Japanese American Buddhism
Japanese American Buddhism
- Michihiro AmaMichihiro AmaDepartment of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Montana
- and Michael MasatsuguMichael MasatsuguDepartment of History, Towson University
Japanese Buddhism was introduced to the United States at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, but the development of Japanese American Buddhism, also known as Nikkei Buddhism, really began when Japanese migrants brought Buddhism with them to Hawaii and the continental United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It has been influenced by, and has reflected, America’s sociopolitical and religious climate and the US relationship to Japan, to which generations of Japanese Americans, such as Issei (literally, first generation, referring to Japanese immigrants), Nisei (second-generation American-born offspring of the Issei), and Sansei (third generation), responded differently. While adapting to American society, Japanese American Buddhists maintained their cultural practices and ethnoreligious identity.
The history of Japanese American Buddhism discussed in this article spans from the late-19th Century to the 1970s and is divided into three major periods: the pre-World War II, World War II, and the postwar eras. Japanese American Buddhism is derived from the various Buddhist organizations in Japan. The Nishi Hongwanji denomination of Jōdo Shinshū, a form of Pure Land Buddhism known as Shin Buddhism in the West, is the oldest and largest form of ethnic Japanese Buddhism in the United States. In Hawaii, Nishi Hongwanji founded the Hompa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii (HHMH) in Honolulu in 1897. On the continental United States, it established the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA) in San Francisco in 1898, currently known as the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA). Other Japanese Buddhist organizations also developed in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. They include the Jōdo-shū, another sect of Pure Land Buddhism; Higashi Hongwanji, another major denomination of Jōdoshin-shū; Sōtō-shū, a Zen Buddhist school; Shingon-shū, known as Kōyasan Buddhism; and Nichiren-shū. The characteristics of Japanese American Buddhism changed significantly during World War II, when approximately 120,000 persons of Japanese descent living in the West Coast states were incarcerated because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. The postwar period witnessed a rapid transformation in the status and visibility of Japanese Buddhism in the United States. This transformation was driven by the promotion of ethnonational Buddhism by Nisei and by the growth of interest in Zen Buddhism among the general American public. The positive reception of Japanese Buddhism in the United States reflected and reinforced the transformed relationship between the United States and Japan from wartime enemies to Cold War partners. While they experienced greater receptivity and interest in Buddhism from nonethnics, they could no longer practice or espouse Jōdo Shinshū teachings or adapted practices without clarification. Debates concerning the authenticity of Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism and Japanese American Buddhist practices were interwoven within a longer history of American Orientalism. By the 1960s, Japanese American Buddhist communities were transformed by the addition of a small but vocal nonethnic membership and a new generation of Sansei Buddhists. Demands for English-speaking ministers resulted in the creation, in 1967, of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, the first graduate-level training program in the United States endorsed by Nishi Hongwanji.
This article is an overview of Japanese American Buddhism with a focus on the development of the Nishi Hongwanji Shin Buddhist organizations in the United States. English scholarship on the development of other Japanese Buddhist organizations in the United States is still limited. Throughout the history of Japanese American Buddhism, Nikkei Buddhists negotiated with America’s political institutions and Christian churches, as well as with Euro-American Buddhists, over Buddhist and cultural practices to maintain and redefine their ethnoreligious tradition. Buddhist temples provided the space for them to gather and build a community of shared faith and cultural heritage, discuss their place and the role of Buddhism in American society, and express their concerns to America’s general public.
- Asian American History
- Religious History