Nichiren Buddhism in the 20th Century

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

The 20th century would prove to be a difficult time for Nichiren Buddhism.

During the first half of the century Japan would continue to follow the path of imperialism which began in the previous century with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. As a result of that war Japan gained control of Taiwan, Korea, and other territories. The Japanese were victorious again in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, annexed Korea outright in 1910, and created a puppet state in Manchuria in 1932. Japan's ambition to create a Japanese Empire, which they termed the East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, culminated in the war in China which began in 1937 and expanded into a war with the United States and Great Britain after the sneak attack against Pearl Harbor in 1941. During the war, no dissent was tolerated. In fact, in 1937 the Ministry of Education published the Kokutai no Hongi (Cardinal Principles of the Nation) which declared the divinity of the Japanese emperor and the obligation of the Japanese people to sacrifice themselves if need be for the good of the nation. State Shinto was the ideology of Imperial Japan and the Buddhist establishment was given no choice but to support it. In 1943 all temples were ordered to enshrine a talisman from the Ise Shrine as an acknowledgement of the divinity of the emperor. Almost without exception the Buddhist temples complied.

Some Buddhists did not simply comply reluctantly with State Shinto. Rather, some enthusiastically promoted a movement called "Imperial Way Buddhism" (Kodo Bukkyo). Imperial-way Buddhism taught that Japanese Buddhism was superior to all other forms and then identified Buddhism with the state and the state with the emperor. To worship and serve the emperor was the same as worshiping and serving the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Brian Victoria reports that Takasa Nichiko, the administrative head of the Nichiren Shu, and other leading Nichiren Shu clergy formed "The Association for the Practice of Imperial-Way Buddhism" (Kodo Bukkyo Gyodo Kai) in 1938. This association even identified the Gohonzon as the Japanese emperor: "...the principle image of adoration in imperial-way Buddhism is not Buddha Shakyamuni who appeared in India, but his majesty, the emperor..." (pp. 84-85, Zen at War) As will be seen, even before 1938 the idea that there was an intrinsic unity between Buddhism and Imperial Japan were already in circulation, especially among those advocating a return to the more hard line methods of shakubuku in propagating Nichiren Buddhism.

Honda Nissho (1867-1931) was also an advocate of the unity of Buddhism and the state under the emperor and a return to the method of shakubuku against the other schools of Buddhism. He was a priest of the Myomanji-ha but he fell afoul of the administrative head of that lineage and was disrobed in 1892 because he refused to allow for the enshrinement of other deities besides the Omandala. He was reinstated in 1895, however, because he was needed to write a summary of the doctrines of the Myomanji-ha. However, the section addressing Nichiren's critiques of the other schools of Buddhism was edited out of the published version without his permission. His response was to attempt to unify all the Nichiren schools against the other schools. In 1898 the Myomanji-ha became the Kempon Hokke Shu and in 1905 he was appointed its head administrator. In 1922 with the help of Tanaka Chigaku he petitioned the emperor to grant Nichiren a title. The administrative heads of the other Nichiren schools and many prominent lay people, including Tanaka Chigaku, signed the petition. On October 13, 1922, the emperor conferred the title Rissho Daishi upon Nichiren Shonin. 

Tanaka Chigaku (1861-1939) was a controversial reformer and ultranationalist. He was a Nichiren Shu clergyman from age 15 until age 19, but then left because he was disillusioned with the emphasis on shoju over shakubuku as taught by Udana-in Nichiki and his successor Arai Nissatsu. Nissatsu, in fact, headed the Nichiren Great Academy (the precursor to Rissho University) during the time that Tanaka was studying there. He emphasized shakubuku as a compassionate method to break people free of debilitating false views and that people should actively think about and choose which school of Buddhism to follow rather than passively accepting membership in whatever temple one's family happened to belong to under the danka system. He also believed that Buddhism should not only be for funerals and memorials, but that it should be incorporated into the daily life of the family. To this end he created a ceremony for conferring the Lotus Sutra on newborn infants in 1886 and in 1887 he created the first Buddhist wedding ceremony in Japan. At this time there were many controversies over the issue of Buddhist priests marrying, eating meat, and wearing secular clothes which was now being permitted and even encouraged by the Meiji government. Tanaka's view was that the time for monks and nuns was over, and that Buddhist clergy in Japan should view themselves as lay bodhisattvas instead. He saw celibacy and the other rules previously upheld by the clergy as holdovers from Hinayana and provisional Mahayana Buddhism that he saw as world-denying and misogynistic. He did not see married clergy as the degeneration of Buddhism into a family business, but rather an opportunity to keep the temples alive as centers of lay practice. He even advocated that an academy should be set up for the wives of priests so that they could take equal responsibility for the care of the temples and the teachings of Buddhism. Tanaka was convinced that lay Buddhism was the way of the future. In order to create a modernized lay Buddhism, Tanaka founded a series of lay organizations, the most enduring of which was the Kokuchukai (Nation's Pillar Society). He referred to his movement as Nichirenshugi (Nichirenism) and was not just trying to reform the Nichiren Shu but was trying to create a new way of doing Nichiren Buddhism that would go beyond all the previous sects. In many ways, Tanaka Chigaku and his Nichirenist lay Buddhist movement was an inspiration for later groups like the Reiyukai and Rissho Kosei Kai. Even within the Nichiren Shu, though, his reforms and advocacy of shakubuku still have strong adherents.

Tanaka Chigaku was himself very compassionate and idealistic. He believed that the essence of Japan as a nation must be based on the essence of the Lotus Sutra in order for Japan to be true to herself. Unfortunately, as an ardent nationalist, he also came to believe that Japan's essence already manifested the essence of the Lotus Sutra and therefore it was the responsibility of Japan to bring peace to the world even through the use of force. The use of force in such a case would then be equivalent to shakubuku. Tanaka, and other ultranationalists, even misappropriated a passage from the Rissho Ankoku Ron in order to show that the Dharma served the national interests. The passage reads: "...we should first pray for the peace and tranquility of a nation before trying to spread Buddhism." (p.129, Writings of Nichiren Shonin Volume 1) The passage, however, is taken from the words of the guest (who represented the retired regent at the time) whose views are then corrected by the host (who represents Nichiren himself). The Rissho Ankoku Ron actually makes an argument the opposite of that which Tanaka Chigaku and the other ultranationalists were making. It actually argues that the Dharma has a priority over national interests and even security and that the nation can only be secure by serving the true Dharma that is above all egoistic or even national interests. The most unfortunate effect of this misuse of Nichiren's writings is that the impression that Nichiren himself was an ultranationalist still persists among some scholars who have never bothered to check Nichiren's writings for themselves (which are full of critiques of the emperors and military rulers and take a humble though concerned view of Japan as a nation) even long after the end of WWII.

The legacy of Tanaka Chigaku is a complicated one. Many of the reforms he advocated could be viewed as positive but not by all. Senchu Murano, for instance, felt that the secularization of the clergy was destroying Japanese Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism has still not totally escaped the shadow of Tanaka Chigaku's ultranationalist reading of Nichiren and justification of imperialism as a form of shakubuku. On the other hand, he inspired many great and compassionate Nichiren Buddhists, like the poet Kenji Miyazawa. However, one views him, there is no denying that Tanaka Chigaku was one of the key figures of Nichiren Buddhism in the 20th century.

Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) was a famous writer who was greatly inspired by Nichiren Buddhism. His family belonged to the Pure Land school, but in 1915 he was so impressed upon reading the Lotus Sutra that he converted to Nichiren Buddhism. In 1921 he joined Tanaka Chigaku's Kokuchukai and endeavored to spread its teachings. Nichiren Buddhist imagery and ideas appear throughout his writings. In addition to writing and engaging in pious practices such as chanting and transcribing the sutra, Kenji did his best to live the life of a bodhisattva. In 1926 he resigned his position as a high school teacher in order to help poor farmers grow better crops by applying his knowledge of agricultural science. He is best known for his novel Night of the Galactic Railway and his poem "I Will Not Bow to Rain."

Seno Giro (1889-1961) was one of the few Nichiren Buddhists who actively opposed Japanese imperialism. He was a Nichiren Buddhist layman who became the chairman of the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism (Shinkyo Bukkyo Seinen Domei) that was founded on April 5, 1931. The League was composed of social activists who were critical of capitalism, internationalist in outlook, and committed to an inter-sectarian and more rational and practical form of Buddhism that would work for social justice and world peace. Their motto was "carry the Buddha on your backs and go out into the streets." They opposed nationalism, militarism, and imperialism, and even spoke out against Nazi aggression and atrocities. They also gathered signatures and worked to change laws to help poor farmers, outcastes, and other marginalized people in Japanese society. They were the first "engaged Buddhists" in modern Japan. Unfortunately they were expelled in 1933 from the larger All-Japan Federation of Buddhist Youth Organizations because the mainstream schools of Japanese Buddhism did not wish to be associated with their activism. The organization was subject to constant censorship and harassment by the police. Seno Giro himself was arrested many times and even beaten up by prison guards. On December 7, 1936 he was arrested and charged with treason. After five months of relentless interrogations and pressure he confessed to the charges against him, and pledged to support the emperor. Using his "confession" the police cracked down on the League and arrested more than 200 members and prosecuted 29. Seno was sentenced to five years in prison in 1939 but was released due to ill health in 1942. The story of Seno Giro shows that there were some Nichiren Buddhists who could see that the Dharma was not compatible with fascism and who were not afraid to resist. The fate of Seno Giro and the Youth League for Revitalizing Buddhism also shows how powerful the forces of coercion were at that time.

Kakutaro Kubo (1892-1944) founded the Reiyukai Kyodan (Spiritual Friendship Society) in 1919. He had been influenced by the lay practices and traditional values of Tanaka Chigaku's Nichirenism as well as the spiritualist practices of a man named Chise Wakatsuki (1884 - 1971) who helped him found the Reiyukai but who left to form his own group in 1924 which also used the name Reiyukai until 1936. Later Kakutaro’s sister-in-law Kotani Kimi (1901 - 1971) helped him and eventually succeeded him as the leader of Reiyukai after his death. Though Reiyukai recites passages from the Lotus Sutra, chants Odaimoku, and reveres Nichiren Shonin, it upholds no dogma and its practices center around prayer for and gratitude to one's ancestors. Many other groups would form as offshoots of the Reiyukai, including the Rissho Kosei Kai.

Nikkyo Niwano (1906-1999) was a former member of the Reiyukai who formed his own group, the Rissho Kosei Kai, in 1938 with his friend and fellow Reiyukai member Naganuma Myoko (1889 - 1957). They split from the Reiyukai because direct study of the Lotus Sutra was being discouraged within that organization at that time and they both wished to directly study and practice the sutra. The Rissho Kosei Kai also recites passages from the Lotus Sutra and chants the Odaimoku and reveres Nichiren Shonin. It is not, strictly speaking, a Nichiren sect however. It takes a more general Buddhist/Tendai approach to the Lotus Sutra and emphasizes Buddhist based group counseling called hoza. Nikkyo Niwano also emphasized inter-sectarian and even inter-religious dialogue and cooperation and was widely recognized for his efforts in this regard.

Fuji Nichidatsu (1885-1985) was the founder of the Nipponzan Myohoji. He was ordained in the Nichiren Shu at the age of 19 though his family was opposed to it. At 32, after practicing severe asceticism, he began to beat the hand drum and chant Odaimoku as his basic practice in order to fulfill the teachings of Nichiren's Rissho Ankoku Ron and bring peace through the establishment of the Wonderful Dharma. To further his efforts he founded the Nipponzan Myohoji while doing missionary work in China and Manchuria in 1917. In 1931 he traveled to India, determined to fulfill Nichiren's wish that the Dharma should be restored to its country of origin. During that time he met with Mahatma Gandhi. Due to Gandhi's example and the devastation caused by WWII, particularly the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fuji Nichidatsu became determined to bring about world peace by marching all over the world beating the drum and chanting Odaimoku and also through the construction of peace pagodas all over the world beginning in India and Japan.

From the time that Buddhism first arrived in Japan, it had always depended on the patronage of Japan's rulers and was always subject to their control. This changed in 1945 with the defeat of Imperial Japan by the Allies and the beginning of the U.S occupation that would last until 1945. Suddenly, Japanese Buddhism was no longer subject to state control. On May 3, 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution guaranteeing the separation of church and state. For the first time, the many schools of Japanese Buddhism could no longer rely on government patronage or sponsorship, but likewise they were free of government suppression and interference. After 1945, Buddhism would have to find a way to respond to the challenges of consumerism and the Cold War. Imperial Way Buddhism quickly became a thing of the past, and many priests and scholars began to view Buddhism as a universal religion transcending borders and teaching a way of peace. The work of clergy like Fuji Nichidatsu and lay leaders like Nikkyo Niwano are indicative of this new outlook.

The story of Nichiren Buddhism in the 20th century is the story of capitulation to State Shinto and Japanese imperialism in the first half of the century, and the story of the success of the New Religions like Reiyukai, Rissho Kosei Kai, and especially the world wide spread of the Soka Gakkai in the latter half of the century. It is also the story of the halting spread of mainstream Nichiren Buddhism around the world. But these stories are told in other articles. 



Sources for History of Nichiren Buddhism History:

Compilation Committee, A Century of Nichiren Buddhism in Hawaii. Honolulu: Headquarters of Hawaii Nichiren Missions, 2003. 

Jaffe, Richard M. Neither Monk nor Layman: Clerical Marriage in Modern Japanese Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton Universtity Press, 2001. 

Kasahara, Kazuo. A History of Japanese Religion. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 2002.

 Kashiwahara, Yusen & Sonoda, Koyu (eds.). Shapers of Japanese Buddhism. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1994. 

Matsunaga, Alicia & Matsunaga, Daigan. Foundations of Japanese Buddhism Vol. II: The Mass Movement (Kamakura & Muromachi Periods). Los Angeles: Buddhist Books International, 1988.

 Montgomery, Daniel B. Fire in the Lotus. London: Mandala, 1991. 

Murano, Senchu. Manual of Nichiren Buddhism. Tokyo: Nichiren Shu Headquarters, 1995. 

Reeves, Gene (ed.). A Buddhist Kaleidoscope: Essays on the Lotus Sutra. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 2002. 

Stone, Jacqueline I. Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism. Honolulu: Kuroda Institute, 1999. 

Tamura, Yoshiro. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 2000.

 Tanabe, George J. & Tanabe, Willa Jane (eds.). The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998. 

Victoria, Brian. Zen at War. New York: Weatherhill, 1997. 


Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 1999. 2002.

Some articles by Ryuei:
Index of Articles
The Fuji Lineage
Mission to Kyoto
The Kyoto Lineages
Shodaigyo Meditation
The Fuju Fuse Debate
My Letter to Nichiren
The Modern Reformers
Pilgrimage to Mount Minobu
Six Senior Disciples of Nichiren
The Machishu Culture & the Hokke Ikki

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