Dhammayatra of Life 2013

From Fukushima to Hiroshima … and in between:
On the Road with the Dhammayatra of Life 2013

Jonathan S. Watts

1008403_10151681502288287_226416364_oCivilization
is not the development of electricity,
nor the building of airplanes,
nor the production of nuclear bombs.
Civilization is rather
not taking the life of others,
not destroying things,
not engaging in warfare,
and creating mutual intimacy and friendship
as well as mutual respect.

 With the simplicity and clarity of the verses of the Dhammapada uttered by Shakyamuni Buddha himself, these words of Rev. Nichidatsu Fujii, the founder of the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist order, sound as pertinent today as when they were uttered over fifty years ago at the dawn of the Cold War. In the aftermath of Fukushima, it feels so clear that the grand scientific and material developments of the industrial age do not represent any positive vision of civilization and culture. Rather, as Rev. Fujii points out, true civilization is the humanity, or perhaps the buddha nature, that harnesses intelligence and achievement for the benefit of all sentient beings.

The Nipponzan Myohoji order has devoted itself since World War II to the global promotion of these sentiments of Rev. Fujii and his teaching of the Lotus Sutra. Since the Fukushima incident of March 2011, they, unlike any other Buddhist denomination in Japan, have been bearing witness to the truth of these words. This was shown particularly in the 2013 Dhammayatra for Life, a peace walk that visited all 54 nuclear reactors in Japan over a six-month period. In a statement outlining the purpose of the march, Myohoji explained:

The actions that we believe must be taken include maintaining Article 9 of the Peace Constitution of Japan (which bans Japan from having an aggressive military), and also abolishing the nuclear power plants located throughout Japan as well as the nuclear weapons existing all over the world that threaten to annihilate all sentient beings. These crises are the true emergency matters of our time, and we have a responsibility to remind the people of the spirituality of this country. We must pass on to the next generation the great treasure of the wisdom of our ancestors, who lived in harmony with nature and regarded it with awe. This legacy will be the indispensable treasure for future generations.

Starting on March 1, a revolving group of Myohoji monks and nuns as well as lay followers, anti-nuclear activists, and like-minded pilgrims traversed through Northern Japan. They conducted all day vigils of fasting and chanting the Lotus Sutra in front of the 17 nuclear reactors in the region with the notable exception the decimated Fukushima #1 reactors. Arriving on the northernmost island of Hokkaido in early May, they turned south down the Sea of Japan coast through the so-called Nuclear Ginza of Fukui Prefecture. They culminated their journey at the Hiroshima Peace Park on August 6, the day that commemorates the dropping of the atomic bombs on that city. At each nuclear power plant, the group would spend the entire day “in prayer and fasting for the sake of the land and spirits.” This prayer consisted of the chanting of the daimoku (veneration and refuge in the Lotus Sutra that goes “na mu myo ho ren ge kyo”) and the beating of hand drums in tandem with the chant. While possessing an inexhaustible devotion to the Lotus Sutra, Myohoji has long respected diversity and the companionship of others on their vigils, welcoming those of “different principles, policies, and religions”. The distance between nuclear power plants was covered at times by minivan, and at others by entire days of 25-kilometer walks accompanied by chanting and drumming. I was able to participate for two brief sections of both the northern and southern stages of this dhammayatra and would like to offer a taste of the experience of this unique form of Buddhist social activism.

Rokkasho: Industrialism and Nature in Coexistence?

public map of the nuclear and military installations around Rokkasho-mura
public map of the nuclear and military installations around Rokkasho-mura

After taking the shinkansen bullet train—Japan’s paragon of modern development—three hours north from Tokyo, my journey to meet up with the Myohoji group slowed considerably. The train station I disembarked at and the final bus I boarded to get to this remote, northern tip of Japan in Aomori Prefecture seemed unchanged from the 1960s. From the bus, we wound our way through stunning, vast, and wild nature, arriving at the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Complex built on the Abuchi inlet. Built only in the past decade, the entire complex hosts:

  • a center for underground low level nuclear waste disposal
  • a plant for enriching uranium
  • a temporary storage facility for high level nuclear waste that contains a storage pool of used nuclear fuel
  • further facilities for the study of an International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) that is part of the attempt to build a nuclear fusion reactor
  • a Mixed Oxide (MOX) nuclear fuel processing factory
  • and the main reprocessing plant whose final clearance to start operation has been postponed at least 19 times

Preparations and planning for this complex go back to the 1980s with an original budget of approximately $7 billion, which has now swelled to three times the size. This process resembled what has happened in so many rural regions all over the world when government and big business decide they want to use local lands for industrial development. In Rokkasho’s case, it has mostly involved pressing and eventually buying out the region’s fisherfolk to install waste facilities in the area’s waterways for radioactive emissions created by the plant. The trade off to a subsistent life of fishing and farming in this remote area has been the new employment opportunities for locals in these facilities. As is so common, the communities have become internally divided, because there are also those who don’t directly benefit from the plants. There are a vast number of farming villages that exist downwind from the plant that have already experienced contamination of their crops when uranium reprocessing testing began in 2004.[1]

After the massive Tohoku earthquake of 3/11 knocked out electricity throughout the region, the plant ran on emergency power provided by backup diesel generators for three days, exposing the approximately 3,000 tons of radioactive fuel waiting to be reprocessed to overheating and meltdown. A myriad of other technical glitches have delayed the start of the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into enriched uranium and plutonium. In the meantime, spent nuclear fuel from all over Japan continues to be stockpiled at Rokkasho with little evidence that it will be used as 52 of Japan’s 54 nuclear reactors have remained off line since the Fukushima incident. Even Japan’s long time nuclear and security partner, the United States, has expressed concern over this accumulation of fuel that could be enriched for use in nuclear weapons.[2] (for a detailed appraisal of the situation see this article)

Fast and Prayer Vigil at the Rokkashomura Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center on May 2, 2013
Fast and Prayer Vigil at the Rokkashomura Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Center on May 2, 2013

Arriving just in time to begin the all day vigil of fasting and prayer, I took a seat alongside twelve other pilgrim-activists on a blue tarp on the sidewalk across the street in front of the main Rokkasho facility. Despite it being early May, the weather was still frigid and the famous yamase winds of the region swirled and brought down intermittent rain amidst a 5 degree chill.

Simply sitting by the roadside in front of the main gate, we could experience the complex ironies of this region. Beyond the plant were stunning views of grey cloudy mountainsides with high tech wind farms sprouting all about us. The contrast of nuclear reprocessing and wind farms gave a feeling of the “New Cold War” between competing energy systems of the future and their contrasting worldviews. Indeed, the specter of war also seemed close at hand as American fighter jets on training runs from the nearby Misawa Air Base constantly flew over head emitting their supersonic booms.

Onward through the day, we chanted the Lotus Sutra. While the Myohoji leaders were always tolerant of the need to take breaks, there was never a moment when there was not at least one person chanting and pounding the lead drum. One would have thought the fasting and the constant practice would be the great challenge of the day, yet it was braving the wind, rain, and near freezing temperature that was most taxing.

CIMG1621That night we stayed at the farm of Keiko Kikukawa, a local anti-nuclear activist who has become well known in the area for her tulip gardens planted as a symbol of resistance to the reprocessing complex.[3] The group was a mix of those who had been on the walk for months and those who, like myself, had just arrived. Yet Myohoji’s culture created a way for us to bond quickly through intimately sharing these activities together. In Kikukawa’s cozy community cabin, we held an evening service accompanied by a Theravada Nepalese monk chanting in Pali; shared a wonderful warm dinner made of local produce; watched an evening documentary on nuclear issues; and rose together at 5:00 a.m. the next day for a morning service before embarking on our next leg of the dhammayatra.

Prayer on the beach near a Japanese self-defense force missile testing site on the way to Higashi-dori Nuclear Plant on May 3, 2013
Prayer on the beach near a Japanese self-defense force missile testing site on the way to Higashi-dori Nuclear Plant on May 3, 2013

We set off from the Rokkasho town hall on a 27 km walk to the Higashi Dori Nuclear Power Plant, which was completed in 2005. In such a relatively short distance, the ironies again quickly emerged: first through the depopulated and run down precincts of the sprawling Rokkasho township; then along forested roads and a stunning coastline of hard surf; and past a Japan Self-Defense Force base that included a beach for missile launching tests where we stopped to chant and pray. By lunchtime we had entered the town of Tomari, and the surprises continued. We noticed that more than half of the houses had been recently rebuilt, many beautifully so and some so gorgeously large that they would provoke envy in even the richest of Tokyo residents. In this way, we came to see first hand the way that certain communities and certain people have greatly benefitted from the development of the nuclear industry in the region. Our daylong journey culminated at 5:30 amidst the ever present wind, rain, and cold at the lonely gates of the Higashi Dori complex where we offered one final round of chanting.

While I have often joined the Myohoji group at anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo, this experience of ironies communicated in a very direct and visceral manner the shadow side of industrial development’s face in the rural countryside. The ironies also extended to the Myohoji experience itself—a simple yet devout and austere practice of the Lotus Sutra combined with political activism and conscientization to the issues from experiencing the suffering of real people.

Wakasa Bay: Manjusri Bodhisattva and the Nuclear Ginza

Six weeks later on June 16, I rejoined the group—now consisting of almost a totally new cast of monks, nuns, and pilgrims—in Fukui Prefecture some 700 kilometers down the coast from Aomori. Fukui hosts what is said to be the greatest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world. This clustering of fifteen reactors, all lined up along the coast of Wakasa Bay, has been nicknamed the Nuclear Ginza by the activist community. It is as if the reactors are a string of “nuclear boutiques” akin to the chic boutiques of Tokyo’s Ginza ward.

The Mihama Reactor just up the road from Monju
The Mihama Reactor just up the road from Monju

Travelling by bullet train from Tokyo and then with the Myohoji van, I again found myself in stunning natural scenery. The inland bays were like Aomori, yet the white sand beaches, the crystal clear water, and the gentle waves were in stark contrast to the rough coast of Northern Japan. Twice we turned a corner to emerge onto a new gorgeous beach and bay only to be greeted by a massive nuclear power plant built on the shores. The first was the Mihama Nuclear Power Plant, commissioned in 1970, where what had been considered Japan’s worst nuclear accident before Fukushima occurred on August 9, 2004 with the deaths of four workers.

The second plant, which was the site for the day’s vigil, is named Monju after the Buddhist bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjusri, wielder of the sword that cuts through ignorance and delusion. This fast breeder reactor was a key part of Japan’s nuclear development strategy and the promise of the “miracle energy of the future.” Unlike thermal nuclear reactors that require uranium mined and imported from abroad, fast breeders can use the depleted fuel from thermal reactors to create unlimited amounts of nuclear fuel. However, these types of reactors have been so difficult to run and maintain without accidents that they are largely inoperable from both an economic and safety standpoint. Indeed, after an investment of over one trillion yen since construction started in 1986, the Monju reactor has spent a total of only a few months in operation due to numerous accidents and safety scandals. The entire facility and fast breeder program is now facing decommissioning and economic collapse.

CIMG1719Under cloudless sunny skies, we began our day in a small parking lot in front of the Monju gate. As with Aomori, the challenge of the practice involved the elements, yet in total reverse. Here, the temperatures were in the low 30s/90s under a cloudless sky on the boiling blacktop of the parking lot. Many of the monks and pilgrims who had braved snow and cold in the northern leg of the pilgrimage were already dark and sun burned from days under early summer skies on the journey down the coast.

Around 9:30 in the morning, two representatives from the plant came out to meet two monks and receive Myohoji’s petition and declaration. They greeted the monks politely, listened quietly while they read the declaration, received the documents, bowed, and returned back inside the gates. The exact same scene occurred amidst the cold rain in Aomori back in May. Even after seventeen years in Japan, I am astounded at the civility – sometimes to my chagrin – of both public protestors and the authorities who are their target. While westerners and other Asians alike are surprised by the timidity of Japanese social protest, I have been forced to constantly reconsider this society that emphasizes, for better or worse, social harmony above all else.

1008465_10151680143678287_1418438617_oOur day ended down on that beach overlooking the plant. We waded out into the completely transparent water and offered our final prayers. Then, one of the pilgrims, spent from chanting in the heat all day, took a dive and was joined by many others in a swim in this fantastic yet tainted ocean water. The day concluded back at a guesthouse and campsite run by a local Christian pastor who is Indonesian. Once again Myohoji’s embrace of diversity appeared amidst its single-minded devotion of the practice of chanting reverence to the Lotus Sutra.

In this way, the monks of the Myohoji represent yet another irony. Myohoji monks are no doubt devout. Some would perhaps view them as fanatical, and this might lead one to conclude them to be arrogant as well. Yet amidst their single-minded devotion, all those I have encountered have been incredibly gentle, soft spoken, and generous. They have a truly wonderful balance of inner strength and outer softness—that quality we wish for in our religious leaders that is often flip-flopped. They created an atmosphere of austerity and devotion yet kindness and ease that never made the pilgrimage feel oppressive in its discipline while uplifting in its depth of experience.

706168_10151682050678287_2145500966_oOn my last day, I bade farewell to the group as they began a second straight day of fasting and vigil in front of the Mihama reactor and journeyed to nearby Obama city to visit the renowned anti-nuclear Buddhist activist Rev. Tetsuen Nakajima. At his ancient temple tucked back in the mountains, we talked for two hours about his path to activism and the future of the movement. The gorgeous forested gardens of this temple established in the year 806 left me with one final lasting impression of what we are sacrificing for the “convenience” of buying junk food at the mini-marts located on almost every corner of every Japanese town and city. As so many on this journey have pointed out, the people who live in the cities need to come and experience the complex ironies of development in the rural countryside.

The Final Stage?

The six-month Dhammayatra of Life ended in Hiroshima on August 6, the day nuclear energy was thrust upon the world with atomic bombs 68 years ago. Every year the Myohoji order has been conducting such peace walks, usually along the main Tokaido corridor from Tokyo in support of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and in opposition to the proliferation of nuclear arms. However, since Fukushima, they have shifted their emphasis to the proliferation of nuclear energy, and this year marks the second time they have followed this new route going to Northern Japan and visiting all the nuclear power plants in the country.

The Myohoji remains distinctive in the Japanese Buddhist world as the only denomination to organize public protest, even though most other Buddhist denominations have public declarations against nuclear energy. I have written in other places about the curious reticence of Japanese Buddhists and Japanese citizens in general to engage in public protest, even on such intensely important issues as nuclear energy and the fate of Fukushima. Unfortunately, Nipponzan Myohoji is a tiny denomination with little influence in the mainstream Buddhist world. Hence, there is little to no awareness by Buddhist priests of other denominations of their activities and this Dhammayatra of Life. While the walk’s core activities have a strong sectarian flavor in the constant chanting of the Lotus Sutra, they do welcome and provide space for people of other denominations to chant and pray in their own preferred manner.

However, this is where Myohoji’s eclectic blend of devout religious practice amidst social activism has its strategic limits. While Myohoji’s monks, nuns, and lay people all have a very good understanding of the social and political aspects of the nuclear problem, the solution to them as envisioned by their founder Nichidatsu Fujii appears to be nothing more than constant recitation of the Lotus Sutra and the wholehearted belief that this will bring about a remarkable kind of socio-spiritual justice. By “nothing more”, I do not mean to belittle the power of the group’s belief and commitment to bringing about world peace and nuclear disarmament. However, intermediate strategic activities to link the faith aspect of their religious practice and the social aspect of their public protest could make these walks develop a much wider social impact.

These walks and the ones created by Myohoji and Maha Ghosananda, the great Cambodian Theravada peace monk, have influenced monks in Thailand to develop dhammayatra for the environment. In both Cambodia and Thailand, these walks have been used by the organizers to stage public meetings in each community they visit and to knit together the communities in the region where they walk for common awareness and action. While on this 2013 Dhammayatra of Life, we did indeed visit and receive support from a wide variety of local activists working against nuclear energy. However, Myohoji did not seem concerned in trying to stage local activities nor in cross community network building, instead focusing their small number of followers and resources on these all day vigils in front of reactors and all day walks devoted to chanting and drumming. Even the effort to build greater bridges among the nationwide Japanese Buddhist community and to create more space on their walks for Buddhists of other denominations could have a powerful influence in starting to build a grassroots network of sympathetic priests and temples throughout the country. There might indeed be hope for such a network in the near future seeing how Buddhists from divergent traditions in Japan are increasingly coming together to work on social issues, like suicide prevention and Buddhist chaplaincy, and to form organizations that strongly declare a trans-sectarian character. In the meantime, we will be sure to find the monks, nuns, and lay people of the Nipponzan Myohoji order somewhere out on the road striking their drums, chanting the daimoku, and bearing witness to suffering while praying for peace.

Highlights of the Six Month Dhammayatra

March 1st: Start of the 1st leg up the northeast coast from Yaizu (Shizuoka Pref.)
March 3rd: Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant – 3 reactors (Shizuoka Pref.)
March 6th: Tokai Nuclear Power Plant – 1 reactor (Ibaraki Pref.)
March 11th: Fukushima – 10 reactors
April 5th: Tohoku Electric Company Office in Sendai (Miyagi Pref.)
April 10th: Onagawa Nuclear Power Plant – 3 reactors (Miyagi Pref.)
May 2nd: Rokkasho Nuclear Reprocessing Plant (Aomori Pref.)
May 4th: Higashi-dori Nuclear Power Plant – 1 reactor (Aomori Pref.)
May 9th: Oma Nuclear Power Plant – 1 reactor under construction (Aomori Pref.)
May 10th: Conclusion of 1st leg (Hokkaido)
May 11th: Start of the 2nd leg down the coastline of the Sea of Japan
May 13th: Tomari Nuclear Power Plant – 3 reactors (Hokkaido)
May 24th: Kashiwazaki Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant – 7 reactors (Niigata Pref.)
May 27th: Tohoku Electric Company Office (Toyama Pref.)
May 31th: Shika Nuclear Power Plant – 2 reactors (Ishikawa Pref.)
June 12-14th: Tsuruga, Fugen (Samantabhadra), Monju (Manjusri), and Mihama Nuclear Power Stations – 7 reactors (Fukui Pref.)
June 18th: Oi Nuclear Power Plant – 4 reactors (Fukui Pref.)
June 20th: Takahama Nuclear Power Plant – 4 reactors (Fukui Pref.)
June 25th: Shimane Nuclear Power Plant – 2 reactors (Shimane Pref.)
July 1st: Genkai Nuclear Power Plant – 4 reactors (Saga Pref.)
July 9th: Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Site (Nagasaki Pref.)
July 19th: Sendai Nuclear Power Plant – 2 reactors (Kagoshima Pref.)
July 25th: Ikata Nuclear Power Plant – 3 reactors (Ehime Pref.)
July 30th: Kaminoseki Nuclear Power Plant (Yamaguchi Pref.)
August 3rd: Chugoku Electric Company Office, Hiroshima City
August 6th: Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park


[1] When these tests began, the Aomori Prefecture made a public press release saying, “When the plant is in full operation, the radioactive level of rice grown locally will rise from 0 to 90 bequerels/kg.” Rokkasho Rhapsody. Dir. Hitomi Kamanaka. Group Gendai Films, 2006. DVD.

[2] Jay Solomon, Miho Inada. “Japan’s Nuclear Plan Unsettles U.S.” The Wall Street Journal. May 1, 2013

[3] Kikukawa’s life and work is detailed the documentary Rokkasho Rhapsody. Dir. Hitomi Kamanaka. Group Gendai Films, 2006. DVD.

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