Venerable Gyotsu Sato died at age 99

Living out his life of dedication to peace movement, Sato, former IPB Vice-President died on March 1st 2018. His contribution to internationalize the Japanese peace movement should be remembered.

By Hiroshi IWADARE

“The death of Gyotsu Sato marks the end of an epoch of the peace movement.” This is how I felt when I got the news. Gyotsu Sato, a Buddhist monk of Nipponzan Myohoji and a peace activist died of pneumonia on March 1, 2018. He was 99 years old. He dedicated his life for the development of the Japanese movement against A & H bombs. Among others, he played an essential role in linking the Japanese movement with those in Europe and the United States and with the United Nations.

His life was nothing but extraordinary.

He was born in Akita City in 1918. The family moved to Hyogo Prefecture where his father had a teaching job. In 1931 after finishing the primary school, he entered Kitano High School. The school culture was very liberal and few students chose a military career. Nevertheless he wanted to be a career soldier believing that “Japan should get on moving with the arms build-up to be prepared for the Soviet expansion”.

Against the strong opposition of his father and the teacher, he entered the Military Academy, then to the Military Air Force Academy with a hope to become a heavy bomber pilot.  While flying a training aircraft in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, an engine trouble forced him to undertake an emergency landing. He lost most of his left eyesight in this accident. He had to give up his hope to be a pilot. Instead, he chose a path to a communications officer. After graduating from the Academy, he was assigned to the development of the aeronautical communications network in Manchuria in China. After coming home, he continued to be engaged in building and enhancing the aeronautical communications systems. On August 15, 1945, he heard the emperor’s broadcasting of the end of the war in the army lab in Hachioji, Tokyo. He was 26 years old, an army major.

“Unconditional surrender” was unacceptable to him.  “We still have strength. If we fight like hell, we can make a peace treaty on equal footing” He demanded an interview with senior officers and argued “We should rise to revolt to get rid of the court of wicked men and solicit the Emperor to change the decision.” Along with the like-minded comrades of young army and navy officers, he bursted into the Military Air Force Academy in Iruma City, Saitama Prefecture and urged a revolt, but in vain.

Then he thought: “If we dive into the USS Missouri, where the surrender documents are signed in suicide attack bombers, the war end will be aborted.”  He drew up notes to his parents and his wife, and on August 22 in the heavy night rain, he drove a truck to the base of heavy bomber task force. His persuasion ended up in vain. Commanding officer did not respond to his urge. He tried to take the wheel single-handedly but was unable to take off.

He returned to Tokyo to find his comrades nowhere. He was told they had all left for the Imperial Palace. He quickly understood their intention and hurried to the palace, wanting to die with them. He was too late and the 13 of his comrades had already killed themselves.

He broke down, he was a wreckage and remained in a stupor for a long time. An ex-senior-officer, pitying of him, suggested him to become a monk and introduced him to the most venerable Nichidatsu Fujii, (Fujii Guruji), the founder and the leader of Nipponzan Myohoji. Sato met Fujii Guruji and became his disciple. It was in November, 1945.

Mr. Tetsuo Yamaori, a well-known religious scholar, writes about Fujii Guruji: “He served out 100 long years of life. His footprint reached out to India and throughout the world, a truly international Buddhist, rare to find, devoted to peace movement and missionary activities.” “After the defeat of the country, every sect of Japanese Buddhism advocated for pacifism, taking side of the peace movement. However, looking back of the 50 years since then, none has been as persistent and as uncompromising as Nichidatsu Fujii and his Nipponzan Myohoji Sangha.”

Under the guidance of Fujii Guruji, Sato vigorously strived in the peace movement, which includes the movement against A & H bombs, campaigns to oppose the US military bases, to oppose Japan’s rearmament, to defend Japan’s peace constitution, to demand an overall peace treaty and the neutrality of the country; to stop the mal-revision of the Japan-US Security Treaty, etc. etc.  He walked from Tokyo to Hiroshima in the peace march to call for nuclear disarmament.

He was tall and heavyset. The monk, with a shaven head and a keen look on the face, drumming and marching in the yellow outfit, chanting the prayer of Na-Mu-Myo-Ho- Ren-Ge-Kyo” was conspicuous.

In 1962, he undertook a peace march from Hiroshima to Auschwitz. In the previous year, the Berlin wall was built. He was afraid that there might be another world war and thought, “Now is the time for every citizen of the world to be united for peace”. He chose Hiroshima and Auschwitz, because these are the two venues where the biggest massacres took place during the war.

In February 1962, he left Hiroshima together with a couple of young students. They arrived in Auschwitz in January the following year, returning to Hiroshima in August of the same year, after visiting 33 countries and travelling 90,000 kilometers.

During this project, he made friends with many peace activists in various countries. This experience helped to build strong relationship with prominent international peace activists, such as Lord Phillip Noel-Baker (UK, Nobel peace prize laureate), Sean MacBride (ex-Foreign Minister of Ireland, Nobel peace prize laureate, President of the International Peace Bureau), Peggy Duff (UK, Secretary General of the International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace), etc. etc. They came to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and helped the voices of the Japanese anti-nuclear movement be heard in the peace movement in Europe, the United States and at the United Nations. For the Japanese movement traditionally primarily aligned with socialist and non-aligned countries, this was a groundbreaking development.

Sato assumed the post of Vice President of the International Peace Bureau with the backing of Sean MacBride

His efforts and activities culminiated at the United Nations’ first and second Special Session on Disarmament in 1978 and 1982 respectively. At the time of the second special session, a million people demonstrated in New York City calling for nuclear disarmament. Sato was heavily involved in organizing and receiving the delegations in the international liaison office in New York.

At home he was also constantly on the move. One of the campaigns he focused on was the movement to stop the construction of Narita International Airport. In cooperation with the farmers and other groups, he built a “peace tower” at the site of the projected 4000-meter-long runway. Later the tower was removed by the authorities but it attracted much public attention.

Sato unexpectedly fell into an abyss from his active and fulfilling days. In 1983, Fujii Guruji told Sato to leave the temple telling him, “You never grow out of a military mind. You are arrogant. You lavish money.” It was an excommunication from the Nipponzan Myohoji Sangha.

Worse, in 1984, he was dismissed from the position of the director of the international affairs of the Japan Council against A & H Bombs (Gensuikyo) in the aftermath of the internal political turmoil of the organization.

Soon after, he moved into the countryside of Ibariki Prefecture. Ever since, we hardly saw his figure in the peace movement.

I visited him in 1995 in Ibaraki.  In front of the altar where Buddha statue was enshrined, he spoke. “I confine myself here and I live a penitential life.” He was living on the military pension and the earnings of the woman he married. He very rarely left the place.

23 years have passed since then. March 1st is the “Bikini Day”. On March 1st in 1954, the United States conducted a hydrogen bomb test in the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific. A Japanese fishing vessel “Daigo Fukuryu-maru” (“the Fifth Lucky Dragon”) was badly exposed to the fallouts and Aikichi Kuboyama, the ship’s radio operator died due to irradiation. To commemorate the event, Bikini Day was inaugurated. The tragedy gave a birth to Japan’s anti-nuclear bomb movement soon after that. Gyotsu Sato died on this very memorable day.

(Abbreviated translation of the article of March 18, 2018 of the blog “Liberal 21” See the Japanese text here)