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date: 03 December 2022

The Imamura Families and the Making of American Buddhismlocked

The Imamura Families and the Making of American Buddhismlocked

  • Michihiro AmaMichihiro AmaDepartment of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, University of Montana


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.


  • Buddhism
  • Religion in America

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