American Buddhism during World War II imprisonment refers to the Japanese American Buddhist experience between 1942 and 1945 when persons of Japanese ancestry, commonly known as Nikkei Amerikajin, were imprisoned. A discussion of the Nikkei Buddhist experience includes the experiences of Euro-American convert Buddhists who supported them during the imprisonment period.
Immediately after the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested and interned Japanese Buddhist priests and other leaders of Japanese communities in the United States. In March 1942, the Western Defense Command designated the three West Coast states (Washington, Oregon, and California) and Arizona as Military Area No. 1, from which all persons of Japanese descent, and alien Germans and Italians, were forcefully removed. Following Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US government removed approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans from the aforementioned military zone and incarcerated them in relocation centers built throughout the continental United States. During that time, the Nikkei community consisted primarily of the Issei, the first generation of Japanese immigrants, and the Nisei, their American-born children. As Tetsuden Kashima defines, the word “internment” refers to the imprisonment of enemy aliens, such as the Issei Japanese nationals, by the Department of Justice and the US Army, while the term “incarceration” refers to the confinement of the Nikkei, including a great number of the Nisei American citizens, by the War Relocation Authority. The word “imprisonment” designates the entire process consisting of internment and incarceration.
The study of American Buddhism during World War II is still in its early stages. Finding records and documents related to this subject from the large collections on Japanese American imprisonment is not an easy task. While the National Archives in Washington, DC, maintains the majority of primary sources dealing with Japanese American relocation and incarceration, other institutions, such as the Japanese American National Museum, the University of California-Los Angeles, and museums built around the sites of internment camps, also preserve records. Some of the primary sources are written in Japanese and are located in Japan, which is another stumbling block for researchers who do not read Japanese. Duncan R. Williams’s forthcoming book, American Sutra: Buddhism and the World War II Japanese American Experience, however, will change the current state of scholarship on Japanese American Buddhism during World War II.
The forceful relocation of Japanese American Buddhists served to weaken their long-standing efforts to make their ethno-religious practices accepted by America’s general public. Mass incarceration, however, forced the Japanese American Buddhists to further Americanize their religion, generated a set of new Buddhist practices, and gave them opportunities to reflect on their national identities. Buddhist faith and cultural practices associated with Japanese Buddhism contributed to ethnic solidarity, even though the Japanese American community was divided over the issue of US patriotism. During the postwar period, Japanese American Buddhists initiated a campaign to improve their image in the United States and to honor the Nisei Buddhist soldiers who fought during World War II. The formation of American Buddhism was closely connected to the development of US political ideology.
Scholars have long recognized the transformative impact that colonialism had on Buddhist institutions, identities, thought, and practice. The period marked the rise of politicized identities linking Buddhism to anti-colonial nationalist movements alongside boisterous discussions about reforming Buddhism to its “innate” humanistic, scientific core. For many decades, histories of Buddhism under colonialism generally subscribed to a singular narrative in which colonial forces leveled such monumental changes that almost all forms of modern Buddhism were seen as derivative of ideologies introduced by Western colonial regimes. These narratives, however, only tell some of the story. Beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, scholarship has increasingly shown how Buddhists responded in a multitude of ways to colonial influence. There was resistance and collusion as well as instances where colonial systems had only minimal impact. Numerous ideas about Buddhism which for most of the 20th century were taken for granted—that the text is closer to “true” Buddhism than contemporary practice, that texts composed in “classical” languages are more authoritative than those in the vernacular, that Buddhism is not really a religion at all but more like a science of the mind or philosophy, that Buddhism is less ritualistic and more rational than other religious traditions, and so on—have their roots in the colonial encounter with Buddhism. Any student wishing to understand the place of Buddhism during the colonial period must consider the multiple trajectories and plural histories rather than singular, monolithic narratives.
Stephanie Y. Mitchem
With rapid development, academically and socially, in the past sixty years, gender and public religion in the United States have become a separate field, even as it is integrated into others such as politics, biology, law, philosophy, and cultural studies. As ideas about gender have expanded, potential conflicts with established religions have sometimes occurred even as new theologies, ethical constructs, and even new strains of religion occur.
Connie A. Shemo
The history of East Asian religions in the United States is inextricably intertwined with the broader history of United States–East Asian relations, and specifically with U.S. imperialism. For most Americans in the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, information about religious life in China, Japan, and Korea came largely through foreign missionaries. A few prominent missionaries were deeply involved in the translation of important texts in East Asian religions and helped promote some understanding of these traditions. The majority of missionary writings, however, condemned the existing religions in these cultures as part of their critiques of the cultures as degenerate and in need of Christianity. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the women’s foreign mission movement was the largest women’s movement in the United States, women missionaries’ representations of East Asian religions as inherent in the oppression of women particularly reached a large audience. There was also fascination with East Asian religions in the United States, especially as the 20th century progressed, and more translations appeared from people not connected to the foreign mission movement. By the 1920s, as “World Friendship” became an important paradigm in the foreign missionary movement, some missionary representations of East Asian religions became more positive, reflecting and contributing to a broader trend in the United States toward a greater interest in religious traditions around the world, and coinciding with a move toward secularization. As some scholars have suggested, the interest in East Asian religions in the United States in some ways fits into the framework of “Orientalism,” to use Edward Said’s famous term, viewing religions of the “East” as an exotic alternative to religion in the West. Other scholars have suggested that looking at the reception of these religions through a framework of “Orientalism” underestimates and distorts the impact these religious traditions have had in the United States. Regardless, religious traditions from East Asia have become a part of the American religious landscape, through both the practice of people who have immigrated from East Asia or practice the religion as they have learned from family members, and converts to those religions. The numbers of identified practitioners of East Asian religions in United States, with the exception of Buddhism, a religion that originated outside of East Asia, is extremely small, and even Buddhists are less than 2 percent of the American population. At the same time, some religious traditions, such as Daoism and some variants of Buddhism (most notably Zen Buddhism), have exercised a significant impact on popular culture, even while a clear understanding of these traditions has not yet been widespread in the United States. Some understanding of Confucianism as well has recently been spread through the propagation of “Confucian” institutes in the United States. It is through these institutes that we may see the beginnings of the Chinese government exercising some influence in American universities, which, while not comparable to the impact of Christian missionaries in the development of Chinese educational institutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, nonetheless can illuminate the growing power of China in Sino-American relations in the beginning of the 21st century.
While the term “East Asian” religions is frequently used for convenience, it is important to be aware of potential pitfalls in assigning labels such as “Western” and “Eastern” to religious traditions, particularly if this involves a construction of Christianity as inherently “Western.” At a time when South Korea sends the second largest number of Christian missionaries to other countries, Christianity could theoretically be defined as an East Asian religion, in that a significant number of people in one East Asian country not only practice but actively seek to propagate the religion. Terms such as “Eastern” and “Western” to define religious traditions are cultural constructs in and of themselves.
Craig L. Nessan
Liberation theologies employ action-reflection (praxis-oriented) methodologies in response to particular forms of oppression, normally consisting of five elements: 1) identification with particular forms of oppression and suffering, 2) prophetic critique of that condition, 3) social analysis of the causes of oppression and suffering, 4) biblical and theological engagement to address that suffering and overcome that oppression, and 5) advocacy of structural change toward a greater approximation of justice. Liberation theologies engage in intentional reflection upon particular experiences in which these five elements interact dynamically according to the forms of suffering and oppression specific to particular populations, historical experiences, and contexts.
Liberation theologies are contextual theologies, emerging in specific locations and times, and are formulated to address specific forms of suffering and oppression by employing methods of social analysis, which draw upon the sciences (especially the social sciences), and biblical-theological reflection, which draws upon Scripture, religious history, and doctrine. Because these theologies deal with the suffering and oppression of particular endangered groups, central to their concerns are the definition of the human; analysis of sin, especially structural sin that diminishes the worth and status of those in each particular group; and drawing upon theological resources to advocate justice for each oppressed group, including creation itself. Liberation theologies have been subject to affirmation and criticism in the theological literature since their emergence in the 1960s.
Major forms of liberation theology include Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theologies, feminist theologies, womanist theologies, Latina/o and mujerista theologies, Native American liberation theologies, LGBTQ+ liberation theologies, and ecojustice theologies. Liberation theologies in America frequently engage in solidarity with liberation theologies in other global contexts. Antecedents of liberation theologies include the abolitionist, social gospel, and women’s suffrage movements, among others.
The Sōka Gakkai is a lay Buddhist movement, originating in Japan, that bases its religious practice and worldview on the Lotus Sutra-centric teachings of the Kamakura-era priest Nichiren (1222–1282). Following Nichiren, members of the Sōka Gakkai consider the practice of reciting Namu-myōhō-renge-kyō—the Daimoku, or title of the Lotus Sutra—to a copy of a character mandala (Gohonzon) originally inscribed by Nichiren to be the fundamental means for attainment of enlightenment. Also modeling themselves on Nichiren, the membership takes an active interest in the social and political realities of this world. In Japan, this engagement has taken various forms, including electoral support for a political party made up largely of Sōka Gakkai members, and globally, as activities in the fields of nuclear disarmament, sustainable development, human rights education, and humanitarian assistance.
Founded in 1930, the organization was suppressed during World War II. In the postwar era, its rapid growth, driven by a campaign of aggressive proselytization, as well its ongoing involvement in politics, has generated considerable controversy within Japanese society. Even as the organization has matured institutionally, and in its relations with other faith traditions, an exclusive commitment by members to a single faith practice makes it an outlier within the Japanese religious landscape.
The Sōka Gakkai in Japan currently claims some 8.27 million member families, making it the nation’s largest and most active religious movement. Outside Japan, under the rubric of Sōka Gakkai International (SGI), official statistics give membership totals of 1.75 million in 192 countries and territories, with 94 organizations incorporated under local national laws. More than half of the membership outside Japan—slightly more than 1 million—are said to be in Asia and Oceania, with South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore among the sites of large and active memberships. Other countries with significant national movements include Brazil, the United States, India, and Italy.
While the Sōka Gakkai was originally associated with the Nichiren Shōshū sect, long-standing tensions over the respective roles of priesthood and laity came to a head in a decisive schism in 1991, since which the two groups have pursued independent paths. Following the schism, the Sōka Gakkai has given more central emphasis to the “mentor-disciple relationship,” in particular as this relates to the first three presidents of the organization: Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871–1944), Toda Jōsei (1900–1958) and Ikeda Daisaku (1928–).