Nichidatsu Fujii: A Buddhist Pacifist?

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on Nichidatsu Fujii.

By Shatrunjay Mall.

Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985) was a Japanese Buddhist monk and peace activist who founded the Buddhist order Nipponzan Myōhōji in 1918.[1] Nipponzan Myōhōji is a small lay and monastic order of about 1500 people that continues to be active to the present day, and scholars consider it to be one among Japan’s many new religious movements, albeit much smaller in terms of its size and scale than other groups in this category.[2] Fujii died some months before his hundredth birthday, and his lifespan encompassed Japan’s historical transformation over a century from a burgeoning modern colonial empire to a fascist state, and then to a post-war democratic polity. Fujii and his Buddhist order gained renown after World War II for their involvement in peace activism and non-violent civil resistance. An especially well-known activity of Fujii and Nipponzan Myōhōji’s was the construction of “peace pagodas” across the world. By the time of Fujii’s death in 1985, there were over seventy such peace pagodas across Asia, Europe and North America constructed by this order.[3] Nipponzan Myōhōji emerged from Nichiren-shū, a major Japanese Buddhist denomination, and as a Nichiren Buddhist group, they are recognizable for chanting Namu Myoho Renge Kyo – the title of the Lotus Sutra – as their central religious practice. Monks of Nipponzan Myōhōji are also a reliable presence in peace marches and anti-war protests in Japan and beyond, and they often engage in their distinct practice of beating the drum and chanting the Nichiren Buddhist prayer in these protest marches.[4] Nipponzan Myōhōji’s participation in these peace protests is fueled by their opposition to nuclear weapons and to U.S militarism in Japan and Asia.[5] Indeed, based on their post-war activities, Fujii and the Nipponzan Myōhōji may appear to be the poster child for Buddhist pacifism and non-violence. There is no denying the commitment of the contemporary Nipponzan Myōhōji to non-violence. Indeed, scholars have noted that the absolute and uncompromised non-violence advocated by Fujii and Nipponzan Myōhōji – even to the point of abnegating self-defense – places them in contrast to other pacifist Buddhist groups which are more pragmatic and flexible in their pacifism.[6]

A picture of Nichidatsu Fujii pressing his palms together in a prayer-like gesture
Nichidatsu Fujii (1885-1985)[7]

However, the story of Nichidatsu Fujii’s ideological evolution over his lifetime reveals a far more complex story in terms of his pacifist views. For much of his life, Fujii negotiated with and even accepted Japanese imperial ideology. Although Fujii was inclined towards ascetic Buddhist practices and had long engaged with Gandhian ideology, even meeting the “Mahatma” during his travels through India in the 1930s, it is especially noteworthy that he was not a fully committed advocate of non-violence in his early life. Fujii was a supporter of Japan’s empire and sympathized with its claims of fighting for Asian liberation from Euro-American colonial powers.[8] Further, Fujii claimed to have evolved into his stance of absolute non-violence only with the end of World War II, after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which marked the dawn of the nuclear age.[9]
Born to a peasant family in Kyushu in 1885, just as Japan began modernizing, Fujii was attracted to Buddhist and monastic life from an early age.[10] He defied parental expectations of becoming a teacher or civil servant to become a Buddhist monk.[11] Japan’s Meiji government had cracked down on the power of Buddhist institutions in the early years following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and by the time that Fujii was born and growing up, a life of Buddhist monasticism was considered unfashionable in Japan.[12] Fujii notes in his autobiography that this was a time when the Japanese state and bureaucracy was reluctant to even grant permission for the construction of new temples and monasteries.[13] Thus, it is no surprise that Fujii’s parents and his local community were initially unsupportive of his desire to pursue a Buddhist monastic life although they eventually came to accept it.
After pursuing a Buddhist education in Nichiren-shū, Fujii became an itinerant street preacher in Japan, as well as abroad.[14] In 1917, he traveled to Korea and subsequently to Manchuria and China, which at the time had a substantial Japanese presence as Japan pursued its imperial goals in continental Asia. It was during this time in China that Fujii officially inaugurated the Nipponzan Myōhōji order in Liaoyang with the support of local Japanese in the area.[15] The 1923 Kantō earthquake led Fujii to return to Japan where he established some of the first centers of his fledgling group. Subsequently, Fujii even had plans to preach the Lotus Sutra and Nichiren Buddhism in America, but his elderly mother’s declining health prevented this plan from gaining fruition.[16] Instead, in the 1930s, Fujii traveled to India where he met the Mahatma, the great apostle of non-violence himself.
In his autobiography, Fujii notes that he traveled to India for two reasons – to preach Nichiren Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra in the country that was the source of the Buddhist tradition, as well as his interest in and attraction to the country’s burgeoning non-violent anti-colonial movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.[17] As a Japanese street preacher on the streets of Bombay and Calcutta, Fujii stood out and grabbed attention as he chanted the daimoku (the Japanese title of the Lotus Sutra, Namu Myoho Renge Kyo) and beat his drum.[18] Eventually, word about Fujii reached Gandhi, and his wife Kasturba even came to Bombay to see this unique Japanese street preacher.[19] Subsequently, Fujii traveled to Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha in central India, where he lived for a month and had two interviews with the revered Mahatma.
Fujii’s interest in and support for Indian anti-colonialism coincides somewhat uneasily with his sympathy for Japanese imperialism. Traveling in Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) in 1933, Fujii received the Buddha’s ashes from a Ceylonese Buddhist monk.[20] Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Fujii headed back to Japan, and gifted these ashes of the Buddha to leaders of the Japanese army and navy.[21] In Fujii’s naïve view, having Japanese military leaders as the sponsors for stupas containing the Buddha’s ashes would sow the seeds of peace between China and Japan. Nipponzan Myōhōji was active in Japanese-occupied China and Manchuria throughout the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).[23]

Black and white image of three men
Nichidatsu Fujii offering Buddhist relics to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, 1938.[24]

Japan’s devastating defeat in World War II was an inflection point for Fujii and Nipponzan Myōhōji. Japan transformed, under American tutelage following the end of the war, into a pacifist and democratic “post-fascist” society. Fujii and Nipponzan Myōhōji became part of post-war Japan’s peace movement. For Fujii, Buddhism would be central to the establishment of a peaceful culture in post-war Japan, and thus he and his order focused on setting up stupas across Japan as centers of worship and reverence for Buddhism.[25] It was also during the post-war period that Fujii and Nipponzan Myōhōji became involved in anti-war and anti-nuclear struggles.[26] Nipponzan Myōhōji were notable participants in the struggle in the 1950s against the expansion of the U.S. military base in Sunagawa in Tokyo.[27] Till the end of his life, Fujii was an advocate for peace and nuclear disarmament.[28] To the present day, even decades after Fujii’s death, Nipponzan Myōhōji have participated in numerous civil protests and organized several peace walks in Japan and around the world.[29] Nipponzan Myōhōji have been involved in numerous protest movements within Japan including anti-nuclear protests following the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster that struck northeastern Japan in 2011, anti-war protests in Okinawa, and the anti-security legislation protests of 2015. Nipponzan Myōhōji’s international peace activism includes peace walks in the United States and Central America, advocacy for the rights of indigenous peoples in the Americas, a peace walk from Auschwitz to Hiroshima to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995, as well as collaborations and peace work in Cambodia and Sri Lanka.[30]
Most mainstream Buddhist monks and institutions were supporters of Japan’s war effort and imperial policy, and Fujii’s ties to the Japanese military during the Sino-Japanese War were not exceptional. Indeed, despite hagiographies that emphasize his anti-militarist stance, Fujii’s support for Japanese imperialism could be said to overshadow his later peace activism. However, Fujii’s post-war career and Nipponzan Myōhōji’s activities over the last several decades have firmly established them as part of Japan’s peace movement. Individuals as well as institutions are never static, but their ideas and worldviews evolve, shaped by the circumstances that they find themselves in. Taking that perspective, we can perhaps describe Nichidatsu Fujii as a qualified pacifist who eventually settled on an absolute pacifist worldview after various twists and turns over his lifetime.

[1] Ha Poong Kim, “Fujii Nichidatsu’s Tangyō-Raihai: Bodhisattva-practice for the Nuclear Age,” CrossCurrents 36, no. 2 (Summer 1986): 194.

[2] Jacqueline I. Stone, “Nichiren’s Activist Heirs: Sōka Gakkai, Risshō Kōseikai, Nipponzan Myōhōji,” in Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism, ed. Christopher Queen, Charles Prebish and Damien Keown (London: Routledge Curzon, 2003), 77.

[3] Ha Poong Kim, “Fujii Nichidatsu’s Tangyō-Raihai,” 193.

[4] Jacqueline I. Stone, “Nichiren’s Activist Heirs,” 77.

[5] Ibid., 77-78.

[6] Ibid., 79.

[7]Cabbie’s Curios: Battersea Peace Pagoda,” View from the Mirror, July 23, 2012, accessed on August 12, 2022.

[8] Jacqueline I. Stone, “Nichiren’s Activist Heirs,” 79.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nichidatsu Fujii, My Non-Violence: An Autobiography of a Japanese Buddhist, trans. T. Yamaori (Tokyo: Japan Buddha Sangha Press, 1975), 3.

[11] Ibid., 7-8.

[12] Ibid., 6-7.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Ibid., 36-44.

[15] Ha Poong Kim, “Fujii Nichidatsu’s Tangyō-Raihai,” 194.

[16] Nichidatsu Fujii, My Non-Violence, 62-63.

[17] Ibid., 65-66.

[18] Ibid., 69-71.

[19] Ibid., 71-72.

[20] Ibid., 83-85.

[21] Ibid., 86-87.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 87-88.

[24] Clinton Godart, Twitter post, July 7, 2022, 5:04 pm.

[25] Nichidatsu Fujii, My Non-Violence, 91.

[26] Ibid., 118.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Andrew Cooper, “Recalling Nichidatsu Fujii,” Tricycle, Winter 2008.

[29] Jeff Wilson, “In the Heart of the Smokies,” Tricycle, Winter 2002.

[30] Jonathan Watts, “Which Way to Peace? Part I: The Role of Japanese Buddhism in Anti-Nuclear Civil Protest,” Japan Network of Engaged Buddhists, accessed on August 12, 2022.