Stories of Japanese-American Buddhists reveal the complex relationship that existed between ethnic, national, and religious identities at the same time as a new form of Buddhism, which simultaneously drew on and transcended Japanese and American traditions, was forged in the crucible of war.
It had been three weeks since ten-year old Masumi Kimura had first heard about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Like everyone else in her small Japanese-American farming community in California's Central Valley, she felt uneasy about what was happening around her. She could see that her issei (first-generation) Buddhist immigrant parents, from Wakayama Prefecture in Japan, who had settled in Madeira, California, were unusually tense and afraid. Perhaps it was not too surprising. The family's dear friend and president of the Madeira Buddhist Temple, Mr. Nikaido, had recently been taken away by the FBI. Local Caucasian boys had taken their shotguns to the nearby Fresno Buddhist Temple and used the front door of the building for target practice. The fear was that because of the Japanese-American community's ethnicity and Buddhist religion, the American government and the public at large would vent their resentment against it, even though the community had nothing to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It was midafternoon when the FBI came to Masumi Kimura's farmhouse to question her father, a leader in the local Buddhist temple. It didn't help matters that he had a shotgun in his hands when he opened the door (he had been about to "take care" of the rabbits out in the vegetable garden). The FBI agents barged in and wrestled him to the floor. Minutes later, Masumi returned from the local public school only to find her father pinned on the ground and an agent holding a gun to her mother's head. Since Masumi's English was the best in the family, she explained to the agents that her father wasn't trying to shoot them. Things settled down once Masumi turned to her parents to translate into Japanese what the FBI agents were saying. After some further questioning, the agents decided they were done for that day, though in the subsequent weeks they would return to the Kimura home to conduct further interrogations.
Masumi's father was one of the lucky ones. Unlike the hundreds of Buddhist priests who were incarcerated for the duration of the war, he was not taken during the initial sweep of December 1941. Many prominent men in the community - leaders in Japanese religious, political, and cultural organizations - were taken away without any trial or evidence of anti-American activity. During the first month after Pearl Harbor, rumors swirled around the community about what happened to the several thousand detained and why the American government seemed to be targeting those with links to Japan's traditions.
In response to this climate of war hysteria, Masumi's father decided additional steps to prove loyalty to America were necessary. He instructed his daughter to start a fire in the furnace next to their Japanese-style bathtub. Since it was already Masumi's daily chore to start up the wood-fired stove for the bath, she didn't think much of the request - that is, until her father entered the room carrying every single article in the house that had Japanese language or "Made in Japan" written on it. Tears rolled down Masumi's cheeks as her father brought out her precious Hinamatsuri (Girls Festival) dolls, a special Japanese set given to her on the festival day, to throw into the fire with all the other Japanese artifacts. Her father explained that anything that could link them to Japan had to be destroyed. It was the only way to prove their loyalty to America.
However, her father hesitated with a few items. Masumi remembers that her father set aside minutes from board meetings and other temple documents from the Madeira Buddhist Temple, the family's bound edition of the Buddhist scriptures, and also some farm-use dynamite, all of which he thought could be suspicious to the FBI. Her father asked his wife to find several tin boxes and some Japanese kimono cloth. Once she was able to locate several old rice-cracker boxes and some cloth, he went outside and got the backhoe to dig a hole behind their garage. Wrapping the Buddhist scriptures and the temple records in the kimono cloth and placing them in the tin boxes, Masumi's father carefully lowered them into the hole and covered them with dirt. It was safer to bury these items than to keep them.
A few months later, in April 1942, after depositing a single suitcase of their most valued items at the Fresno Buddhist Temple for storage and safekeeping, they sold their farm to their neighbors for less than one-twentieth of its market value. The family then reported to the Fresno Assembly Center. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt had issued Executive Order No. 9066, which led to the designation of restricted military zones on the West Coast of the United States; it was ordered that all persons of Japanese ancestry were to be removed from these areas. Unlike the treatment of persons of German and Italian ancestry, whose potential threat to the United States was reviewed case by case, virtually everyone with even a trace of Japanese blood was forcibly removed from the West Coast. This included the rounding up of Japanese-American babies in orphanages, who in normal times could hardly be considered a national security threat.
Japanese-Americans in the restricted zones were given between a week and ten days to sell or store their property; they were allowed to take to the camps only that which they could carry by hand. Without any due process of law, nearly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry would be incarcerated at one of fourteen Assembly Centers, such as the one in Fresno to which Masumi and her parents reported. These temporary camps, set up in converted fairgrounds such as the one in Fresno or racetracks like Tanforan, in California, housed thousands of families who had no idea as to their ultimate fate. Masumi's family was quartered at Fresno in a smelly horse stable numbered Barrack E-17-2.
After spending the spring and summer of 1942 in these Assembly Centers, most Japanese were transferred to one of ten so-called permanent relocation centers. A handful of families, like the Kimuras, were fortunate enough to avoid further incarceration by being approved for work programs east of the military zone, where they were used as cheap farm labor. However, the overwhelming majority of West Coast persons of Japanese ancestry would be forced to endure the long train journey to the detention centers, all the while guarded by soldiers with machine guns. The barbed-wire fences and armed guard posts of these camps, run by the War Relocation Authority (WRA), constituted the perimeter of their new "homes" for the next several years.
After the war, the Kimura family traveled back to Madeira, only to find that the new owner of their family farm was unwilling to sell it back unless they paid more than ten times as much as they had sold it for. Unable to come up with that kind of money, the Kimuras decided to seek shelter with relatives in Los Angeles, but not before trying to recover the tin boxes buried with their family, temple, and community treasures. Especially after finding out that their suitcase held for safekeeping at the Fresno Buddhist Temple had been ransacked by vandals during the war, they had hoped to at least find the valuable Buddhist documents buried on their farm. But the new owners had torn down the garage that had been the main reference point to locate the tin boxes, and so their search was a failure; the treasures were lost.
Though the Kimura family lost sacred Buddhist texts and temple records to the soil of California, the spirit of Buddhism lived on in the hearts of this Japanese-American Buddhist family both during the war and beyond. However much they were willing to let go of their Japanese-ness by burning objects symbolically linked to Japan, the one thing they couldn't erase was their Buddhist faith. Tens of thousands of these Buddhist families, who constituted the vast majority of the Japanese-American religious community in the Americas, found strength in their faith and, by extension, faith in America, the land of religious freedom. In their minds, being Buddhist was just going to have to become a part of becoming American.
There are a multitude of stories like that of the Kimuras that have been buried underground not only in physical sites but also in the memories of people who have at times been too modest or too hurt to recount their experiences. These stories of Japanese-American Buddhists reveal the complex relationship that existed between ethnic, national, and religious identities at the same time as a new form of Buddhism, which simultaneously drew on and transcended Japanese and American traditions, was forged in the crucible of war.
The buried treasures, whether artifacts or stories, represent what was most valued by a small but increasingly significant religion in the American religious landscape: Buddhism. The history of American Buddhism is, in large part, a history of Asian-Americans trying to find a place for their religious heritage and Buddhist converts of a variety of backgrounds claiming their right to freely practice their adopted religion in a country where some have held that Catholics, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists do not fit into a conception of a God-ordained Protestant Christian nation. The tension between the notion of America as a Christian nation and America as a nation of religious freedom is often heightened in times when national security is thought to be at risk - such as with Buddhists during World War II or Muslims in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
American Buddhism: A History of Dislocations and Relocations
Despite the view that Buddhism was un-American, which was held by some members of the U.S. government, the broader American public, and even a number of Japanese-American Christians, Buddhists quickly turned to their faith for sustenance during the trying time of the war years. They had to be ingenious to re-create Buddhist life within their new environment. A passage from Rev. Bunyu Fujimura's recollections about his days in the Bismarck, North Dakota, camp reveals the internees' resourceful nature when the Buddha's birthday, the first major Buddhist holiday since internment began, was celebrated in April 1942.
"April 8th is the day on which the Buddha was born. In the U.S., we call this day Hanamatsuri, Flower Festival. The other Buddhist ministers and I decided to make the most of our circumstances and to celebrate this sacred day for us Buddhists. . . . Arthur Yamabe 'borrowed' a carrot from the kitchen and carved a splendid image of the Buddha. Others made imitation flowers and all the other things used in our Hanamatsuri service, from the tissue used to wrap oranges and other fruit, and anything else they could get their hands on. With the carrot image of the Buddha in the center, we conducted the most impressive and moving Hanamatsuri service that I have ever participated in. The intense cold and the anxiety of being a prisoner of war was temporarily forgotten, and our minds and hearts were set at ease by a ritual that transcended time and space."
The Bismarck "carrot Buddha" had counterparts in other camps: homemade Buddha statues crafted from desert wood, family Buddhist altars (butsudan) made from spare crate wood, and rosaries (o-juzu) strung together from dried peach pits that a Soto Zen priest collected over several months. It was here within these camps, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, that Buddhist priests did their best to bring order to chaos, to create meaning in a seemingly senseless situation, and "to make the most of our circumstance," as Rev. Fujimura suggested.
The Japanese-American Buddhist experience is thus characterized by two major dislocations - first as sojourners and immigrants to a new land and second as a people forcibly removed from their adopted homelands. Their Buddhism had been a part of the American religious landscape since the 1860s, and during the first decades of the twentieth century in places like Hawaii, Buddhists even outnumbered Christians. Despite this seventy-year history of Buddhism as the faith affiliation of the majority of the Japanese-American community, on a national level this religion was a small, minority tradition in America as of 1941. Asian Buddhist immigrants concentrated in Hawaii and the West Coast and Buddhist converts and sympathizers concentrated in New England and the East Coast simply did not make up a large enough community to significantly alter mainstream views of Buddhism as a "heathen religion." As the Kimura family found out that year, many members of the public at large and government agencies would conflate religious, racial, and national identity in such a way that Japanese-American Buddhists would be suspect on multiple levels in contrast to German- and Italian-Americans, who would escape any mass incarceration because their race and religion were deemed more acceptable to the dominant culture despite the war in Europe against Germany and Italy.
American Buddhism is also a part of a long history of Buddhism as it migrated from one cultural context to another. During the roughly twenty-five-hundred-year history of the religion, the spread of Buddhism from its origins in India to the Himalayan kingdoms and South and East Asia, or subsequent flows into new lands beyond Asia, has always been marked by cultural exchange and innovation through interactions with preexisting religious traditions and that society's mainstream values.
The formation of "American Buddhism" has been an ongoing process of the transmission of ideology, artifacts, and people from Asia - Buddhism, Buddhist art and material culture, and Buddhists - and its encounter and transformations with various social, cultural, and religious orientations in America. As one Buddhist priest noted in the 1934 Hawaiian Buddhist Annual, that, just as when Buddhism adapted to the local religious and cultural milieu when it moved from India to China and again from China to Japan, "Americans should establish a new American Buddhism, in harmony with the history of the founding of the United States and in accord with the growth of its national spirit, with its climate and customs."
In addition to these types of adaptations of Buddhism, this process has also been marked by the adoption of this religion by Americans for whom Buddhism was not a part of their family heritage. Whether through the construction of Buddhist temples that would inscribe Buddhism on America's physical landscape or the dissemination of Buddhist ideas through books and magazines that placed Buddhism in the world of ideas in early-twentieth-century America, as a universal religion with local manifestations, the American acculturation process makes for a fascinating contrast with the process in the making of other forms of regional and national Buddhisms throughout history. And while American Buddhism in the post-1960s period has much to offer in thinking through this acculturation process, the prewar and wartime history of the Buddhism of Japanese-Americans and their converts and sympathetic friends symbolizes the first critical test of whether Buddhism could become a significant part of the American religious landscape.
The story of American Buddhism is thus made up of many forms of Asian Buddhism that arrived on American shores from areas outside of Japan (such as Tibet, South and Southeast Asia, Korea, and China) as well as a diversity of Buddhist schools and lineages from Japan. Just as a history of American Christianity, Judaism, and Islam would be incomplete without attention to different historical moments, regional variations (the American South, the Midwest, New England, the West Coast, for example), and the plethora of sectarian traditions and institutional denominations, this study of Japanese-American Buddhism includes all the major schools of Japanese Buddhism (Zen, the Jodo and Jodo Shin Pure Land schools, Nichiren and Shingon schools) that had an American presence by World War II. Sectarian diversity is also accompanied by regional variations of Buddhism in Hawaii, California, the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Central and South America and, during the war, the variations that accompanied locations of Japanese-American camps, as well as Buddhism in the so-called free zones east of the Rockies in Denver, Chicago, and New York.
While the internal diversity of Buddhism in America is noteworthy, we should not forget that Buddhists of any era, in any place, and of any sectarian denomination held certain key elements as central to their lives as Buddhists. The Buddha taught that his teachings were to assist in the alleviation of suffering, both physical and mental, that accompanied human life. Thus the Buddhists whose histories are described in this book often found that their religion provided a response to existential questions of suffering, inherent in life, but particularly apparent in migration and incarceration.
Buddhists also affirm a common faith in three elements of their religion: often referred to as the Three Refuges or the Three Treasures, namely, the Buddha (the historical founder as well as the more general notions of someone awakened or enlightened to reality and thus free), the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings often assembled in Buddhist sacred texts), and the Sangha (the Buddhist community, which typically includes monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen). Just as the Kimura family in their time of distress put aside their family's treasured copy of Buddhist scriptures and their temple's records chronicling the sangha's history in California, Buddhists throughout history have taken refuge in and revered these three treasures of their faith. Having been forced to abandon most of their possessions and all they had worked for as middle-aged and older immigrants and an American-born younger generation, Buddhists re-created the Three Treasures behind barbed wire by carving Buddha statues from carrots found in a mess hall or from desert wood available in their bleak environment, by preaching the Dharma on topics ranging from impermanence to hope, and by the forming of Buddhist communities to strengthen familial and communal bonds at a time when the very fabric of the Japanese-American community was torn apart. World War II and the Japanese-American incarceration experience - a moment when the relationship between a minority faith and national identity comes into particularly sharp relief - thus reveals the enduring question of how a religion acculturates to a new cultural context.
Reorienting American Religious History
Buddhists in Japan had long employed the idea of bukkyo tozen, literally "the eastward transmission of Buddhism," to denote the geographic advance of their religion from its roots in India, across the Asian continent, and finally to Japan. In the opposite direction, American Christians have contributed to a long history of manifest destiny, in which European Christianity and civilization would be brought westward across the mainland United States and farther west toward Hawaii and beyond.
The U.S. government targeted the Japanese-American Buddhist leadership in the initial sweep right after Pearl Harbor, believing that Buddhists were more likely to be a threat to national security than Japanese-American Christians (though eventually race trumped religion, and all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast became subject to incarceration). One of these Buddhist priests was Rev. Daisho Tana, who had been serving a temple in Lompoc, California, when he was picked up by the authorities. Tana spent his war years in two high-security internment camps in New Mexico (Lordsburg and Santa Fe) operated by the Department of Justice. He was a meticulous diarist, and his entry a few months after being incarcerated discusses the concept of bukkyo tozen: "It brings tears to my eyes to think of the profound words 'the eastward transmission of Buddhism' as I reflect on the fact that Buddhists on the Pacific coast have carried the Buddha all the way here to a place where we can see the Rocky Mountains as we celebrate the birth of the Buddha. While it may be true that the Buddhist organizations on the Pacific Coast have been decimated, the Buddha seeds that have now flown on the winds of this war will eventually move eastward and take root themselves before flowering into authentic Dharma flowers."
In the traditional formulation of bukkyo tozen, Japan was conceived of as the end point in the progression of Buddhism, but in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Buddhist "missionaries" to the Americas (Brazil, Peru, Hawaii, the U.S. mainland, and Canada) advocated a new eastward movement of Buddhism: this time, from Japan to the Americas across the Pacific Ocean. The establishment of a Buddhist presence in lands farther east from its origins was accomplished by the pioneering issei (first-generation) priests and the devout Japanese Buddhist laypeople they served through the constructions of temples, the transmission of Buddhist teachings and practices, and to a lesser extent, the conversion of non-Buddhists in the Americas.
In the diary entry above, Rev. Tana extends this notion even further as he views his own incarceration as a small sacrifice in the inevitable progression of the Buddhist religion. He is confident that "Buddha seeds" will blossom in the Rocky Mountains region now that Japanese Buddhists have been transferred farther eastward from California to a New Mexico internment camp. While Tana's understanding of his circumstance could be viewed as a simplistic way of reconciling himself to a situation forced on him, the fact that he points to the power of the Buddhist faith to sustain him during a moment of "dislocation" is not surprising given the long history of Japanese-American immigrant identities that combined ethnic and religious formations.
The view of America as a land where the frontiers lie to one's east is, of course, in contrast with the more common, mainstream notion of America as a land of manifest destiny where civilization and religion are thought to move westward, initially from Europe to the New World and from there, westward toward the American West and farther in its colonial manifestations, toward Hawaii, the Philippines, and, with Commodore Perry's black ships "opening" the land of the samurai, Japan. The notion of manifest destiny was articulated in the religious field repeatedly. For instance, the Christian organizers of the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions (an auxiliary event alongside the World's Fair in Chicago) had invited a Japanese Buddhist delegation to present their perspectives, but with the presumption that "the movement of civilization" followed "the movement of the sun," in other words, westward. The connotation of the term assimilation as proposed by the organizer was that it was a vehicle to reunite non-Christian religions that had "[achieved] partial revelations and are children of a lesser light" to the one authentic and universal "Christian truth." One of the Japanese delegates, Banryu Yatsubayashi, countered this argument by using a similar rhetoric of inevitability in which Buddhism, rather than Christianity, represented a higher truth and civilization while being more appropriate to a scientific world, suggesting Christianity "failed to comprehend modernity because of its failure to understand the evolutionary character of the world."
The notion of the American West and its opening by pioneers presumes that America faces Europe and is centered in a certain kind of New England Anglo-Protestantism to which every other immigrant group and religious tradition ought to assimilate. Numerous religious historians have argued that in America, all religious traditions conform to a certain Protestantism. American Buddhism similarly adopted a congregationalist model and other impulses toward "Protestantization," but the history of American Buddhism must also be understood in the context of a more global development of a "modernist" Buddhism, in the context of Buddhism in diaspora and colony (as Japanese Buddhists similarly innovated in other regions of the Asia-Pacific in emigrant communities and as colonists in an expanding Japanese empire), and also in contrast to all the ways in which Japanese-American Buddhists resisted simplistic forms of assimilation and "Protestantization" as they claimed their place in twentieth-century religious America.
Indeed, instead of the American West, especially for the first Japanese sojourners and settlers, the frontiers of the Americas could be viewed as the Pacific East. Thus, neither the simplistic frameworks of a Japan-centered diaspora that ignores local conditions and community formations nor an America-centered assimilationist model that reduces religious change to "Americanization" is adequate for understanding the place of religion in the lives of Japanese-American Buddhists. The study of Japanese-American Buddhism thus opens up the possibility for retelling American religious history by reorienting our gaze, which has taken Europe and Euro-American religious forms as central. By decentering America, we "re-Orient" in another sense, that is, viewing America from the perspective of those for whom the Orient is homeland.
The notion of bukkyo tozen at the very least provides a counternarrative to an American religious history of manifest destiny in which civilization simply moves from Europe westward. This is not to say that the history of Japanese-American Buddhism ought to be thought of as the dominant narrative of the American story; the point of this exercise is not to replace one overarching narrative with another. But what the study of Japanese, or more broadly, Asian-American Buddhism, suggests is that the picture of American religions is not complete without a critical examination of multidirectional migrations of ethnicities and religions, including the growing importance of Central and South American Catholicism's movement northward. Just as the notion of American Buddhism destabilizes Orientalist conceptions of Asia as Buddhist (in more recent post-1965 Asian immigration to the Americas, Christianity is a major "Asian" religion) and Buddhism as Asian (with its century-old history in the Americas), it also disturbs the image of America as a Christian nation.
Indeed, the history of religion in America is often characterized by a pendulum swinging at times toward a celebration of religious diversity and an open acceptance of new religious traditions and at other times toward a closing of that door with the assertion of an American religious identity as essentially unitary and exclusivist. Religious pluralism often came hand in hand with the opening of national borders to new immigrants with faiths other than Anglo-Protestantism, while a nativist retrenchment often accompanied major migrations of Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Over the decades of the pendulum swinging to broaden what constitutes American religion, the rhetoric has shifted from America as constituted of certain strains of Protestantism to assertions of America as a Christian nation, to notions of a unity between the so-called Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It is only in very recent times that an American president could pronounce that "whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."
Today, a growing number of North Americans view Buddhism as a fount of wisdom and compassion rather than a national security threat. Buddhists can be found in the judiciary and police departments, and politicians such as Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) or Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), both members of Japanese-derived Buddhist traditions, have been elected to the U.S. Congress. Buddhist meditation can be found promoted by psychologists, medical doctors, and sports trainers; and young fifth- and sixth-generation Japanese-Americans attend Dharma school at their local Buddhist temple, proud of their religious heritage.
Religion helps orient a person in living in this world by referent to an ultimate, absolute, and sacred world. Japanese-American Buddhists drew on their faith during a period of severe dislocation and disorientation. While the American camps were not death camps like the German Nazi concentration camps, Japanese-American Buddhists also struggled with their faith in Buddhism and in America, just as Jews in the same period drew on but also struggled with their faith. The Holocaust challenged some fundamental assumptions regarding the nature of evil, the suffering of the innocent, and the redemptive nature of suffering brought on the Jewish people for no reason other than a twisted conflation of race and religion that excluded Jews from a secure place in European society. Just being Japanese-American and Buddhist brought a less severe, but similar, exclusion by race and religion from the American mainstream, and the wartime experience prompted an intense questioning about whether it was possible to be Buddhist and American at the same time.
These are the stories of Japanese-American Buddhists who, like the Kimura family, burned away their Japanese-ness but refused to shed their faith in Buddhism and, ultimately, in America.
Duncan Ryuken Williams is the director of the School of Religion at the University of Southern California and formerly the Shinjo Ito Distinguished Chair in Japanese Buddhism at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of its Center for Japanese Studies. He received his PhD in religion at Harvard University. He specializes mainly in Japanese Buddhist history, Buddhism and environmentalism, and American Buddhism. His most recent works include Issei Buddhism in the Americas (coedited with Tomoe Moriya, University of Illinois Press, 2010).
This article was originally published in the July-September 2011 issue of Dharma World.