During one phase of his missionary career in Japan, my father worked with the pastor of Hiroshima Baptist Church, who had once been a Japanese military chaplain in Manchuria, a tidbit my father never revealed to me until much later in his life. It seemed highly unlikely that the pastor was a Christian at that time, and I had not been aware that Imperial Japan had Buddhist chaplains, but it certainly did, according to Brian Victoria in “The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Buddhist Military Chaplaincy in Imperial Japan and Contemporary America,” Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies 2016(11):155-200. Here’s the abstract.
In twentieth century Japan, Buddhist military chaplains were present on the battlefield from as early as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and lasting up through the end of World War II. The focus of this article is less on the history of these chaplains than the manner in which they interpreted the Buddha Dharma so as to allow them and their sectarian sponsors to play this role. This is followed by a more detailed examination of the recent emergence of a Buddhist chaplaincy within the U.S. military, asking whether there are any similarities, especially doctrinally, between the military chaplaincy in the two nations.
The purpose of this examination is to identify issues related to those elements of Buddhist doctrine and practice that make the existence of a Buddhist chaplaincy both possible and, at the same time, problematic. Equally important, it reveals one facet or dimension of the manner in which institutional Buddhism has served the political and military interests of those countries in which it is present, and still does so.
The origins of the Buddhist chaplaincy in Japan go back to medieval times (pp. 160, 162):
As for actual Buddhist chaplains, one of the earliest progenitors of such figures is to be found in Japan. Japan is of particular significance because, as this article reveals, it was the Buddhist faith of Japanese-Americans that was primarily responsible for the creation of a Buddhist chaplaincy in the US military.
Japan’s Buddhist chaplains can be traced back to at least the fourteenth century. It was in 1333 that warriors loyal to Emperor Go-Daigo (1288-1339), whose political power had been usurped, revolted against the warrior-led government holding sway in Kamakura. As a result, itinerant Buddhist chaplains belonging to the Pure Land sect (J. Jōdo-shū) were assigned to warriors in the field in order to ensure that their patrons recited the name of Amida Buddha at least ten times at the time of death. In so doing, it was believed, the warrior’s rebirth in the Pure Land was assured.
As historian Sybil Thornton* notes, the activities of these chaplains quickly expanded beyond a purely religious function and they ended up burning, burying and praying for the dead, as well as caring for the sick and wounded. When their warrior patrons were not engaged in battle, the chaplains amused them with poetry and assumed a role close to that of a personal servant. Given that these chaplains appear to have been beholden to their patrons for food, clothing, and shelter, this latter role is hardly surprising.
* Sybil Thornton, “Buddhist Chaplains in the Field of Battle” in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez Jr. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
Given this historical background, it is not surprising that, in the modern era, Buddhist chaplains accompanied troops to the battlefield as early as the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. The job was not only to give ‘morale-building’ talks to the soldiers, but also to conduct funerals for those who fell in battle, as well as notify relatives of the deceased in Japan itself. Even in times of peace, the need for chaplains was recognized, with the Nishi (West) Honganji branch of the True Pure Land Sect (Jōdo Shinshū), for example, dispatching forty-six priests to over forty military bases throughout Japan as early as 1902.
In the same year, Nishi Honganji produced a booklet entitled Bushidō as part of a series called “Lectures on Spirit” (Seishin Kōwa). The connection between the two events is clear in that Ōtani Kōen (1850-1903), an aristocrat and the branch’s administrative head, who both dispatched the military chaplains and contributed a forward to the booklet. Kōen explained that the booklet’s purpose was “to clarify the purpose of military evangelization.”
This little 豆知識 mame chishiki ‘bean of knowledge’ sprouted from the observation of a friend that the gravestones of early Korean immigrants to Hawai‘i seem rarely to show any religious insignia. The gravestones of Japanese immigrants, by contrast, often contain posthumous Buddhist names as well as occasional insignia that suggest what sect of Buddhism they adhered to. From what I can tell from online photos, South Korean military graves also contain no religious insignia, while some North Korean military graves contain red stars. However, the Korean Navy now has chaplains, presumably Buddhist as well as Christian.