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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Lessons of a priest's redemption

Jul. 27, 2017

The Burma Campaign was one of the major battles of World War Two. It is now 72 years since the end of the war. Every year in mid-July, a Buddhist service is held at a temple on Mt. Kōya, in Wakayama Prefecture, for those who died in Burma, which is present-day Myanmar.

The story behind this event started more than half a century ago, and it holds a message for the world.

Local People call it the Burmese Temple. The memorial service has been held there every year since 1966.

It was started by a former head priest who had taken part in the Burma Campaign. He had made a vow to promote peace, and he committed to telling the tragic story of a war that he, himself, had experienced.

The memorial service takes place at Jōfuku-in Temple on Mt. Kōya. The temple's main statue is a Buddha from Burma.

The annual tradition was started by the late head priest Tenzui Ueda. He was a noted Buddhist scholar.

After the war, he sold his belongings and worked hard to build a pagoda on the temple grounds dedicated to victims of the war.

Ichirō Yamamoto is 100 years old, and the only veteran of the Burma Campaign attending this years' service. He became close to Tenzui after the memorial event started. Yamamoto was stationed in Burma as a pilot.

"Before he passed away, Tenzui entrusted me with his wishes, saying, ‘We must all vow, here, never to fight another war," Yamamoto recalls.

Zuihō Nakashita leads the people in prayer and sutra readings. He is the current head priest and one of Tenzui's pupils.

"Master Tenzui always talked about Burma whenever he could," he says. "I wanted to continue this tradition, just as he wished, no matter what."

In 1957, Tenzui participated in the first Japanese government delegation to Burma to collect war victims’ remains.

He was shocked by the sheer number of victims, and decided to bring some of the remains of Japanese soldiers back to the temple.

Tenzui's diary is in the temple library. It describes how he became involved in the Burma Campaign, and then sought redemption for his role in the war:

"In the jungles, I saw human remains exposed to the wind and rain. It was a deep reminder of the suffering that millions of our brothers had to endure because of egotistic and ignorant human beings. After our experience of war, we must take a hard, honest look at human nature."

The Imperial Japanese Army expanded its invasion into Southeast Asia in December 1941.

The following year, the Imperial Army drafted 53 Japanese Buddhist priests to form a Pacification Unit. Tenzui Ueda was studying Buddhism in Thailand at the time, and was the oldest recruit.

Eighty percent of Burma's population is Buddhist, and their priests are revered. The Pacification Unit enlisted the priests to spread propaganda. It said the Japanese had come to liberate the Burmese from British colonial rule.

We spoke to a Japanese priest who took part in this mission, 98 year-old Enju Kato, the head priest of Yugyo-ji Temple and a former member of the Pacification Unit.

He remembers being surprised by the warm welcome he received everywhere in Burma.

"The local people brought us about 10 elephants, and said they were presents, to welcome us," he says. "At the time, these people really wanted their independence. Their desire to break free from British colonial rule was strong. I really sensed that."

Three months into his pacification work, Tenzui started setting up Japanese language schools. It was part of the effort to indoctrinate the Burmese and give them access to Japanese education.

In 1944, the Imperial Japanese Army launched the battle to take Imphal in neighboring India. The Japanese were suffering from a lack of experienced personnel, and were up against much stronger allied forces.

Tenzui was called upon by General Renya Mutaguchi, the commander in charge of the battle. General Mutaguchi recommended sending Burmese priests to the front to assist Japanese soldiers. Tenzui felt he had no choice but to help. It was completely unheard of that a Burmese priest would participate in war, but Tenzui helped send them into battle.

"On March 31st, as a fellow-priest I helped send them off on their journey, quietly praying for them," he says.

Tenzui never saw the priests again. The Imperial Japanese Army was defeated by the allied forces. The remains of countless soldiers and civilians littered the battlefield.

Enju Kato saw the tragedy with his own eyes. He had returned to Japan and was promptly drafted and joined the retreat from Imphal.

"On my tour of Burma as a soldier, I saw the road littered with bones," he says. "I object to war one hundred percent."

In the end, Tenzui felt that all the things he'd done according to Japanese army propaganda, brought nothing but damage in Burma. He wrote frankly about his feelings as a caution to himself.

"Repentance lies within me," he wrote. "Looking at the hardships of the soldiers, I feel my sin alone."

Some of the bones Tenzui brought home from Burma lie in a monument in the cemetery on Mount Koya.

Every year, Burmese exchange students come for the memorial service, and together they offer prayers for peace.

It's been 52 years since the "Vows of Peace" memorial began. Now more than ever, Tenzui's wish must be carried out.