The following interview is an online-exclusive for the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind

Zen and War: A Dialogue with Kenji Muro

Following the recent U.S. release of the 2009 documentary Zen and War, Japanese writer, translator and peace activist Kenji Muro accepted Inquiring Mind’s invitation to share his insights into the film as well as the culture and mindset of the Japanese Zen community leading up to and during World War II. While he has lived in Oakland, California since 1985, Muro possesses a unique perspective on the film, owing in large part to his youth spent growing up in Japan in the wake of the war years and his long-standing association with Zen Buddhism.

The inspiration for the film was the book Zen at War, written by Muro’s friend Brian Daizen Victoria and first published in 1998. Muro and Victoria have long shared a common bond via their peace activism. Inquiring Mind Book Reviews editor James Schnebly interviewed Muro by phone in early 2014.

Inquiring Mind: In the film Zen and War, Zen monks join in the war effort, actually helping to fuel the Japanese war machine during World War II. What is it about Japanese culture that allowed—even encouraged—supposedly devout Buddhists to behave in such a way? 

Kenji Muro: Around the sixth century, the Japanese Emperor used Buddhism to consolidate the nation and control the people. Japan became a group-oriented society, a phenomenon that can have its beautiful aspects. But when Buddhism was combined with such a strong group orientation, the result was a people that became very passive about social issues. Today Japanese people call Zen and other forms of Buddhism “funeral Buddhism,” what people turn to when they are going to die or when someone they know dies. This is the way Buddhism in Japan funds itself, through the funeral and cemetery business. Other aspects of life, such as birth and marriage, are taken care of by Shinto priests.

The five monks in the film talk about the passive path, about how Japanese Buddhism is socially very passive—especially on the part of the monks. The monks could not change the social structure; that was just the way they behaved during the war in China and World War II. The truth is that this group mentality contributed greatly to the war, and as a result no one takes responsibility for it. And the Japanese people didn’t do anything to stop the war. Do you understand? The nation came first, before individuals. What could monks and individuals do?

IM: The film shows interviews with a number of elder Japanese Zen monks. The filmmakers also specifically discuss the wartime collaborations of a number of well-known Zen teachers such as Harada Daiun Sogaku, Shaku Soen, Yasutani Haku’un, and Sawaki Kodo, all of whom “went above and beyond the call of duty in enthusiastically supporting the war,” in the words of Thomas Kirchner, an American Zen priest and scholar who has lived, trained and done research in Japan for decades. Do you think the film goes far enough, in terms of taking these monks to task for supporting the Japanese war effort during the 1930s and 1940s?

KM: No. It shows the passivity I’m talking about that is unique to Japan. The Buddhism that was practiced in Japan is not like that of Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama. The old monks in the film say they were very sorry after the war was over, but since the nation came first, they could apologize without really feeling any responsibility for the war or their part in it.

While I was watching the film, I had a sharp pain in my stomach. The reality is not what the Zen monks in the film express. They participated in and supported the war. During the war, a Buddhist word that was often used is “kichiku.” The Japanese character ki means “demon” or “devil” and the character chiku means “beast” or “animal”. Bei-ei means an American or English person. They used the phrase kichiku bei-ei, which means, “Kill the American devil or the English demon; they are not human, they are beasts!” Here the monks were, using a Buddhist term in the worst way! Where was compassion?

IM: Do you know any of these monks personally, or know anyone who has studied with them?

KM: No. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t trust some of the monks in the movie and their words. I think they tried to justify the Zen monk’s role in the war. After the war, my father thought of himself as a Buddhist but he couldn’t have any relationship with Japanese Buddhism and Buddhist monks. He thought that the Japanese monks were war criminals. When the war started in China in the 1930s, all the Buddhist groups did nothing, except for one small sect, Shinko Bukkyo Seinen Domei. They demonstrated against the war and were arrested and tortured for not supporting the war effort.

If you go to Japan today, there are many books on Buddhism in bookstores—and hardly any Buddhist books against the war. One of the most important books was Ichikawa Hakugen’s Buddhists’ Responsibility for the War, and it is out of print. Today, my friend Brian Victoria’s book, Zen at War (the 1998 book that inspired the film), is also out of print in Japanese (the English version is still in print). I met Brian in Japan toward the end of the 1960s, when he was studying Zen, and we joined the anti-Vietnamese War demonstrations in Tokyo. As an American Zen student with a shaved head, Brian was wearing the black robes of a Japanese Zen monk participating in an antiwar demonstration—it was a pretty outrageous thing to do!

IM: What were the influences that marked your interest in the antiwar movement?

KM: Around the same time I met Brian, I met Thich Nhat Hanh. He came to Tokyo from France to promote the antiwar effort to stop the conflict in Vietnam. He had a huge influence on me. He brought the Buddhist notions of inner peace and outer peace together. He said that without inner peace, outer world peace couldn’t exist. Because I was coming from the Japanese Buddhist tradition, this was a very radical idea. Radically different from the Japanese monks who said, “have inner peace and go kill the American and English beasts.”

Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “engaged Buddhism,” but I don’t like that term so much. All Buddhism should be engaged. Buddha tried to stop wars when he was alive. Nagarjuna, who is called the father of Mahayana Buddhism, worked with a king of his era (believed to be Yajna Sri Satakarni) for the good of the people; and King Asoka tried to build a nation based on kindness, compassion and nonviolence. I think Japanese Buddhism can learn a lot from that kind of Buddhism, and from the way Buddhist thought and practices are entering mainstream America, especially through the secular and scientific stream of mindfulness meditation.

This is a very good film for understanding Japanese Zen and Japanese Buddhism, but in the end the Japanese monks didn’t answer the questions of this Zen practitioner regarding how they [the Zen masters and monks] could have behaved as dreadfully as they did during the war.

The hour-long documentary Zen and War was directed by Alexander Oey and produced by the Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation of the Netherlands in 2009. It is narrated in Dutch, English and Japanese, with English subtitles. The film is available on DVD through The Clear View Project:  

© 2014 Inquiring Mind