Ryoga Suwa, former head priest of Johoji Temple, dies at 85

by Daiki Hisayuku, Staff Writer

Beliefs founded on experience of losing parents in A-bombing

Ryoga Suwa, the former chief priest of Johoji Temple, died at the age of 85 on March 11. Mr. Suwa lost family members in the atomic bombing, and their temple, which was near the hypocenter, was completely destroyed. Based on this experience of losing his parents, he persisted in conveying messages of peace, as a religious leader, until the end of his life.

Johoji Temple, which is part of the Hongwanji school of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism, was once located in Nakajima Honmachi (now the site of the Peace Memorial Park). The temple, along with that community, was utterly devastated in the A-bomb attack carried out by the United States on August 6, 1945.

Mr. Suwa was in the sixth grade at Nakajima National School (now Nakajima Elementary School) and had been evacuated, before the bombing took place, to the city of Miyoshi, located in the northern part of Hiroshima Prefecture. His sister, who was 16, died in the atomic bombing while she was working as a mobilized student. His parents went missing and were never found. Orphaned at the age of 12, Mr. Suwa was adopted by relatives. In mid-September, he returned to Hiroshima and found that his neighborhood had been reduced to ruins.

“While I was in Miyoshi, I thought a lot about the trouble I had caused my parents and the frequent quarrels I had with my sister, and I regretted all that,” Mr. Suwa said. “So I wanted to do things that would please my parents after the war.” But his wish could not come true. And the young boy had to shoulder the burden of rebuilding the temple, which had a history of more than 400 years.

Bringing Buddhist rosary to school

When he commuted to his junior high school, he always carried his Buddhist rosary and sutra book and visited the houses of members of his temple on his way home. He placed a sheet of paper and a pencil at the site where the temple once stood so that followers could write down their addresses. “I was able to endure thanks to their support,” he said. In 1953, a new temple building was built in its present location.

For many years, Mr. Suwa served as the officiating priest at the annual memorial service for A-bomb victims held in the Peace Memorial Park. He was also involved in the campaign to preserve the Rest House in the park, which was originally a kimono shop and survived the atomic bombing. The Rest House was one of the buildings he was familiar with prior to the A-bomb attack. He also spoke about the consequences of the Hiroshima bombing, which he considered his mission.

Story of the two-headed bird

Mr. Suwa always had a gentle smile on his face. But once he began to talk about the war and the bombing, it became clear that he had a steely will. He said, “Once war breaks out, men and women of all ages will be dragged into it. This is why war is so terrible and tragic and full of misery.”

Last July, he delivered a sermon during a memorial service for all the victims of the war, which was organized by the group of western Hiroshima temples belonging to the True Pure Land Buddhism. Speaking at the sect’s Hiroshima Branch Temple in the city center, he said, “Why do human beings wage war? We all must ask ourselves this question and think it over.”

The foundation of his beliefs was the story of the two-headed bird that appears in the Sukhavati sutra. He compared this bird to human beings and said that even if people have different ways of thinking or behaving, they are linked as living beings, and he stressed the importance of forming harmonious relations between people regardless of their circumstances.

Mr. Suwa was suffering from cancer and other health conditions. He adopted Gien, 46, as his son in 2012, and handed over his responsibility as chief priest to Gien in 2016, as well as his wish for peace. “I hope Gien will not be overly enthusiastic, but I’d like him to continue talking about the importance of peace based on the teachings,” said Mr. Suwa with an unforgettable smile.

(Originally published on March 18, 2019)