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.
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–).