The Fog of World War II

Setting the Record Straight on D.T. Suzuki

Nelson Foster and Gary Snyder

In the summer of 1998, Tricycle covered Brian Victoria’s Zen at War, an indictment of the Japanese Zen community’s complicity in Japanese imperialism during the 1930s and 1940s. Among those he harshly criticized was D. T. Suzuki, arguably the most influential figure in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West. Scholar and Shin Buddhist priest Kemmyo Taira Sato, writing for the Eastern Buddhist, a journal founded by Suzuki in 1929, recently offered a belated though well-considered rebuttal to Victoria’s accusations. Here, poet Gary Snyder and Nelson Foster, two of the pioneers of engaged Buddhism in the West, present and comment on Sato’s arguments. Sato’s article is available at

When it came to literal blades, Suzuki reserved his praise for swords wielded to prevent carnage. Sato comments, “Although Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture discusses in an abstract manner the importance of detachment from death for the samurai seeking to gain victory in battle, Suzuki presents no actual examples of samurai utilizing such detachment to slay opponents.” Instead, he cites instances where a samurai was able to foresee developments and respond to circumstances skillfully so that swords did not need to be drawn and lives were not put at risk. Even so, Suzuki seems to have realized that the 1938 chapter was open to interpretations he did not intend, and republishing it in 1959, he added a more explicit statement:

The perfect swordsman avoids quarreling or fighting. Fighting means killing. How can one human being bring himself to kill a fellow being? We are all meant to love one another and not to kill. It is abhorrent that one should be thinking all the time of fighting and coming out victorious. We are moral beings, we are not to lower ourselves to the status of animality. What is the use of becoming a fine swordsman if he loses his human dignity? The best thing is to be a victor without fighting.

Victoria might argue that this postwar clarification reflects a change of heart, but the fact that it appeared in the same edition of the book as the passage he does quote (and distort) makes it clear how selective he has been in his use of evidence. He compounds his case from material that must be edited and interpreted to suit his purposes, while leaving the reader ignorant of accompanying material that expressly states Suzuki’s own opinions.

Francis HaarHowever Victoria has misrepresented Suzuki’s thought, it is surely appropriate for him and for all of us to inquire, as Sato phrases it, “Why, at this of all times, would Suzuki have started writing on the subject of bushido?” By 1938, Japanese forces occupied not only Korea but large parts of China as well, and Sato conjectures that Suzuki felt compelled under these circumstances to wrestle with the perennial question of when and how, if ever, arms ought to be taken up, particularly by a Buddhist nation. That would help explain the obtuse rhetoric that clouds his exposition of bushido: he was working out these thorny issues in a sort of code, with reference to medieval precedents.

As the descendant of a samurai family and son of an army doctor, Suzuki may also have felt compelled to reflect on, and explain to his English-language following, why tiny, only recently modernized Japan had repeatedly defeated much larger, better-endowed neighbors. Perhaps he even thought it advisable to sound a note of warning. In any case, as he turned to the issue of bushido, his thinking and writing were complicated by the great pride in his people that made him a firm believer in Japanese exceptionality. Clearly playing a part, too, was his conviction that Japan’s prowess in almost any field of endeavor should rightly be attributed, at least in part, to Zen.

As Suzuki made apparent in a postwar lecture at Yale— where he might easily have ducked—he would not back down on the importance of Zen even to a notorious war criminal, much less to his samurai forebears. Philip Kapleau, who had met Suzuki while serving as court reporter at the International Military Tribunal in Tokyo, witnessed his encounter with an angry member of the Yale audience:

“Isn’t it true,” [the questioner] asked, “that warlords like General Tojo meditated in the Zen monasteries of Japan?”

“Yes.” The answer came slowly and softly.

“How compassionate a religion is Zen Buddhism when it allows warlords of his ilk into its temples?”

Dr. Suzuki paused for what seemed like an eternity as the tension mounted among the audience. The silence was thundering. The answer came slowly:

“Don’t you think that a soldier, who has to face death many times, needs the solace of religion even more than a civilian?”

Such sympathies lend Victoria ammunition for his campaign to represent Suzuki as a vital contributor to the development of his country’s martial ethos, but it simply was not so. Sato places the bushido issue in proper historical perspective: “The militarists hardly needed Suzuki to formulate a bushido ideology for them. Bushido was already central to Japanese military culture from at least the Tokugawa period (1600- 1868)” and from that time onward was “thoroughly familiar to the modern Japanese army officer corps.” In actuality, if there was anything innovative in Suzuki’s understanding of bushido, it was his reversal of the army’s dogma, presenting bushido as a peacemaking, potentially liberating and liberative path.

Victoria’s depiction of Suzuki as a war booster falls apart completely before the evidence that Sato painstakingly sets forth. Sato points out, for instance, that the 1941 bushido essay “contains no mention of the ongoing war in Asia, nor any suggestion that Suzuki supported it,” though it was “a perfect venue for voicing such support,” especially if its author had intentionally “joined hands” with military enthusiasts to publish it. Such an affirmation of the war would have aligned Suzuki with nationwide public opinion and the Buddhist establishment, yet he refrained. Why? Sato answers, and cogently demonstrates, that Suzuki was keenly and consistently critical of the war and simply felt obliged to mute his criticism for fear of personal reprisal.

Sato offers many examples of what Suzuki said when he felt at liberty to express himself openly. For example, in a February 1942 letter to his boyhood friend, the noted philosopher Nishida Kitaro—”just a few months after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and Singapore”—Suzuki included a series of his tanka, traditional Japanese poems. Slightly longer than haiku, consisting of 31 syllables instead of haiku’s 17, these little poems were not only antiwar but highly critical of the very idea of the nation-state:

There is a someone who acts with absolute power
   but takes no responsibility [for his actions].
      His name is the state.

You who behave as a demon
   under the name of the state—
      I despise you.

You, the demon who lives through power, will, and blood!
   Who is it that questions your responsibility?
      (How sad it is that there is none who does so.)


      Don’t dance on Singapore Island!
      Destruction is easy, but creation takes much time!

(“Dance” here refers to the demonic, trampling dance of destruction—in this case, bombing.)

Sato points out that Suzuki had been challenging rightwing ideology of the Japanese state since at least 1898, when he wrote in a magazine article, “Let us stop pretending that the Japanese are a great people merely because its imperial family has continued unbroken for the past 2,500 years.” This statement is all the more dramatic because, well into the twentieth century, Japan was among the few countries in which archaeology was highly politicized. Sato’s account of Suzuki’s life places him in the rational and cosmopolitan vanguard of his nation’s thinkers from his youth on.

On those rare occasions during the war when Suzuki chose to express his views publicly, he did so somewhat obliquely, which gave him political cover at the time but also gives Victoria latitude to quote his statements against him. In Zen at War, Victoria writes,

In fact, [Suzuki] was quite enthusiastic about Japanese military activities in Asia. In an article addressed specifically to young Japanese Buddhists written in 1943 he stated: “Although it is called the Greater East Asia War, its essence is that of an ideological struggle for the culture of East Asia. Buddhists must join in this struggle and accomplish their essential mission.”

Hawkish as that sentence may sound out of context, in fact it was the prelude to an antiwar statement that was quite daring under the repressive conditions of wartime Japan. Sato’s translation of the next lines of the article show Suzuki to be, in contrast to Victoria’s claims, distinctly unenthusiastic about Japan’s military activities in Asia, indeed to be promoting harmony with its supposed enemy:

In the area of culture and ideology, though one may speak of “struggle,” “conflict,” or “rivalry,” what is involved is not throwing your opponent to the ground and pinning him so that he cannot move. This is especially true when the opponent is not necessarily your inferior intellectually, materially, historically, and otherwise. In such cases not only is it impossible to destroy him, but for precisely that reason it should be accepted. And those on the other side need to accept our culture as well. It is important to arouse the frame of mind that seeks to accomplish this. That, truly, is the role with which Buddhism is charged, for it is Buddhist thought that functions at the center of the Eastern way of thinking.

Once again, it is striking how profoundly Victoria’s account of Suzuki departs from the man’s own presentation of his ideas. Victoria has managed to get Suzuki’s positions on bushido and militarism essentially backward, and it is hard to see how such a result could flow from simple errors of research. The elaborate construction of Victoria’s argument and his exclusion of readily available, powerfully contravening evidence suggest a purposeful assault on Suzuki’s reputation. Scarcely a page into his foreword for Zen at War, Victoria tells us that the “oft-pictured gentle and sagacious appearance of his later years” belies the true Suzuki, and he repeats this things-are-not-what-they-seem flourish when introducing Suzuki in Zen War Stories. It seems a peculiar gesture for a scholar-priest to make.

Ultimately, though he does not put it so flatly himself, Victoria’s chief complaint seems to be that Suzuki did not take an overt stand either against Japan’s aggression in Asia and the Pacific or for pacifism as the sole, legitimate stance a Buddhist can take on warfare itself. According to Sato, from 1898 onward the position Suzuki did publicly and faithfully advocate was that military force should be confined to defensive ends. The “correctness” of this position is open to debate, of course.

What is not debatable is that in wartime Japan it would have been very dangerous to promote such views. After Soto Zen master Kondo Genko denounced the war in 1937, he received a warning from the police and eventually resigned his abbotship, returned to his home prefecture, Akita, and disappeared. But to pay tribute to Kondo Roshi and the brave or reckless few who likewise spoke forthrightly against Japanese policy (Victoria’s favorite example is the earlier radical activist and Soto master Uchiyama Gudo), there is no need to trash those like Suzuki who made different, yet still honorable choices.

Senior priests and eminent laypeople of all sects, including the one that seems the mildest and gentlest of all—Jodo-shinshu, Shinran’s Pure Land School—did actively aid and abet the so-called “Imperial Way” and its campaign of armed conquest. There is indeed a “fog of war” to which everyone, probably, is in some degree subject. Brian Victoria has been a dispeller but also a latter-day victim of that fog, it seems to us. We are very grateful to Kemmyo Sato and his translator, Thomas Kirchner, for having made this clear, and we urge everyone to examine the complete record for themselves.

Gary Snyder, well known as an essayist and poet, studied orthodox Rinzai Zen at Daitoku-ji with Oda Sesso Roshi during a ten-year residence in Kyoto. Nelson Foster teaches in the Diamond Sangha lineage, both at Ring of Bone Zendo in California and for East Rock Sangha in New England. The two are long-time friends and neighbors in the northern Sierra Nevada.

To read Kemmyo Taira Sato’s full article from The Eastern Buddhist visit Read John Baran's review of Brian Victoria’s Zen at War from Tricycle's Summer 1998 issue here. To read a related article about Yasutani Roshi from Tricycle's Fall 1999 issue visit "The Hardest Koan."

Image 1: D. T. Suzuki in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1958. Photographs by Francis Haar

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