival Buddhist sects. Whether it be the feudal era Sōhei warrior monks who formed organized armies large enough to threaten the imperial government, or less organized, violent mobs like 16th century Ikkō-ikki who were such a threat to the samurai order, they had to be stomped out by warlords like Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Ancient history aside, we must decide whether or not WWII can properly be considered a “holy war” on the part of the Japanese. While certainly the dominoes of economic, political and imperialistic concerns paved the way to war, the narrative that was fed the civilian population, and the ideas that inspired and led the right-wing, militaristic youth into a frenzied nationalism were undeniably influenced by Buddhism. In particular, the fires of war were stoked by a form of Buddhism that emphasized the moral superiority of the Japanese people, and their duty to lead the world by violent force. The legacy of this still exists in the right-wing ideology of today, where many of the same terms that were bandied about 80 years ago are being recycled now. It is unfair and inaccurate to say that the atrocities of the second world war must all be laid at the foot of Buddhism, or any religion for that matter; nor does it do justice to the complexity of modern statism that brought the entire world to the brink of destruction. The Pacific war may not have been a religious war for all parties, but the religious undertones should not be ignored either. Similar to the way that Adolf Hitler, whether Christian or not, used Christian language in his speeches to seize the heart of the public, Japanese nationalists used Buddhism to achieve the same goal. As is the case now across the world with groups like ISIS, beliefs that run as deep as religion does, are all-too-often exploited for political gain.