Power of the Powerless

On ritual, protest and the art of self-defence

What role does ritual and the sacred play in confronting ecological and social crises? Buddhist scholar, Jonathan Hopfner investigates the story behind the work of iconoclastic Japanese photographer Mitsutoshi Hanaga, chronicler of the activities of the Jusatsu Kito Sodan (‘Killing Curse Prayer Monk Group’) in the 1970s.
is a writer and postgraduate student of Buddhist studies based in Hong Kong, whose research focuses on the potential role of ritual and the sacred in confronting ecological and social crises. 

I Captured scenes

Cast in grainy monochrome, they look like shades superimposed on an urban landscape in which they no longer play a part. Wide straw hats obscure their faces; identical robes dissolve each into a single mass. On the streets, in crowded trains, a few passers-by crane their necks but most avoid looking at the procession altogether, unsure whether it has come to help or do harm. The truth is it has come to do both. 

They wind their way through a town to its barren outskirts, drawing to a halt on a deserted beach. The target lies on the other side of the bay. By thrusting banners into the sand and gathering in a rough semicircle they stake out territory. Hands and mouths move, but eyes rarely waver from the factory in the distance, crowned by candy-cane smokestacks from which the company’s offerings pour skyward. 

It is dark by the time their fire comes to life. Whipped by the wind, it briefly illuminates successive pieces of an intricate ritual jigsaw: a fist clenched around prayer beads, scrolls covered in jet-black brushstrokes, hands cupping a conch shell, a stick curved like a blade poised to strike a drum. The chant is the only constant, drowned out by the restless murmurs of waves and burning wood at first, but swelling as the ceremony reaches an apex, loud enough to wake the metal skeleton across the water. It is less a plea or an exhortation than a statement of fact: ‘We curse them. We curse them to death, and nothing else.’ Over, and over, until surely the words bludgeon death into submission, mold it to their collective will. 

On the surface, inevitably, nothing happens. Long after the fire dies out, the factory lights continue to blink dumbly in the dark. Yet deep underground, the facility has been weaving a silent curse of its own, discharging through channels studiously unseen and unmonitored a blend of chemicals that taints bay and pond and paddy, burrowing into seed and stomach and womb to blight the lives of thousands for generations. Measured by this result, we must admit the factory’s magic is the more powerful. 

Jusatsu Kito Sodan rituals in action (photo: Mitsutoshi Hanaga estate)

 

II Secret doctrine

This is as true a story as I could piece together from a rare exhibition of the work of photographer Mitsutoshi Hanaga in Hong Kong a year ago that has haunted me ever since. An iconoclast of Japan’s tumultuous postwar period who straddled the worlds of journalism, art and activism, Hanaga was one of the rare chroniclers of the activities in the 1970s of the Jusatsu Kito Sodan, which translates roughly into ‘Killing Curse Prayer Monk Group.’ 

As the name implies, the group was made up mostly of Buddhist monks, but also drew in students, dropouts and Christian dissidents, united only by a ferocious anger at a spate of pollution incidents unfurling around Japan – including the contamination scandals that entered Minamata Disease into the modern lexicon – and the inability, or unwillingness, of the authorities to do much about them. 

Jusatsu Kito Sodan was always destined to be an outlier. It was led by monks from Japan’s Shingon sect, known for its secrecy and emphasis on esoteric practices as a means to focus the mind and draw closer to enlightenment. These include the creation of elaborate mandalas, visual representations of the universe; and the chanting of mantras, phrases or syllables imbued with the power to produce change – spells, if one prefers. Perhaps the defining Shingon discipline is the use of fire for purification and communication with the gods, a display of roots that extend far beyond the austere Chinese schools from which much of Japanese Buddhism springs, to the Vedic rites of ancient India, where fire itself was worshipped as a deity. 

Shingon rituals are typically directed to positive ends, but the tradition also inherited tantric practices that are designed to injure or even destroy, grouped under the banner of abhicara, or black magic. It was with abhicara that Jusatsu Kito Sodan waged its war on factory owners. Its members gathered like vengeful spirits before industrialists’ homes or offices, or the hospitals that housed their victims, chanting ‘curse mantras’ to steer harm their way with all the purpose and precision of drone strikes. The intent was, quite literally, to kill. 

Mainstream Buddhists would most likely view such actions with horror. Ahimsa, or non-violence, is one of the central tenets of the Buddhist faith. Aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path, the practices that Buddhists believe lead to personal liberation, forbid not just killing, but even bearing others ill-will. 

For Jusatsu Kito Sodan, the mainstream was presumably part of the problem. That was the realm of the well-off priests of Japan’s establishment, content to officiate at funerals or sell trinkets to temple-goers. Theirs was a Buddhism that retired from rather than engaged with the world, that could never be counted on to react to the devastation of nearby communities – a violation of Buddhist precepts on a massive scale – in any meaningful way. 

Takahiro Matsushita, one of the group’s leaders, argued that the Buddhist principle of non-violence had to be understood as an assertion of the sacredness of all life; that humans exist only as part of an intricate web of connections in which all beings play an equal part, and are equally interdependent – from fish to insects, plants to microbes, to entities we might never consider alive or can’t conceive of at all. 

Leaving aside the human toll, by wiping out a fathomless number of no less important organisms, those responsible for industrial pollution threatened the entire cosmic order. A curse was therefore the only proportionate response – even if, as Matsushita acknowledged, it constituted the ‘ultimate act of Buddhist terrorism.’

Hokkaichi asthma sufferer (photo: Mitsutoshi Hanaga estate)

At a time, and in a place, with no shortage of more immediate, physical manifestations of protest and retaliation, I find myself  mind returning regularly to Hanaga’s ethereal images, and Matsushita’s stark words. The sentiments, the actions, seem miles removed from Buddhism as it’s typically presented; a religion of peace and meditative poise, progenitor of the mindfulness methods co-opted for a million stress reduction seminars and corporate wellness retreats. 

Yet Jusatsu Kido Sodan was born of tradition as well as frustration, and as well as its advocates of peace Buddhist tradition has always had those willing to strike first in its defence. Not least the wrathful deities, mythical guardians of universal law that are much beloved in East Asia and Tibet. One, Acala, whose name means ‘immovable,’ is particularly revered by Shingon Buddhists, and the god the group’s rituals were designed to invoke. He is typically depicted surrounded by flames with a noose in one hand and a sword in the other, which he uses to slay evil spirits without mercy.  

The curse mantras may not have come from nowhere. But should they have been spoken at all? It’s easy enough to dismiss the question as irrelevant – after all, they didn’t seem to work. Some of the firms responsible for higher-profile pollution incidents were eventually forced to own up to their crimes, but paid their victims – of which there are many, even today – in yen, not the lives of senior executives. Credit for prodding the authorities into action is typically assigned to a grab-bag of community groups, activists and journalists; Jusatsu Kido Sodan seems to have dropped from the radar of collective memory. Many of the factory owners targeted by Matsushita and his band have no doubt passed away. But it’s safe to say a curse was never listed as a cause of death. 

Perhaps the members of Jusatsu Kido Sodan were master manipulators, well aware the rituals were futile in practical terms but a particularly effective bit of theatre, grounded in legend and just provocative enough to draw more attention to their cause. Depending on who they were talking to – victims or the authorities – they could plausibly argue they were doing everything they possibly could, or nothing at all. Amid so much confusion, even hopelessness, over what constitutes a viable response to an issue like environmental degradation, or finding means to fight injustice without trading in actual violence, perhaps the monks’ deft treading of the tightrope between action and inaction points to a third way, a middle path of precisely the kind Buddhists aspire to walk. 

We will likely never be able to say for certain, because we rarely recognise magic for what it is. Its effects echo rather than shout, manifesting in ways that may take even its makers aback. But the monks of Justatsu Kido Sodan remind us that where traditional expressions of resistance are unviable or unavailable, ritual remains as both transgressive act and refuge of last resort, a platform on which the nominally powerless can rally and act with immeasurable – if not always immediately apparent – force. 

The moral dimensions of these actions may be questioned; mystery may surround their fruits. But wherever and whenever the insatiable engine of progress and commerce brushes up against deeply rooted conviction, we should be ready for the consequences of more collective prayer – and more curses voiced in the dark.    

 

CREDITS

Details on Jusatsu Kito Sodan, as well as the views and quote attributed to Takahiro Matsushita, are based on a booklet created for the Mitsutoshi Hanaga exhibition by curator Koichiro Osaka, director, Asakusa, Tokyo, who the author would like to thank for his insights and assistance.

All images: Mitsutoshi Hanaga estate. Courtesy of Mitsutoshi Hanaga Project Committee (Taro Hanaga, Gallery Kochuten and Aoyama Meguro)

 

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