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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.

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Elisabetta Porcu

Buddhism has been a missionary religion from its beginning. Japan was among the countries where this “foreign” religion arrived and was assimilated, adapted, and reshaped into new forms specifically connected to the new geographical and cultural environment. Buddhism traveled long distances from India through China and Korea, bringing with it flows of people, ideas, technologies, material cultures, and economies. More than ten centuries after its arrival in Japan, the first phase of propagation of Japanese Buddhism started and was linked to the history of Japanese migrants to Hawaii, North America, and Brazil since the 19th century. This was a history of diaspora, a term that implies not only the physical—and often traumatic—dispersion of people who left their homes for unknown places, but also a reconfiguration of their identities through the adaptation to these new places and their cultures. The main role of Buddhist priests sent from Japan was to assist and provide comfort to the newly formed communities of migrant laborers, who very often experienced racial discrimination and lived under harsh conditions. Temples became important loci of Japanese community life, as well as centers for the preservation of Japanese culture. Diasporic communities felt the urge to keep a bond with the homeland and a reconnection with some past traditions, while, at the same time, striving toward integration in the new society. Japanese Buddhist denominations in diasporic communities had therefore to accommodate different needs and adjust their teachings and practices to better suit their host cultures. Some of them underwent substantial changes, while others placed more emphasis on some practices instead of others. Moreover, Japanese Buddhist schools had to find a way to balance between their traditional role in Japan, which was—and still is—closely related to funerary rituals and memorials, and the new stimuli and requests coming from the new generations of Japanese migrants (nisei and sansei) and the non-Japanese spiritual seekers, the latter mostly interested in meditative practices and not in funeral Buddhism. In short, what needed to be done was to overcome a status of “ethnic” religion without, however, losing its own identity.

Article

The Imamura families primarily refer to Emyō Imamura (1867–1932) and Kanmo Imamura (1904–1986), who each made great contributions to “American Buddhism.” Although a definition of American Buddhism is open to discussion, it began to develop at the turn of the 20th century because of the efforts of Euro-American Buddhist converts and ethnic Buddhists. While serving the Nikkei (persons of Japanese descent) Shin Buddhist community in Hawaii, Emyō introduced Buddhism to a group of Euro-Americans and a member of the royal Hawaiian family. Emyō maintained traditional Japanese temple practices and the political ideology of imperial Japan for the Issei (the first generation, referring to Japanese immigrants), emphasized Buddhist education for the Nisei (the second generation, referring to the children of the Japanese immigrants), and created a Nisei ministry program. He related Buddhist egalitarianism to American democracy and pluralism, which allowed him, together with his congregation, to oppose discriminatory and oppressive policies of the then territory of Hawaii. Emyō defined Buddhism as a form of cosmopolitan religion and spread the universal aspect of Shin Buddhist doctrine. For him, creating American Buddhism was inseparable from redefining Shin Buddhism. Emyō Imamura’s progressive Buddhist vision and conservative Buddhist practices were supported by his family. His wife, Kiyoko Hino Imamura (1884–1962), helped him in his ministerial duties and led the largest association of Buddhist women in Hawaii. Their first son, Kanmo Imamura, served a Buddhist community in Berkeley, California, and promoted the interaction between Japanese American Buddhists and Euro-American Buddhist converts in the Bay Area during the 1950s and 1960s. Kanmo was greatly supported by his wife, Jane Matsumura Imamura (1920–2011). The Buddhist propagation of Emyō and Kanmo exemplified the practice of a Shin Buddhist temple family by which husband and wife work together to promote Shinran’s teaching and the father is succeeded by the first son. At the same time, their efforts created a tension between a sectarian form of Buddhism that persons of Japanese descent practiced in America and a Universal Buddhism that Euro-American Buddhist converts sought. As leaders of the largest ethnic Buddhist organizations in the United States, Emyō and Kanmo responded to the needs of fellow immigrants and Japanese American Buddhists and Euro-American Buddhist converts and sympathizers. The demand of Euro-American Buddhists, together with the strong presence of Christianity and the sociopolitical conditions in the United States at the time, caused Emyō and Kanmo to maintain, redefine, and transform Shin Buddhist practice.