Dr. Duncan Williams is associate professor of religion and East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California. He serves as the director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. Dr. Williams previously served as assistant professor of Buddhism at the University of California-Irvine from 2002-2006 and became an affiliate of the Pluralism Project during that time, organizing several projects that explored Buddhism in America. Prior to that, he did research for the Pluralism Project on Buddhism in the Pacific Northwest during his time as a graduate student at Harvard University.
Project 1: Southern California Regional Researchers Network
A three-day (September 3-5, 2004) Issei Buddhism Conference conference drew 30 of the most distinguished researchers from Japan, the U.S., Canada, and Brazil to University of California, Irvine explore the Japanese immigration experience in those countries and the role of Buddhist temples in those communities. The vast majority of the “Issei,” or the first generation Japanese immigrants, were active in the establishment and growth of Buddhist temples in Hawaii, the West Coast of Canada and the U.S., and Latin and South America. The Buddhist temple served not only as a spiritual refuge for these pioneers, but as a cultural center where Japanese language and cultural traditions (tea ceremony, flower arrangement, martial arts, taiko drumming, among others) were transmitted from the first generation to their Nisei children born in the Americas.
In this groundbreaking conference, senior and younger scholars based on both sides of the Pacific Rim presented keynote addresses and papers in roundtable panels on seven sects of Japanese American Buddhism, the role of Buddhist women’s auxiliaries, and Buddhist life on the plantations of Hawaii, Buddhism in the internment camps of World War II, among other topics. As a growing field of research, as evidenced by the explosion of new monographs by a number of the participants, this conference is the culmination of smaller-scale panels at national conferences in religion. Asian Studies, and Asian American Studies, but also the beginning of a new dialogue on an international level. With the problem of language barriers in the past, it has been especially difficult for Japanese scholars to communicate their high-level research to their counterparts in the Americas. This international conference was the first to bridge this gap. The conference agenda is available online.
Project 2: Orange County Mapping at U-California, Irvine
During the 2003-2004 academic year, students from the Buddhism course (EA20) and Japanese American Religious History Course (HU31) were involved in mapping Buddhism in Orange County. Based on the basic profiling of 2003-2004, the 2004-2005 project focus was to engage in more detailed and in-depth surveys in conjunction with a UCI university-wide initiative for the mapping project (joint project of the Departments of East Asian Languages and Literatures and Asian American Studies and the Religious Studies Program).
Project 3: Minority Religions in Wartime Project
In trying to understand the post-9/11 targeting and harassment of Muslim-Americans, Arab-Americans, and those who look like those who were responsible for the terrorist attacks (such as Sikhs and other South Asians), it is instructive to examine parallels with the experience of Japanese-American Buddhists after Pearl Harbor and during World War II. A recent study of FIB documents, declassified through the Freedom of Information Act by Duncan Williams (UC-Irvine), has shown that nearly 300 priests were picked up by the FBI after Pearl Harbor. They were targetted based on unfounded claims such as that Buddhists bells were going to be used to send Morse code messages to the Japanese Navy or that temples were the sites of spy meetings between German and Japanese “fifth column” units. The “Minority Religions in Wartime Project” is intended to examine the parallels and differences between government attitudes and treatments of Buddhists (during WW2) and Muslims (post 9/11) as the post 9/11 period has also seen its share of indiscriminate arrests of thousands of young Muslims “enemy aliens” and targeting of Muslim charitable organizations accused of terrorist links. It was in the crucible of war that many Japanese-Americans took on the conflicted identity of being Japanese-American-Buddhist. The project examined if 9/11 will also turn out to be just as significant a turning point for Muslim-Americans as they struggle with Americanization and resistance to it in their ethnic and religious identity formation.
Selected Links and Publications
- Faculty webpage: Dr. Duncan Williams
- Book: Issei Buddhism in the Americas, edited by Duncan Ryûken Williams and Tomoe Moriya. (Champaign: University of Illinois), 2010.
- Book: American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship, edited by Duncan Ryûken Williams and Christopher Queen (London: Routledge), 1999.
- Bibliography: Asian-American Buddhism