Grace on Victoria, 'Zen Terror in Prewar Japan: Portrait of an Assassin'

Brian Daizen Victoria
Stefan Grace

Brian Daizen Victoria. Zen Terror in Prewar Japan: Portrait of an Assassin. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020. 392 pp. $34.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5381-3166-4

Reviewed by Stefan Grace (Assistant Editor, Digital Dictionary of Buddhism) Published on H-Buddhism (September, 2020) Commissioned by Erez Joskovich (Department of Philosophy Ben-Gurion University of the Negev)

Printable Version:

Zen Terror in Prewar Japan centers around a biography of Inoue Nisshō (1886–1967), infamous prewar political agitator and ringleader of a band of murderous activists, told principally through Inoue’s own words. The author, Brian Daizen Victoria, deftly handles Inoue’s autobiography so that the line between his self-aggrandizing and the additional historical background provided is always clear to the reader. As is obvious from the title of Victoria’s book, the two most important hypotheses are that: (1) Inoue’s actions make it appropriate to define him as a “terrorist” and (2) though commonly described as a “Nichiren sect priest,” Inoue is best understood as being an adherent of Japanese Zen Buddhism.

To prove his hypotheses, outside of the eleven chapters on Inoue and general history, Victoria gives roughly equal space to discussing (1) the concept of terrorism and how it applies to Inoue (see esp. chapter 13) and (2) Mahāyāna and Zen Buddhist philosophy and how their ethics—or rather the lack thereof—allow them to be used as an ideological weapon in the hands of terrorists such as Inoue (see esp. chapter 14). While the proofs provided are convincing on the whole, it might be argued, as I will do more fully below, that a slight modification of the hypotheses to focus more on prewar nonsectarian Japanese Buddhism (avoiding the complicated issue of defining “sectarian affiliation” in prewar Japan) and dealing with the concept of fascist violence more generally might have brought a more fruitful result.

In this final book of Victoria’s trilogy on the relationship between twentieth-century Zen Buddhism and Japanese expansionism and militarism, the author ties up and refines many of the arguments from the earlier two books, Zen at War and Zen War Stories.[1] Accordingly, Victoria introduces an abundance of fascinating historical and philosophical side notes throughout, meaning that every chapter provides so much more than its title would suggest. Below, however, I will attempt to summarize its contents as briefly as possible.

After a foreword by James Mark Shields of Bucknell University, the preface discusses the reaction, both positive and negative, to the first two, highly influential books of this trilogy. On the negative side, Victoria notes that readers “charged, for example, that my translations of [D. T.] Suzuki’s [1870–1966] war-related writings, or those of well-known Zen masters, were taken out of context or exaggerated, or simply mistranslated,” while, on the positive side, Robert Aitken wrote, “Victoria exposes the incredible intellectual dishonesty of Japanese Buddhists who perverted their religion into a jingoistic doctrine of support for the emperor and imperial expansion during the period 1868–1945. Good job! We must face this dark side of our heritage squarely” (p. xvi).

In the first chapter Victoria defines and briefly discusses the concept of terrorism. Among several possible definitions, he chooses to employ the following as a lens through which to discuss the actions and statements of Inoue: “a tactic employed, typically by the weak, to place pressure on the powerful, especially governments, to do the terrorists’ bidding” (p. 2). Victoria claims that the “ultimate goal” of the book is “to take readers inside the mind, inside the very ‘skin,’ of one terrorist leader, a leader who, together with his followers, felt he had found in his Zen training the basis and justification for acts of terrorism” (p. 8). In my opinion, it would have been helpful for readers conversant in Japanese to have seen a discussion here of the source words that were translated into English as “terrorism” (and its variants).[2]

In order to “get into the skin” of the terrorist Inoue, after some historical background in chapter 2, the subsequent chapters recount his life as told through his own words in sources such as the transcripts of his extensive 1933–34 courtroom testimony following the Blood Oath Corps Incident of 1932 and his own 419-page self-aggrandizing autobiography, published in 1953 under the title Ichinin, Issatsu (lit. One Person Kills One [Person]). Victoria’s reasoning for allowing Inoue to tell his own story is inspired by the work of Norman Cohn, from which Victoria draws the conclusion that the only way to “truly understand the ‘subterranean world’ Inoue and his band members inhabited” is by entering that world and “walking in their footsteps” (p. 4). Victoria cautions, however, that entering Inoue’s world is not a positive acknowledgment of the repugnant thoughts of terrorists (p. 4) or of the actions of Inoue that “changed, with tragic consequences, the course of modern Japanese history” (p. 5).

Chapter 13 mainly tackles the issue of terrorism and Inoue’s relationship with it. However, subsections “Toward a Theoretical Understanding,” “An Alternative Possibility,” and “Who Benefits?” present alternative models, outside the lens of terrorism, for understanding Inoue’s actions and the phenomenon of ideological assassinations in general. One of the suggestions points to the early-postwar work of political scientist Maruyama Masao, who makes use of the idea of “fascism from above and fascism from below” to place the actions of figures such as Inoue on the lowest rung in a hierarchy of “Shrine,” “Official,” and “Outlaw” fascism. Another method presented here for understanding Inoue’s actions is by way of “a question that is key to legal and police investigations: ‘Cui bono?’” (p. 184). Here, Victoria raises the question of whether powerful and influential men, such as Tōyama Mitsuru, may have been the “voice of Heaven” who directed Inoue’s “actions at pivotal moments in his life” (p. 185), conceivably with Emperor Hirohito pulling the strings behind the scenes and using Inoue as a hitman.

As Victoria indicates in the acknowledgments at the opening of his book, Herbert Bix, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (2000), was an important influence in making it clear to Victoria that “Emperor Hirohito’s wartime role was far more important than his popular image as a powerless puppet of Japan’s military leaders” (p. ix). It is clear that Bix’s work, in combination with the important questions Victoria raises, provides grounds for renewed analyses of the prewar period in Japan. Through the suggestion of these alternate models, Victoria opens the path for interesting future research that further explores the wider, multifaceted concept of fascism in prewar Japan and the role of the emperor in political violence.

Chapter 14, “Unraveling the Religious Matrix,” explores Victoria’s second main hypothesis, namely that it is most appropriate to understand Inoue’s spiritual beliefs as being reflective of affiliation with Zen. The chapter discusses the characteristics of the Nichiren sect, to which Inoue is commonly ascribed affiliation, and through an analysis of its history, argues that Inoue should not be considered an adherent of such for two main reasons: (1) while Inoue showed deep interest in both Zen and the writings of Shinran (who is primarily followed by the True Pure Land sect), the Nichiren sect “demanded every other sect of Buddhism in Japan be destroyed as jakyō (false teachings)” (p. 200) and (2) “Nichirenism had its own unique political program” (p. 201), which meant that Inoue would have to abandon his complete faith in the emperor, with the latter taking second place to the authority of the Nichiren sect leaders.

This chapter also discusses the famous story of the Buddha “compassionately” murdering a robber, as told in the Upāyakauśalya Sūtra (The Skill in Means Sutra), to highlight the fact that sophistry has been used in both the Therāvada and Mahāyāna traditions since ancient times to justify acts of violence (see esp. p. 206). Although Victoria claims that a longer analysis of Buddhist ethics is outside the scope of the present work (p. 220), as a reader I was left wanting more on this topic and would have liked to see Victoria’s take on a few of the many Zen kōan that explicitly deal with themes of violence, iconoclasm, or antinomianism such as “Nanquan Kills a Cat” (Biyanlu, Case 63), on which Inoue is known to have lectured (p. 113). Although the chapter indirectly discusses the antinomianism that has long been read into the ethical worldview of Chan/Seon/Zen, Victoria strangely never mentions this term, perhaps in order to make the ideas more understandable for a wider audience. In any case, it would have been useful to hear his take on the validity of applying this term, particularly in the context of arguments such as that made in D. T. Suzuki’s Nihonteki reisei (Japanese Spirituality; 1944) regarding Christian antinomianism and the rejection of the possibility of such in Japanese Zen.[3]

In chapter 15, Victoria provides a conclusion to his trilogy of works on Japanese Zen and violence, stating that “Zen, at least in its Japanese form, is essentially ‘ethics-less’” (p. 221). This is apparently due to the fact that Zen monks promoted the teachings of Confucianism “in order to provide a religious sanction for the existing social order,” which meant a “reciprocal relationship of justice between superiors, who ought to be benevolent, and subordinates, who are required to be loyal to their superiors” (p. 222). This reciprocity later becomes a one-way relationship, with citizens having an unconditional filial obligation to obey the emperor, and this obligation was reinforced by prominent Zen figures—leading Victoria to opine that this “ethics of unquestioning loyalty unto death” was “the very antithesis of Buddhist ethics.” Personally, however, I find this opinion questionable. That is to say, considering the previous chapter on Buddhist ethics throughout history and the ensuing discussion in chapter 15 on Buddhist justifications for violence, it seems a “No true Scotsman” fallacy to argue that Zen philosophy, in particular, is the antithesis of Buddhist ethics. In Victoria’s own words, “As much as Buddhists, East and West, may seek to deny it, Buddhism has a long history of justifying killing, one way or the other” (p. 230). The remainder of the book is composed of an epilogue that contextualizes the issue of terrorism in our own times, with reference to events in the United States and other countries, and a set of three appendices that provide important and interesting historical background to the events outlined in the main body.

The overarching hypothesis of this book, and the trilogy as a whole—namely that Zen lent fertile intellectual ground to Japanese expansionism and militarism—is convincingly argued. However, as an important part of the significance of this particular work lies in the possible implications of high-ranking figures’ involvement in political violence, it may be argued that the term “terrorist” conversely obfuscates the point. On the one hand, Victoria bases his labeling on the fact that terrorism is “a tactic employed, typically by the weak, to place pressure on the powerful, especially governments, to do the terrorists’ bidding.” On the other hand, however, the fifty-odd pages of appendices and other content throughout the main body seem very much designed to insinuate that Inoue was well connected to highly influential men who may have been controlling his actions for their own gain. What is more, the insinuation is made (particularly in the section on Tōyama Mitsuru, pp. 293–95) that Emperor Hirohito may have supported—or even directed—Inoue’s terrorist acts. Surely Hirohito was the polar opposite of “weak.” And, while Inoue is on record referring to himself as a terrorist (as noted above), why should we take him at his word when there is evidence to suggest misdirection may have benefited him?

When we turn to the issue of Inoue’s status as an adherent of the Zen sect, it is important to note that Victoria’s model for defining what counts as a “Zen Buddhist” in this book appears to be mainly based on the writings of D. T. Suzuki (see esp. p. xvi). However, as Richard Jaffe has pointed out, Suzuki’s flavor of intellectualized Buddhism becomes more coherent when understood as a combination of various religious and philosophical thought traditions of both “East” and “West.”[4] I believe that an important clue to understanding Suzuki can be found in Judith Snodgrass’s suggestion that his understanding of Buddhism took on a variety of different names over his long lifetime—with him first promoting it as “Mahāyāna Buddhism,” then “Eastern Buddhism,” and then “Zen”—but that the content remained essentially the same throughout.[5] That is to say, “Zen,” in this case, refers less to the temple-based sect as traditionally conceived, and more to the idiosyncratic lay spirituality embraced by Suzuki and other contemporaneous intellectuals such as Inoue Enryō—with this spirituality being popularly consumed by Japanese intellectuals in the prewar period under the banner of “Buddhism.”

Viewing Suzuki in this light makes it necessary to question the legitimacy of labeling other prewar lay Buddhists, such as Inoue (Nisshō), as being strictly affiliated to any given sect. As in the case of “terrorism,” Inoue certainly does refer to himself as being an adherent of Zen (see, e.g., pp. 114 and 200), but Inoue’s own statements muddy the waters on this issue: “I don’t belong to any particular sect. My family was affiliated with the Rinzai Zen sect…. However, at present, my thoughts are almost entirely those of the Mahāyāna school of Buddhism” (p. 145). Note here that Snodgrass argued that Suzuki also saw himself primarily as a “Mahāyāna Buddhist” early in his writing career. Perhaps in this comment, Inoue had intended to ascribe himself membership to a similar sort of intellectualized lay Buddhism. Another issue relevant to explore would be the existence of “pan-Buddhist” organizations such as Myōwa-kai, which Victoria mentions in relation to its support of Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937 (p. 219). Perhaps it would be appropriate to understand Inoue’s thought more in the context of prewar intersectarian movements such as the Myōwa-kai or against the background of efforts by those such as Henry Steel Olcott and the Theosophical Society to unify the different sects of Buddhism.

On a related note, Victoria discusses Inoue’s second and most profound major spiritual experience, which occurred while in prison, and details how it was primarily brought on through a contemplation of the writings of Shinran (1173–1263). The authenticity of this experience, Victoria tells us, was praised by Rinzai Zen master Yamamoto Gempō; however, Victoria’s explanation of Inoue’s overcoming of “what the Zen sect calls the “no-self ”(muga)” could be misleading for some readers (p. 110). That is to say, it is very important to note that the term muga is not at all exclusive to Zen. And, the obvious question would be, how is muga treated in the context of Shinran’s writings? Although it does not appear frequently, it can be seen as part of a quote from the Nirvāṇa Sūtra in Shinran’s magnum opus, the Kyōgyōshinshō. Fittingly, there is an English translation of this passage by none other than D. T. Suzuki himself, who renders muga as “no ego”:

“There is really no such thing as murder. Even when the ego really exists, no harm comes out of the act of murdering. If there is no ego, what harm can come out of it? Why? If there is an ego, the ego is not subject to change; it is eternal. It then cannot be killed…. How can we make a criminal case out of killing? If there is no ego at all, all things are impermanent. If impermanent, they go through changes every moment. As they are constantly reduced to nothing, both the killer and the killed are also constantly reduced to nothing. This being so, who is to be considered guilty? [italics mine]” (p. 166).[6]

Here, the Nirvāṇa Sūtra (at least in Shinran’s Japanese translation) lays out, albeit in the “heretical” voice of court minister Kichitoku, a logic under which murder becomes not only permissible but irrelevant and no hindrance to salvation. While a conclusive analysis of Inoue’s relationship with the thought of Shinran is beyond the scope of this review and my own exegetical skills, the above quote seems to be of sufficient relevance to warrant further investigation. Regardless of the result of such, I would argue that the issue of Inoue’s exclusive affiliation to the Zen sect requires more attention.

Although obviously only a matter of personal taste, I would have preferred to have seen the focus on Zen in Zen Terror in Prewar Japan being shifted more to an exploration of nonsectarian Buddhism. The sections on terrorism could have been greatly reduced or excluded to be replaced with a discussion of the larger issues of fascism and political violence. And, it would have perhaps improved the flow of the book to have the appendices reworked into the main body, given their great importance to the central themes. Victoria’s use of the unreliable autobiographical emic narrative of a terrorist carefully juxtaposed with objective historical facts, etic categorization, and elements of what was at the time “pop” Japanese Buddhist philosophy (I am referring here to works such as those by Suzuki) is an interesting methodologic template for future studies. It might be opined, however, that in bringing personal narratives more into focus in Buddhist studies, we must be ever more vigilant in balancing them correctly to avoid falling back into a Carlyle-esque “Great Man” modernist worldview or into a world of moral relativism where values and “goodness” become irrelevant.

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. Victoria refers to or implies several times the greed of Western countries in their expansionism in Asia, and it is important to note that Zen Terror in Prewar Japan is not “Japan bashing.” Rather, it shows how Japan and Japanese Buddhism are not somehow mystically superior to the West and Western Christianity, but rather are similarly culpable when it comes to their morally questionable histories. While the book feels to me like several monographs squeezed into one, Victoria provides so many helpful and interesting resources in this book that any small flaws are dwarfed by its overall importance. Regardless of the ultimate validity of its hypotheses, 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.


[1]. Brian Daizen Victoria, Zen at War (New York: Weatherhill, 1997), and Zen War Stories (London: Routledge, 2002).

[2]. That being said, an investigation of Victoria’s sources where Inoue directly or indirectly refers to his own actions as “terrorism” (see, e.g., pp. 154 and 190) shows that Inoue actually used the katakana loanword “tero,” which is satisfying to know in light of the accusations Victoria mentions of misdirection or mistranslation in previous works.

[3]. I refer here to the printing of Nihonteki reisei found in vol. 8 (1999) of the 1999–2003 edition of Suzuki’s complete collected works, Suzuki Daisetsu zenshū, 40 vols. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten); see pp. 132–33.

[4]. See Richard Jaffe, ed., Selected Works of D. T. Suzuki, Volume I: Zen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), introduction, esp. pp. xiii-xv.

[5]. Judith Snodgrass, “Japan’s Contribution to Modern Global Buddhism: The World’s Parliament of Religions Revisited,” The Eastern Buddhist 43, nos. 1 and 2 (2012): 81–102; see pp. 82–83 and 100.

[6]. Daisetz Teitarō Suzuki, trans., Shinran’s Kyōgyōshinshō: The Collection of Passages Expounding the True Teaching, Living, Faith, and Realizing of the Pure Land, ed. The Center for Shin Buddhist Studies under supervision of Sengaku Mayeda (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). Note that this particular version of Suzuki’s translation, completed circa 1965, was first published in this edition. See Shinshū Seiten Henshū Iinkai, ed., Shinshū seiten (Kyoto: Higashi Honganji, 1978), p. 256, for the True Pure Land sect’s version of Shinran’s quote of the Nirvāṇa Sūtra.

Citation: Stefan Grace. Review of Victoria, Brian Daizen, Zen Terror in Prewar Japan: Portrait of an Assassin. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020. URL:

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