The Japanese View of Life and Death:
An Introduction to Rinsho Buddhism
October 15, 2014
Prof. Susumu Shimazono
Director of the Sophia University Grief Care Research Institute
The View of Life and Death in Japan
Prof. Shimazono’s presentation centered around the contemporary Japanese view of life and death as a uniquely modern field of inquiry that has become extremely popular in recent years. In Japanese, this field is called shi-sei gaku, literally “the study of life and death”. While Japan has a perennial culture of existentialism, easily seen in classical literature, poetry, and religious forms, including Zen meditations on death, modernization in the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and onward brought a new sense of self-identity and existentialism, as it also did in Europe. Natsume Soseki (1867-1916), the famous writer, and Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903), a Jodo Shin Buddhist reformer, are two of the most striking examples of this trend. Prof. Shimazono focused his presentation on the publication of the book Shi-sei Kan in 1904 by Kato Totsudo (1870-1949) and its seminal influence.
Shi-sei Gaku, or View of Life and Death, contains five chapters that reflect Kato’s wide ranging and comprehensive examination of this issue. The first chapter charts changes in the Japanese view of life and death coming into the modern period. The second looks at the view of life and death from the classical Japanese warrior tradition (bushi-do), from which Kato’s family came. The third chapter looks at the view of life and death from a range other religions such Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and western religions. Kato then addresses life and death from the view of modern, western philosophy and concludes with his own responses and viewpoints in the fifth chapter of the book. In one of his more Buddhist reflections of the issue, he writes:
There are [the teachings of] “the realization of the three worlds in the mind” as well as the 12 links of Dependent Origination (paticca samuppada). In this way, if the place of birth and death that is created in all minds extinguishes, then life and death exhaust (Avatamsaka Sutra), and the true state of the universe is understood through the two gates of Suchness (tathata) and the arising and ceasing of all phenomena (jati-nirodha). The former is the essence of no arising and no cessation, and from this essence, the phenomena of the universe move as the waves of arising and cessation. In this way, wave never separates from water, and water never separates from wave. Arising and ceasing are as waves on top of the ocean of essence or basic ground. This fits with modern philosophy and the full flowering of the theory of phenomenological realism [by Inoue Testujiro 1856-1944]
Prof. Shimazono concluded this section of his talk by referring to the emergence of literature by young men who committed suicide during this time. Again, while suicide is a perennial theme in Japanese culture, the modern era marks a new awakening to existentialism and a new type of suicide based on alienation in mass urban society, which is so prevalent in Japan today.
From the Middle to the End of the War
The second part of Prof. Shimazono’s talk looked at the Japanese view of life and death during and after World War II. This period and the experience of sudden death, again especially among young men, stimulated a number of publications such as the famous Zen scholar Suzuki Daisetsu’s The Development of the View of Life and Death in Terms of the Japanese, Shinto scholar Nishida Nakao’s Japanese Spirituality and the View of Life and Death, and Hegelian philosopher Kihira Tadayoshi’s, Japanese and Thinking about Death and Extinction. In this section, Prof. Shimazono looked in particular at the life and work of Yoshida Mitsuru (1923-79), who became a well known writer after his experiences in the Japanese Imperial Navy. This period for Yoshida included his seminal experience on the Battleship Yamato when it was sunk on 7 April 1945 during an attempt to support Japanese troops at Okinawa. Yoshida was the sole surviving officer in which only 276 survived of a total of 3,332 persons aboard. His best-known work is The Last Days of Battleship Yamato, subsequently made into a movie in 1953, but he also wrote The View of Life and Death from the Midst of War and A Pilgrimage Towards Peace.
To lay down one’s life for the sake of emperor and nation, that I can understand. Yet how is this one body connected with that? My death, my life, and the death of the entirety of Japan, what kind of common, universal values do we want to tie all these to? What is this body then for? … It’s a useless kind of logic; actually a harmful sophism. This is a reproachful situation in which kamikaze pilots wear the chrysanthemum crest on their chests and shout ‘Hail to His Majesty the Emperor, Banzai!’ as they go into death. This is not something to be glad about … This is not the only thing I find detestable. Still more, what is it that is needed? … In the end, when the rain of blows and fighting at the scene of carnage came, Captain Usubuchi Iwao who served to the right of me concluded, ‘So then, we will work to resuscitate this defiled mentality’. Some days before the attack, this kind of battle of words got out of control but then was successfully brought into line.
In Yoshida’s final manuscript View of Life and Death from the Midst of War, published in 1980 a year after his death, he wrote:
As death passes before you, have you made good use of your life and all that you have decorated it with? … There is nothing, not one thing, that one can call myself/mine.
One must be deceived: that there is some kind of thing that does not die, that there is enough time until death. When holding on to the common ordinary certainty of everyday life, there is still of course death. In the moment between life and death, there is simply the body of flesh, the senses, just the death of a living creature, trying to live. In truth, though, creating love is what is worth trying to live for.
The Suffering of Those Heading Towards Death by Cancer
The third section of Prof. Shimazono’s talk looked at views of life and death in the postwar period. In contrast to the sudden death of war, we have experiences of death in an affluent industrial society, such as the long drawn out process of death by cancer. Prof. Shimazono first looked at the work The Mind that is Discovered from Cancer, written by Hideo Kishimoto (1903-64). Kishimoto was a renowned religious scholar who served as head of the Division of Religious Studies at Tokyo University as well as President of the Japanese Association for Religious Studies. In 1945，he was also asked by the Minister of Education to assist in making the adjustments required in connection with the reform of Japanese public education and the establishment of religious freedom and separation of “ church ” and state. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1954 and lived for another ten years. The Mind that is Discovered from Cancer is Kishimoto’s examination of death over the last six months of his life in which he continually examines the question of death from the view of daily life.
As one is threatened by death, there is an attachment to life that comes shooting up from one’s gut, and one thinks that one’s heart will freeze. This is the view of life and death in a situation of agony. Standing on the precipice of death, this is the view of one’s own life and death while grasping at its inevitability … When in this situation of starving to death, trembling in the knees, trying our hardest to endure, what does one demand from a theoretical view of life and death? In facing the aggressive threat of death that comes directly and fiercely, what is it that resists? There doesn’t exist anything that can bring the power to resist. One tries to prepare and develop a way of things that is useful, but they are all useless … One can think about death and nothingness as the same, and that in death, consciousness ends. In this way, this world will also end like a hallucination, and so in the end, escape is not possible. However, if one thinks of death as “taking leave of this world”, then certainly the world continues to exist. In this way, the self that has already taken leave turns into a spirit of the universe and merely enters into eternal rest.
Prof. Shimazono also highlighted the death of Jun Takami (1907-1965), the pen name of a Japanese novelist and poet. Takami was interested in literature from youth and was particularly attracted to the humanism expressed by the Shirakaba (White Birch) writers. On entering Tokyo University, he joined a leftist student arts group and contributed to their literary journal (Sayoku Geijutsu). After graduation, he went to work for Columbia Records and continued his activities as a Marxist writer. In 1932, he was arrested with other communists and suspected members of the Japan Communist Party under the Peace Preservation Law and was coerced into recanting his leftist ideology to obtain release from prison. An autobiographical account of this experience was nominated for the first Akutagawa Prize. The theme of ironic self-pity over the weakness that led to this recanting of his views and his subsequent intellectual confusion were recurring themes in his future works. During and immediately after World War II, he served as Director of the Investigation Bureau of the Japanese Literature Patriotic Association. After the war, he suffered from poor health, but continued to write poetry from his sickbed. In 1962, he helped establish the Museum of Modern Japanese Literature. In 1963 he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and in 1964, his poetry collection Shi no Fuchi yori (From the Abyss of Death) won the Noma Prize. Prof. Shimazono concluded his talk by reflecting on some of these poems.
Is a one of returning to nature.
Since it is a journey of return,
It must become one of joy.
One must suffer a death that returns us to the earth,
The physical as well as the spiritual,
There is the return to my home.
In this way, there is liable to be spiritual suffering as well.
There is the gentle sleep under the earth,
And also the escape into sleep like a cicada’s chrysalis.
One can be forgiven for thinking that life is a fleeting one above the ground.
Outside of the Train Window
Outside of the train window
The road of light / the road of joy
I think I am departing from this world
The colors I see / suddenly seem fresh
This world / human existence as well as nature
Is filled with happiness
Even though I must die
Even though the world is so truly full of joy
This is a solace to my suffering
This touches me in my breast
Where it becomes stuck and I feeling like crying.