This volume adds a new chapter to the fascinating literature on Imperial Way Zen and offers still another precious antidote to simplistic views of Buddhism as an inherently peaceful religion. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in Japanese religions and religious ethics in general.
One of the great benefits of this book is bringing back more squarely into view an understanding of Japan’s wartime aggression as a backdrop to understanding modern Japanese Buddhism in today’s time of political correctness . . .and it is important to note that Zen Terror in Prewar Japan is not “Japan bashing.” . . . the book is sure to open new paths for researchers concerning the idea of modern Japanese Buddhism and political violence. I personally found that it reinvigorated my own interest in the topic and provided many important leads to follow, particularly in connection with the role Buddhist philosophy may have played in advice given to the emperor by his inner circle.”
Brian Victoria paints a rich, often moving, psychological and philosophical portrait. Probing deeply into the Buddhist worldview and into the often abstract or even abstruse debates within Buddhist circles, he comes to the shocking conclusion that although ‘no religion is free of having committed terrorist acts or providing the doctrinal/ethical justification for terrorism,’ Buddhism, especially in the Zen form, has a peculiar predisposition for it. Like today’s Islamist cults, it learned to think of assassination as ‘compassionate killing.’ This is a book bound to stir controversy not only in Japan, especially in Buddhist circles, but also in the United States, where Zen Buddhism has attracted many adherents and any association of Zen with terror is unthinkable. — Gavan McCormack, The Australian National UniversityA riveting account of the life and thought of Inoue Nisshō, one of the most infamous—and interesting—ultranationalists in Japan of the 1930s. The first half of the work shows a man who was at once religious and violent, thoughtful and eccentric, a carouser who practiced Zen meditation earnestly—but a man who always was influential. The second half of the book shifts tone as Victoria presents a forceful, provocative analysis of the impact Zen had on Inoue’s leadership of terrorist groups during the early 1930s, as well as of the ongoing relationship between terrorism and religions more generally. Providing a nuanced understanding of the mindset of Japan’s pre–World War II terrorists, this is an important read.— James L. Huffman, Wittenberg University
An excellent contribution to the discussion of religious violence. For those interested in Japanese politics, it gives an extensive background to the turbulent fifty years of Japanese politics to the end of the Second World War. This background illuminates some of the reasons behind the rise of the militaristic Japanese government of the 1930s which led directly to the Pacific War. For those who haven’t read Victoria’s previous two books, this could be a good introduction to the other works of Brian Victoria. Zen Terror in Prewar Japan has an extensive postscript with notes that discuss further the links of violence and religion and details about some of the main players as well as some fascinating photographs that put faces to the names and places.
"For 20 years Brian Daizen Victoria has written about the connections between Buddhism and militarism in Japan. . . . In this concluding volume he . . . uses Inoue's remarkable life story to highlight the key role that Zen Buddhism played in motivated the terrorists in Inoue's band. . . . An outstanding piece of scholarship, engaging and disturbing in equal measure."
Studies like the present one are rare and shed precious light on the complex relations of religion and violence. The anchoring of the discussion in the close study of an individual life amid the political complexities of his time wards off predictable ideology and provides fascinating material for ongoing reflection, as if on a tormenting koan.
Brian Daizen Victoria, a Zen priest and a highly regarded senior research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, has written a penetrating response to a fundamental question: Can Buddhism, universally regarded as a religion of peace that eschews all forms of violence, also allow for acts of violence including terrorism?.... Brian Daizen Victoria has provided his readers with a superb study of Japanese politics and society in the radical years before Pearl Harbor. The reader gets a ring-side seat to observe politics in Japan from the point of view of the minds of the terrorists themselves and the shockingly high degree of support they had in the upper echelons of the military. This book is must reading for anybody interested in Japanese political history in the years before Pearl Harbor.
[H]aving concluded his trilogy, Victoria can now be considered as participating in a long tradition of Buddhist thinkers castigating Buddhism for its degeneracy and aiming, in this way, at a thoroughgoing reform.
In the preface to Zen Terror in Prewar Japan, Brian Daizen Victoria promises to raise a series of complicated questions about religion and terrorism, and he does not disappoint. Victoria explores the more perplexing case of Zen-based domestic terrorism. He defines this as “a tactic employed, typically by the weak, to place pressure on the powerful, especially governments, to do the terrorists’ bidding,” as the weak pursue a social revolution. Within this larger historical context, Victoria explores the thought and deeds of Inoue Nissho, the focus of the book, using the “life-history method.” This approach relies on first-person accounts for the study of the history and culture of a specific era, thus allowing historical actors to speak for themselves. Zen Terror offers a “spiritual history,” not an objective one, as Victoria believes the story must be told this way so that we might understand past terrorists on their own terms. This is imperative given the prevalence of religious-based terrorism today and the need to learn from the past in order to stop similar heinous acts from being committed in the future.
6/10/2021: Author Brian Victoria held a special Zoom presentation for the University of Vienna