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Nichirenism as modernism : imperialism, fascism, and buddhism in modern Japan


In 1902 Tanaka Chigaku, the founder of the lay Buddhist Nichirenism movement met Anagarika Dharmapala, the founder of the international Mahabodhi Society and founder of the prevalent form of modern Sri Lankan Buddhism. Chigaku and Dharmapala were attempting to transform Buddhism into a foundation for their respective national identities, using it as a pan-Asian basis for a new and better ordering of the world. They were confronting the universalizing forces of the West. They differed in their respective relationships with imperialism. Darmapala's Ceylon was a British colony. Japan was constructing an overseas empire. Nichirenism's "good news" was that the world is divine as it is; people just needed to realize this. Nichirenists ultimately conflated Japanese imperialism and nationalism with this realization. For some Nichirenists, such as Ishiwara Kanji, solutions lay in violent action. As a Colonel in the Kwantung Army he instigated the Japanese takeover of northeastern China in 1931. Other Nichirenists, such as the writer and agrarian reformer Miyazawa Kenji expressed Tanaka Chigaku's teachings in more innocuous ways. Miyazawa, attempted to transform the world through his literature, and by leading a grassroots cooperative. Senoo Giro became the leader of a Nichirenist youth group with conservative leanings in 1919, but by 1931 Senoo had become a vehement critic of Japanese imperialism. He became staunchly opposed to what he saw as Japanese fascism. In 1931 Senoo founded a socialist youth league that espoused his beliefs on these matters and advocated Buddhist socialism. Nichirenism complicates conceptualizations of the past. The memory of many inside and outside Japan elides Miyazawa's relationship with Nichirenism due to his contemporary popularity. Scholars cite Ishiwara's relationship with the movement as an example of why Japanese imperialism was rooted in irrationality, highlighting the putative anachronism Nichirenism as Oriental. These tendencies conceal the relationship between pre-1945 Japan and modern societies more generally. By separating prewar Japan from us so absolutely, historiography obscures the normality of modern violence by portraying it as exceptional

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