A Buddhist Chaplain in Occupied Japan

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

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

Melissa Anne-Marie Curley
Ohio State University

In November 1945, the United States military took over the use of Tokyo’s Sugamo Prison in order to house those charged by the Allied Powers with war crimes. For close to three years, Hanayama Shinshō served as the prison’s volunteer Buddhist chaplain, attending thirty-six executions. Hanayama did not protest the imposition of the death penalty but this essay argues that in his work as chaplain he nonetheless resisted the carceral logic shaping life and death inside Sugamo by mobilizing the ritual and narrative repertoire of Pure Land Buddhism. In Hanayama’s framing, Sugamo was a site of liberation as well as confinement, affording the condemned a unique opportunity to reflect upon the past and commit themselves to a different future, even in death. As Hanayama tells it, the peace discovered by the dead was an absolute peace, transcending politics; he also insists, however, on a connection between this absolute peace and the ordinary peace that the living might hope to secure. The article concludes with a consideration of the political and ethical implications of Hanayama’s reading of the dead as having “found peace” in light of larger conversations about how best to remember—or forget—the nation’s dark past, and what it means to share responsibility for crimes against humanity.

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