Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Prison and the Pure Land: A Buddhist Chaplain in Occupied Japan

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Prison and the Pure Land: A Buddhist Chaplain in Occupied Japan

Article excerpt

Introduction

The Sunshine 60 building, at the heart of Tokyo's Sunshine City commercial complex, once had the distinction of being the tallest skyscraper in Asia; it still boasts one of Asia's fastest elevators, whisking visitors from the shops on the tower's ground floors to the sixtieth floor observation deck. Tucked away in a park behind the tower is a stone engraved with the message "Pray for eternal peace" (Eikyu heiwa o negatte). This stone marks the history that the name "Sunshine City" obscures: the shopping mall was built on what had been the site of Sugamo Prison. In the years before and during the war, Sugamo was famous for housing Japanese political prisoners, those charged by the Japanese government with violating the rules governing the press, the Libel Law, and the Peace Preservation Law. In the years following Japan's surrender, the American military used it to hold Japanese war criminals. (2) The high-profile military and political leaders sentenced to death at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal were executed on the grounds of Sugamo at midnight, December 23, 1948. (3)

From early 1946 through the end of 1948, Hanayama Shinsho served as Sugamo's volunteer Buddhist chaplain. In 1949, Hanayama published a book about this period in his life, entitled Finding Peace: Records of Life and Death in Sugamo (Heiwa no hakken: Sugamo no sei to shi no kiroku). Neither quite a memoir nor a conventional piece of journalism, Finding Peace includes Hanayama's recollections of his first months in the prison; transcriptions of letters, poetry, and diary entries written by the prisoners themselves; detailed accounts of his conversations with the seven high profile prisoners executed on December 23; records of his final interviews with these seven men; and a sketch of events as they unfolded the night of the executions. (4)

Hanayama was an unconventional choice for chaplain. Jodo Shinshu institutions had for decades been training and posting chaplains to Japanese prisons, but Hanayama was not part of this professional network; although he was a Shin priest, he made his living as a scholar, holding a full-time appointment as a faculty member in Buddhist Studies at Tokyo Imperial University. (5) His attitude toward the executions was also perhaps not what a contemporary reader might expect: although in Finding Peace he occasionally alludes to public protests against the imposition of the death penalty and notes that he himself signed a petition requesting a stay of execution, he never rallies against the executions in the name of non-violence. (6) On the contrary, he asserts that the executions might serve the cause of non-violence: if those who are to be executed "feel responsible for having led the world into war and wasting the lives of many innocent people," they should die willingly for the sake of peace, "resolutely casting off their own finite bodies and finite lives" (23). Even as he makes this assertion, however, he positions himself on the side of the prisoners, casting himself as a "voluntary captive" (shiganshu) of Sugamo (24).

This article explores the ways that Hanayama draws upon the Pure Land Buddhist repertoire in order to frame the prison--the site of captivity--as a site of liberation, and to transform the executions into voluntary deaths. I suggest that Hanayama's efforts on this front represent a form of resistance to the carceral logic that underlies the executions, even though they do not prevent the executions from being carried out. I try to make the case that although Hanayama does not save anyone's life, his work with the condemned prisoners is nonetheless expressive of a compassionate wish that the dead might be liberated from the cycle of samsara. For Hanayama, the possibility of achieving this kind of liberation in death does not depend upon one's having been a good or virtuous person in life; he can thus evade reckoning with the central question of whether or not the condemned "deserve" liberation, and is not drawn into a larger, more radical critique of the nation-state. …

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