NEW YORK — The influence of fundamentalist and evangelical religion on U.S. politics, both domestic and abroad, is growing, but something similar happened during the early part of the Showa Era (1926-89). I thought of this recently when I read Daikichi Terauchi’s “Kejo no Showa Shi” (A History of Showa as a Phantom City; Mainichi Shimbun Sha, 1988).

Terauchi begins his account with the Manchurian Incident in September 1931. He decided to start with it, he wrote, because he could not forget one photograph he saw during the war — the one taken of the conference on Feb. 16, 1932, in Mukden (now Shenyang), which was convened to discuss the creation of Manchukuo. It shows Commander in Chief of the Kwantung Army Shigeru Honjo sitting center front, with two Manchurian leaders on each side, and 11 men standing behind them, mostly in military uniform.

What caught Terauchi’s attention was a sizable drape hanging on the wall behind the men and what’s written on it in a large, distinctive script: Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, “Praise to the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law” — the prayer of the Nichiren school of Buddhism. What is a Buddhist prayer doing in a conference like that? This kept Terauchi thinking until he decided to write about it in his mid-60s.

The search for the perpetrator of the prayer drape leads to one man in the photograph: Kanji Ishihara (1889-1949), staff officer of the Kwantung Army and principal schemer of the Manchurian Incident. Ishihara was a follower of Chigaku Tanaka (1861-1939), the proselytizer of the teachings of Nichiren (1222-1282). “Religion in Japan,” the Occupation’s 1948 report, called Nichiren — who equated the belief in the Lotus Sutra with national salvation — a “romantic and daring prophet.” Tanaka took the romantic/prophet’s notion several steps further and proclaimed Japan’s “heaven-ordained task” was to seek to achieve “a spiritual unity” throughout the world.

Even as the discussion for the creation of a new nation was under way, another Nichiren group had begun its move. On Feb. 27, 1932, one of its members shot and killed a former finance minister in broad daylight. Then, on March 5, another shot and killed the head of the Mitsui Group — again in broad daylight. Ten days later, a Nichiren monk named Akira Inoue (Buddhist name Issho) turned himself in. He was the head of the “Blood League.” His group’s motto was “one-man-one-kill,” a means he chose over a military coup for achieving national reform.

Inoue had lined up 11 other business and political leaders and assigned one assassin to each. Seven of the 11 assassins were students of top schools, three of them of the Faculty of Law of the Imperial University of Tokyo, the incubator of elite bureaucrats then as now.

Two months later, on May 15, Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was assassinated. Several of the naval officers involved in what was soon dubbed the 5.15 Incident were followers of Nichiren-shugi, or “Nichirenism” (the term adopted in the “Religion in Japan” report). One man they tried to kill but only wounded was Mitsugu Nishida, another of the Nichiren faithful. Nishida admired Ikki Kita (1883-1937). If there was one Nichirenist who was possessed by the Lotus Sutra, Kita was it. A top aide of Sun Yatsen before Sun became president of the Republic of China, in 1911, Kita is reputed to have recited the entire sutra from memory every morning, generating hallucinations.

There was another Nichiren group, this time a passive one: “The Let’s Die Assembly.” Dedicated to the thought of death, its followers necessarily remind one of the believers in the Rapture, though they would not have supported anything remotely resembling the invasion of Iraq.

The 2.26 Incident, so called because it took place on Feb. 26, 1936, was the culmination of the agitations for radical change made by upholders of Nichirenism. The four army captains who led 1,400 soldiers in an attempt to bring down the “corrupt” government wanted to realize the Kita doctrine.

These groups and events are well known. What Terauchi does in his fictionalized history — with ample citations from actual documents — is to focus on Nichirenism and how it affected the course of Japan’s political and military developments. This is an antidote to standard accounts that tend to emphasize nationalism over religion. For example, Tsutomu Ouchi’s history of the period, “The Road to Fascism” (1967), does not even mention Chigaku Tanaka.

The 2.26 Incident ended in failure; 17 young army officers were executed, and so were Kita and Nishida. Practically all the generals and other high-ranking officers who were sympathetic, some even encouraging, wavered midway and changed their mind. Kanji Ishihara, then colonel and director of strategy at the General Staff Office, was one of them. The main cause of the failure, however, was lack of thought given to what to do after the first step. The army officers who led the revolt wanted to restore Imperial rule to expunge “corrupt” bureaucrats and other officials from the government who, they thought, had brought untold suffering and chaos. When the Showa Emperor refused that idea out of hand, they were lost.

In lacking contingency plans, the young officers were like Ishihara in carrying out the Manchurian Incident. Ishihara wanted to create a “paradise” in which to achieve “harmony among five races,” but he had no plans for dealing with what happened after the land was secured for that purpose: its takeover by political and business interests.

Daikichi Terauchi is a prominent leader in the Jodo (Pure Land) school of Buddhism. But in writing “A History of Showa,” he had no religious ax to grind. His account, in fact, ends with a heartfelt description of a conversion to the Lotus Sutra of a thinly disguised historical figure who provides the story with a narrative thread. The character, named Kaisaku, is modeled on Hotsumi Ozaki, the antiwar, anti-imperialist government adviser who, along with German Comintern agent Richard Sorge, was arrested on charges of espionage in 1941 and executed in 1944.

Terauchi’s book title alludes to Chapter 7 of the Lotus Sutra in which an illusory city is conjured up to give a temporary respite to “the seekers of the way” — to tell them that nirvana is still far in the distance.

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