Mahatma Gandhi : The Japanese Connection

- Thomas Weber and Akira Hayashi*


At Gandhi's Sevagram Ashram prayers still commence with the Japanese Nichiren Buddhist mantra of "Nammyo ho renge kyo." This raises questions about the connection between Gandhi and the Japanese. Gandhi admired Japanese self-respect, unity and patriotism which were demonstrated with Japan's defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Later he became concerned by Japanese imperialism in China, the swamping of India with cheap Japanese cloth, and the prospect of a Japanese invasion of India during the Second World War. His open letter to the Japanese complaining of their brutal imperialism was quoted very selectively in Japanese papers so as to provide justification for the policies that he had condemned. Other Japanese writings about him played down his political activism making him useful for propaganda purposes rather than as a model for political activism. However, Gandhi's most important connection with Japan came through the various Japanese visitors to his ashrams, especially the Nichiren monks who stayed with him and left a lasting impression. The legacy of these monks continued in fostering understanding between the two countries in the early decades after Indian independence.

If ONE VISITS Mahatma Gandhi's Sevagram Ashram, in the geographical centre of India, not far from the town of Wardha, particularly if it is done at a time when the grounds are not swarming with tourists and hoards of school children, one finds that the spirit of the Mahatma is still quite palpable. It is there in the cleanliness and beauty of the park-like grounds, the functional simplicity of the buildings, and the earnestness of the few remaining ashramites. This spirit is most evident in the evenings in the glorious light as dusk approaches and ashramites, and visitors who have chosen to stay, settle on the mats laid out on the gravel prayer ground in front of Adi Niwas, the first permanent building of the ashram. The prayers consist of recitations of verses of the Gita, Gandhi's favourite Upanishad, the Iso, the eleven ashram vows, and a reading from the Koran. Included often, is a chanting of the Lord's Prayer in a totally unexpected rhythm. And there is also the singing of melodic bhajans (devotional songs). However, for a Japanese visitor, a surprise comes at the very start of the prayer session. The prayers commence with the thrice repeated Nammyo ho renge kyo (I bow to the enlightened souls)1, followed by two minutes of silence before the prayers proper start.

This is a little perplexing. Gandhi had close contacts with Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jains, but there is little evidence that he ever had much to do with Buddhists or made any detailed study of Buddhist literature, especially Japanese Buddhist literature. Among books known to have been read by Gandhi, Dharma Vir's Gandhi Bibliography lists volumes with titles such as Gospel of Buddha, Lectures on Buddhism and The Way of the Buddha.2 Nevertheless, Gandhi does not appear to have made close friendships with practicing Buddhists or made any in-depth study of Buddhist sacred texts. For him, Buddhism remained a sub-branch of Hinduism.

From Gandhi's writings, we know that in the 1930s, a Japanese monk resident at the ashram was a habitual chanter of the Nichiren Buddhist mantra. After he was deported with the outbreak of the Second World War as an enemy alien, Gandhi instituted the invocation as the first item in the prayer programme (rather than the recitation of verses of the Bhagavad Gita as could be expected). Many religious figures visited Gandhi and it is therefore not unreasonable to ask what was so special about this monk from a Japanese Buddhist sect that his mantra takes such a prominent place in Gandhi's ashram prayers. Given the dates, Gandhi mentions for the stay of the monk, a question is also raised about whether this monk was a one off visitor or whether there were other Japanese monks at the ashram that posterity has conflated into one, and also raises questions about other contacts between Japanese nationals and the Mahatma, and if they existed, what the purpose of the contacts may have been, and what influence, if any, each had on the other.

Gandhi and Japan

Gandhi literature has very little to say about Japan.3 Most of what Gandhi himself wrote about Japan and the Japanese was in relation to the Japan's war with Russia in 1904-5, on the Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s, and on the seemingly impending invasion of British India by Japan during the Second World War. In early 1905, in his South African newspaper Indian Opinion, Gandhi commented on the ongoing battle between Japanese and Russian forces near the Manchurian town of Mukden and when the scale of the Japanese victory had become evident, Gandhi noted that "No one ever imagined that Japan was capable of such bravery ... This was no ordinary deed of daring. Such courage is incomparable." He decided that the secret of Japan's "epic heroism" was "unity, patriotism and the resolve to do or die,"4 all qualities admired by him as he was stepping up his campaign for Indian rights in South Africa. For him, Japan became a symbol of success that Indians should emulate: "We should follow the example of Japan and unite, become industrious and educate ourselves."5 It should be noted, however, that Gandhi was praising the bravery of the Japanese people, not their victory which was a symbol of the country embarking on the road to Western imperialism.6

Following his first major anti-British campaign, in 1924 Gandhi received a copy of a biography of himself, entitled Seiyu Gandhi, by a Japanese author who was seeking additional information.7 And about a year later he was visited by two "Japanese friends" who noted the long-standing religious ties between India and Japan. In 1930, Gandhi gave a "Japanese friend" permission to translate his Autobiography8and, another year and a half later, he gave a Japanese writer permission to translate his newspaper articles.9

At this stage, Gandhi's major concern with Japan was the swamping of India with Japanese cloth as he was trying to promote self-sufficiency in cloth production through a boycott of foreign, but especially British, cloth (which produced something of a vacuum that Japanese cloth manufacturers were eager to fill.)10 He spelled this out quite bluntly to a Japanese visitor, Mr. Saito.

Fujii, Anand and Keshav: The Riddle of the Ashram Monks

It is understandable that as a political leader Gandhi had to consider Japan and the role it was playing in the world, especially to the extent that it was impacting on India. But in reality his writings on Japan were no more than those on many other countries. The real influences, the ones that gave him the introduction to his prayer sessions, came from personal contacts with Japanese monks.

In May 1933, a Japanese monk had arrived at Sabarmati not long before the remaining ashramites, including foreign visitors, were relocated to Wardha. One such visitor, Duncan Greenlees, noted that "A Japanese Buddhist priest came with his drum and strange chantings in the night, and worked among the villagers with tireless energy."11 Some ashramites thought that this monk overdid chanting and drumming, but as a guest of an ashram which tolerated all religions, “no one could do anything about it.”12 We know that in mid-September 1933, Gandhi had a talk with the Japanese monk Tadao Okitsu in Poona. Okitsu wanted to serve India and had come to the Mahatma for direction. Gandhi put before the monk the task of spinning and added that when he had mastered it he would be given "some other work."13 Two weeks later, Okitsu and his master called in on Gandhi at Wardha, to where he was in the process of relocating his Sabarmati ashram. The monks Fujii (who Gandhi called Guruji) and his Hindi-speaking translator Okitsu explained to Gandhi that they wanted to see the revival of Buddhism in India.

Two weeks after the meeting with Fujii, Gandhi noted that he and the children played on a Japanese sadhu's drum. Of the monk himself, Gandhi said that "The sadhu is a jewel. He is extremely frank, humble, cheerful and courteous. He is learning Hindi. He also spins on the charkha and the takli [hand spindle]. He observes all the rules scrupulously."14

The most important of Gandhi's Japanese contacts was with the monks who stayed for more lengthy periods at his Sevagram Ashram. Unfortunately, although Gandhi talks admiringly a great deal about the monks, all too often they are not named; so it is difficult to determine whether he is talking about one person or different people, who stayed at various times for varying periods.

Ashramite Brijkrishna Chandiwala informs us that another Japanese monk called Keshav joined the Maganwadi Ashram in Wardha in 1935.

Another Gandhi-follower records that on 12 June 1941 a Japanese monk, named Keshavbhai, who lived with Gandhi at Sevagram, had been beaten up by "an aggressive and infuriated young man." While Keshav, who possessed "remarkable qualities of rendering service to others, cheerfulness and self-control," was strong enough to retaliate, he "did not do so but allowed himself to be beaten, thus displaying true heroism and saintliness."15

Tenzaki Keisho (Keshavbhai who had been with Gandhi four years before) arrived back in Wardha in mid-September 1939 and stayed at the Sevagram Ashram for a further two years and three months.16 Tenzaki/Keshav became a true ashramite. He did not express political ideas and so was originally not considered as dangerous by the British. However, he was interned after the outbreak of the Pacific War17 and moved to a concentration camp in Delhi soon afterwards.18

In a newspaper report of a prayer meeting speech given towards the end of 1945, Gandhi, in an account of the ordering of the ashram prayers, is said to have made mention of a dozen Japanese monks who visited him at his Maganwadi Ashram at Wardha in 1936.19 The report has him informing his audience that the leading monk suggested the sending of one or two of his disciples to the Ashram.

Four and a half months before his assassination, Gandhi yet again explained the reasoning behind the inclusion of prayers belonging to communities other than Hindu. With reference to the Japanese Buddhist mantra, he said:

The questioner ought also to have asked why the prayer commenced with the Buddhist prayer in Japanese. The selection of the stanzas of the prayer has a history behind it befitting the sacred character. The Buddhist prayer was the prayer which the whole of Sevagram resounded in the early morning when a good Japanese monk20 was staying at the Sevagram Ashram and who by his silent and dignified conduct had endeared himself to the inmates of the Ashram.21

All of these descriptions are very similar. In short, the chronology of the comings and goings of the Japanese monks is somewhat shrouded in confusion. It is quite probable that the Japanese monks who came to Gandhi's ashrams were very similar in demeanour but it is also possible that, as suggested above, the literature has at times conflated different persons into one, or attributed events in the ashram story of one notable character to others.

Other Japanese Contacts

It is not only Japanese monks who visited the Mahatma; other important Japanese visitors also came at regular intervals. In late December 1935, against doctor's orders, an ailing Gandhi invited Japan's poet Yonejiro Noguchi22 to visit him at the Wardha ashram. In their discussions, when asked if he knew anything about Japan, Gandhi admitted that he knew very little of the country except what he had read forty-five years ago in Edwin Arnold's weekly letters in an English journal that had described Japanese life.23 Gandhi made a comment on the "darker side" of Japan as seen through its "traffic and trade rivalry" but then quickly added that he also knew Japan's brighter side through Joseph Kagawa (not to be confused with Toyohiko Kagawa who came in 1939), a Japanese Christian missionary who had stayed at the ashram the previous year.

In December 1938, Gandhi had lengthy discussions with D.Takaoka, a member of the Japanese Parliament who was seeking advice on bringing India and Japan together (with a hint that this was in the anti-British cause). Gandhi was blunt in his response:

It can be possible if Japan ceases to throw its greedy eyes on India. No doubt you do not bring your army to India, but you employ your matchless skill, and your ability to hide the truth and your knowledge of the weaknesses of Indians, in order to flood India with your goods which are often flimsy. You have copied the rulers of India in their methods of exploitation and gone even one better. Now, from the Japanese standpoint you cannot afford to lose the millions of rupees that you get from India. And if you cannot get them voluntarily, you will be quite capable of doing so by force of arms. But that would not be the way of bringing Japan and India together. What can bring them together is a moral bond based on mutual friendship. But there is no basis for that friendship today. ... I want to assimilate all your good points, but unfortunately no one comes here to give us the good things of Japan. You believe only in dumping your goods on us. How can I take a single yard of Japanese cloth, however fine and artistic it may be? It is as poison to us, for it means starvation for the poor people of India. You have left the West far behind in diplomacy, in skill, in cheap manufactures, in armed warfare, in exploitation. How then can there be friendship between you and us, so long as you see nothing wrong in exploitation?

What the distinguished parliamentarian thought about being talked to like this is not known. Perhaps to get off the subject, he asked the Mahatma to give him a message for his new political party which stood for "Asia for the Asiatics." Possibly he had made another mistake as Gandhi was not more conciliatory in his response: "I do not subscribe to the doctrine of Asia for the Asiatics, if it is meant as an anti-European combination. How can we have Asia for the Asiatics unless we are content to let Asia remain a frog in the well? But Asia cannot afford to remain a frog in the well. It has a message for the whole world, if it will only live up to it."24 While some of his countrymen were willing to throw their lot in with the Japanese as a vehicle to further their struggle against British imperialism, Gandhi was not going to endorse Japanese imperialism.

A month later, on 15 January 1939, Japanese social reformer, Christian evangelist, pacifist and author, Dr. Toyohiko Kagawa came to visit Gandhi at the Swaraj Ashram in Bardoli.25 The discussion started off on the merits of co-operatives but soon came around to Japan's war. He asked Gandhi what he would do in Kagawa's position. Again Gandhi was very straightforward:

I would declare my heresies and be shot. I would put the co-operatives and all your work in one scale, and put the honour of your nation in the other, and if you found that the honour was being sold, I should ask you to declare your views against Japan and in so doing make Japan live through your death. But, for this, inner conviction is necessary. I do not know that I should be able to do all that I have said if I were in your position, but I must give you my opinion since you have asked for it.

Kagawa responded by assuring Gandhi that the conviction was there, but that his friends had been asking him to stay his hand. Gandhi merely told him not to listen to his friends "when the Friend inside you says, 'Do this'" because even good friends can deceive. They have no choice, Gandhi explained, because they want to see us live and carry on our work. Kagawa tried to change the subject back to co-operatives but Gandhi would have none of it:

Of course you have all these things. You have done marvellous things, and we have many things to learn from you. But how can we understand this swallowing alive of China ... How could you have committed all these atrocities? And then your great poet [presumably Noguchi] calls it a war of humanity and a blessing to China!

This was followed by a lengthy discussion of the meaning of the Bhagavad Gita.


Ishida notes that Japan failed to produce any great non-violent activists in the manner of Gandhi. The possible exception appears to be members of the Nipponzan Myohoji sect. Monks, led by Nichidatsu Fujii, were often in the forefront in peace rallies, beating their drums and chanting their mantras.26 It appears that of Gandhi's religious Japanese visitors most were members of this sect, and certainly they were the ones that spent the longest times with him. This may have been because of shared similarity in views coupled with a strong sense of mission.

After the Second World War, Tenzaki Keisho returned to secular life. It appears that he did not talk about his days as a Nipponzan Myohoji monk even with his family. He didn't leave any documents.

Following his deportation to Japan, Gyoryo Maruyama toured the country in the service of Fujii for a year. After that he was sent to Indo China at the request of the Japanese army for "pacification work" to pave the way for the Japanese invasion of India through the jungles of Indo-China. He was assigned to Iwaguro Intelligence which was undertaking training of Bose's Indian National Army, carrying on propaganda aimed at India, and training spies in Singapore. After the end of the War, in 1946, Maruyama returned to Japan and dedicated himself to peace activities. He played a significant role in the Japan-Bharat Sarvodaya Mitrata Sangha, formed in 1958 by Fujii to advance world peace and the practice of love and non-violence. It played a considerable role in fostering the relationship between Japan and India through the 1960s. Maruyama was killed in a traffic accident in 1967.27 Following the War, the reverend Nichidatsu Fujii became a radical pacifist and was responsible for the erection of many Nipponzan Myohoji temples, with resident monks, in India as well as in America and England.28 As a result of his efforts, Nipponzan Myohoji became an important bridge for popular-level exchanges between Japan and India in the 1950s and 1960s. In those days, many young Japanese tourists stayed in these temples during their travels in India. The temples were cheap, and culturally comfortable in a strange environment, taking the role of youth hostels for Japanese youth. Nipponzan Myohoji also played an intermediary role for Indians who wanted to go to Japan to study Japanese agricultural and industrial technology. It facilitated the sending of people on Japan study tours by the post-Gandhi Gandhian movement leader Jayaprakash Narayan. In short, as hinted at by the mantra that introduces the prayers at Gandhi's ashram, there is relatively unknown but rich interaction between Gandhi and the Japanese.29


We would like to thank Kinnari Bhatt, Akihiko Kimijima, and Sae Hinooka for their assistance with this paper.

Notes and References:

  1. At least this is how Sevagram Ashram guide books write the mantra and translate it. See for example S.P.Pande, Ashram Prayers (Sevagram: Sevagram Ashram Pratishthan, 1999), pp.5, 19. Gandhi referred to it as meaning "Salutation to the enlightened ones" in a "Speech at Prayer Meeting" in Srirampur, 30 November 1946, Harijan, 5 January 1947. For further discussion of the meaning of the mantra, see note 42 below.
  2. Dharma Vir, Gandhi Bibliography (Delhi: Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, 1967), pp.487-494.
  3. It should be noted that before the Second World War the literature of Japan also had relatively little to say about Gandhi. The Japanese monk Nichidatsu Fujii, who briefly met Gandhi in 1933, notes in his biography that Japan was indifferent to the Indian freedom struggle and in fact sided with the British. See Nichidatsu Fujii, My Non Violence: An Autobiography of a Japanese Buddhist (trans. T.Yamaori), (Tokyo: Japan Buddha Sangha Press, 1975), pp.67-68.
  4. "Russia and Japan," Indian Opinion, 10 June 1905.
  5. "Mass Meeting of Transvaal Indians," Indian Opinion, 6 April 1907.
  6. See M.K.Gandhi, Hind Swaraj or Indian Home Rule (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1938), pp.29-30. There the "Reader" suggests that "As is Japan, so must India be. We must own our own navy, our army, and we must have our own splendour, and then will India's voice ring through the world." The Editor (Gandhi) responds: "you want English rule without the Englishman. You want the tiger's nature, but not the tiger ... This is not the Swaraj that I want."
  7. See Otane Takata to Gandhi, 30 April 1924, and Gandhi's reply to Otane Jakata [sic], after 30 April 1924. Takata noted that the publication of his book "has immediately been followed by four other books all relative to you." S.N. (Sabarmati Nidhi, Gandhi Papers, held at the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation Trust, Ahmedabad) 8759. See also Mahadev Desai's response to questions asked by Takata. S.N. 8837. On 29 October 1928, Takata wrote again asking Gandhi to "kindly accept 'The Collection of Gandhi's Essays and Works' IV - 'The Story of My Experiments with Truth'." S.N.15057. Takata's book was published in Japan in 1922. The other four books published in the same year as Takata's include two books by journalist, editor, and later Okinawan rights activist, Chitaro Yohena, Ganji Simban no Hi (Gandhi's Judgement Day) and with academic, philosopher and right-wing activist Kazunobu Kanokogi, Ganji to Shinri no Haji (Gandhi and Satyagraha), as well as books by journalist and critic Tadashi Shigemori, Gandhi oyobi Gandhhism (Gandhi and Gandhism), and academic philosopher Riichiro Hoashi (see below).
  8. See Gandhi to Narandas Gandhi, 22/23 June 1930. A Japanese Christian writer, T.Kanai, had asked permission to translate Gandhi's autobiography into Japanese in a letter dated 28 August 1929. S.N. 15620.
  9. See Gandhi to Naraindas Gandhi, 12 February 1932.
  10. See, for example, Gandhi's later writings where he makes his position on this plain: "Japanese or British?" Young India, 18 June 1931; and "Discussion on Foreign Cloth Boycott," The Hindu, 26 June 1931.
  11. Duncan Greenlees, Gandhi Ashram (Palghat: Scholar Press, 1934), p.39.
  12. Nilla Cram Cook, My Road to India (New York: Lee Furman, 1939), pp.369-370. Cook described "a Japanese priest" who came to the Ashram "with a drum which he beat all day from sunrise to sunset, chanting Buddhist scriptures in Japanese. Personally, I admired anyone who could sit at one spot beating a drum in the midst of such frantic activity, but Duncan Greeley [she means Duncan Greenlees], who lived in the same bungalow, did not share the sentiment."
  13. "Talk with a Japanese Monk," Harijanbandhu, 12 September 1933.
  14. See Gandhi to Vallabhbhai Patel, 27 October 1933. See also Gandhi to Ramniklal Modi Chanda, 14 November 1933.
  15. Ramnarayan Chaudhary, Bapu As I Saw Him (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1959), p.205.
  16. See Togawa, "A Chance Encounter with Gandhi," p.13.
  17. The dates here are unclear, but it seems that he was interned soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and moved to Delhi in early 1942. The length of his Delhi internment is also unclear however the magazine Doumei Graph confirms that Tenzaki was in an internment camp in Delhi in 1943. See Takashi Kaite, "An Account of War Internment in India," Doumei Graph, 1943, vol.11, no.1, pp.65­69 at p.66. Interned along with him were three other Nipponzan Myohoji monks: Yagi Gosho, Watanabe Heigo and Miki Jikyo. See Togawa, "Living with Gandhi," p.325.
  18. Togawa, "A Chance Encounter with Gandhi," p.13.
  19. There is record of Gandhi meeting a Japanese delegation in Delhi on 13 December 1933, but the only record of a meeting with Japanese visitors at Maganwadi around that time is with Yonejiro Noguchi in late December or early January 1936, and with Dr.Tomiko Kora from Japan's Women's University on 7 January 1936. For an account of Dr. Kora's visit see Mahadev Desai, "Weekly Letter: Dr. Kora," Harijan, 18 January 1936, p.386.
  20. Yet again named Reverend G. Haishao by the CWMG.
  21. "Notes: The Reason for Addition," Harijan, 17 August 1947.
  22. See Yone Noguchi, "A Visit from the Far East" in S. Radhakrishnan (ed.), Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections on His Life and Work (Bombay: Jaico, 1956), pp.159-162 at p.159. Yonejiro Noguchi (1875­1947), was a famous poet who wrote in Japanese and English. He lived in America in his youth and commenced doing research on Asia in 1935, visiting India at this time. Up to the height of the war, ten years after his visit to Gandhi, he was one of the few who wrote that it was incorrect to understand satyagraha as being a quietistic form of resistance, noting its assertive elements that could confront Britain. However, by 1942 Noguchi started re-evaluating Gandhi, calling his activities "non-resistance" and "gradualist", and stating that they would not be sufficient to achieve Indian independence. See Ishida, Japanese Political Culture, pp.141, 143.
  23. In 1892, Arnold's weekly serialised travel writings focussing on Japan appeared in two books: Seas and Lands and Japonica. Gandhi had befriended Arnold during his student days in London and had read the serials with "great avidity." In his interview, Gandhi noted that Arnold wrote about Japan "with intimate sympathy."
  24. "Discussion with D..Takaoka," Harijan, 24 December 1938. For a more detailed account of Takaoka's visit, see Mahadev Desai, "A Japanese Visitor," Harijan, 24 December 1938, p.404.
  25. Toyohiko Kagawa (1888-1960) was educated in Christian colleges in Japan and America. On his return to Japan he worked with the poor and was a leader in the labour movement. He was a pacifist who was arrested in 1940 for apologising to China for his country's attack. Later he went to the US in an attempt to avert the looming war. Following the war, he led efforts in Japan to secure the vote for women. For a more nuanced view of Kagawa's pacifism, see Yuzo Ota, "Kagawa Toyohiko: A Pacifist?" in Nobuya Bamba and John F. Howes (eds.), Pacifism in Japan: The Christian and Socialist Tradition (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1978), pp.169­197.
  26. Ishida, Japanese Political Culture, p.145.
  27. See Nichidatsu Fujii, "To the Memory of the Late Rev. Gyoryoinnichiyo as a Man of Virtue," Sarvodaya, Japan-Bharat Sarodaya Mitrata Sangha, 1986, vol.19, nos.3-4, p.3.
  28. See N.C.Parashar, "World Peace Pagoda-Rajgir (Bihar)," Modern Review, 1970, vol.124-6, no.1, pp. 42-44.
  29. Here we have tried to tell the Gandhi/Japan story from the Gandhi side. Further archival research in Japan could make more of this connection from the Japanese side by considering questions such as whether any of the monks, other than Fujii, who visited Gandhi had any non-violence-related impact on Japanese society; what happened to the Gandhi followers who went home as militarism increased in Japan; what use did the Nichiren sect make of Gandhi's name in Japan, and to what effect; and why did all the monks who stayed in Gandhi's ashrams seem to come from this group?

Courtesy: Adapted from the original article which appeared in Gandhi Marg, Volume 37, Number 3 & 4, Combined issue October-December 2015 & January-March 2016.

* THOMAS WEBER is an Honorary Associate in the School of Social Sciences at La Trobe University. His most recent Gandhi-related book is Gandhi at First Sight (2015, Roli). Email:
AKIRA HAYASHI is an Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Hirosaki University, 1, Bunkyo- cho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8560, Japan. His research interests centre on Gandhi, the post-Gandhi Sarvodaya Movement and Sri Lankan ethnic issues. Email: