Isaac Meyer

Historian, teacher, podcaster

Month: June 2016

Episode 154 – Zen at War

This week: what happens when Buddhists go to war? We’ll explore the relationship between the Japanese Empire and the Zen Buddhist establishment.

Listen to the episode here.


Victoria, Brian. Zen at War

Victoria, Brian. Zen War Stories.

An excellent NYT article on Zen and war guilt.



Suzuki Daisetsu’s work would help popularize Buddhism in the US. However, his support for the Japanese Empire is less well-known than his later work (or his love of adorable kittens).


Yasutani Hakuun promoted Japanese militarism (as well as anti-semitism) during the Second World War, and went on the record saying that Japan had to smash the US “for the peace of Asia.” After the war, he went on several speaking tours in the United States.


Kaiten Nukariya’s Zen: The Religion of the Samurai helped popularize the idea of a link between Zen, the samurai class, and warfare.


Sugimoto Goro, the posterboy of the Zen office.


Buddhist monks practice military drill in the 1930s under the gaze of an army officer. By the 1930s, Buddhism had effectively been militarized to support Japan’s wars abroad.

Episode 153 – The Birth of the Samurai, Part 8

This week, we conclude our series on the rise of the samurai with murder, intrigue, political reform, and gratuitous Game of Thrones references.

Listen to the episode here.


McCullough, Helen. The Tale of the Heike.

Friday, Karl. Hired Swords: The Rise of Private Warrior Power in Early Japan.

Sansom, George B. A History of Japan to 1334.



Minamoto no Yoshitsune’s exploits remained the stuff of legend after his death. They are memorialized in manga, TV shows, video games, and statues like this one.


An Edo-era print of the three Minamoto brothers (from left to right: Yoshitsune, Yoritomo, Noriyori) by the prolific printer Utagawa Kunisada. I particularly like this print because of the way the men are dressed. Yoshitsune and Noriyori are in battle gear, but Yoritomo is dressed like a courtier — or perhaps a politician.


We’ve already touched on the Japanese fondness for wax statues. This one shows the monk Benkei at the moment of his death protecting his friend Yoshitsune. It depicts a popular tale about Benkei: that he died standing up and never fell to the ground until toppled after the battle. That story mirrors one from China about another famously loyal warrior with a halberd: the great Chinese saint of war Guan Yu. The two stories were probably linked specifically to draw a parallel between the reputation of Guan Yu and that of Benkei.


Episode 152 – The Birth of the Samurai, Part 7


The Genpei War comes to a close in this action packed episode! Kyoto will fall! The Taira will burn! Oxen will be deployed as tactical weapons!


Listen to the episode here.


McCullough, Helen Craig. The Tale of the Heike.

Dalkey, Kara. Genpei.

Sansom, George B. A History of Japan to 1334.



The major battles of the Genpei War.


The Battle of Kurikara, complete with oxen charging in on the top right.


Yoshinaka mired in the mud at the Battle of Awazu.


Yoritomo’s downhill charge at Ichinotani as depicted in a diorama, because the Japanese really love dioramas.


A map of the Battle of Ichinotani. Noriyori’s route is in blue; Yoshitsune’s is in Green.


The Taira fleet gathering up escaping samurai in the Battle of Yashima.


Dan-no-ura, the final battle of the Genpei War.

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