Buddhists after Pearl Harbor

In the 75th year of the Japanese Jodo ShinshuThe Jodo Shinshu or True Pure Land school of Buddhism was founded by the Japanese monk Shinran Shonin in the 12th century. This tradition regards chanting the name of Amida Buddha as the most appropriate form of practice in the current degenerate age. Tod... Buddhist presence in America, the Buddhist Churches of AmericaThe Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) is the institutional name of Jodo Shinshu or “True Pure Land” Buddhism in the U.S. This Buddhism of Japanese immigrants regards the chanting of the name of Amida as the most appropriate form of practice in the cu... published an extensive history of these years (excerpted here), including the most difficult: the internment of “all persons of Japanese ancestry” in camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In recalling this history, the particular consequences of this era for the Buddhist community is noted.


While news flashes were constantly printed onto the screens of the movie theaters and continued interruptions made throughout the radio broadcasts announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, tension and insecurity were rising in the Japanese American public. It was not something they had expected, yet whether in a theater, restaurant or other public places, the eerie feeling of being eyed as an enemy Japanese was the paramount feeling on this particular day, December 7, 1941. The newsboys shouting out, “Extra! Extra! Pearl Harbor bombed by the Japs!” rang out throughout the main streets of American cities.

What were once the gay and lively “Japanese Towns” of the Pacific Coast area soon turned into ghost towns, seemingly overnight. Store owners closed shop early for fear of reprisal. Doubt, suspicion and anger cast their shadows upon the Japanese community; moreover, without any warning, the leaders of these communities were incarcerated into jails, immigration stations, Federal prisons and military camps. The Japanese Buddhist leaders were not an exception.

A large number of the ministersMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). were removed from their templesA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... and homes. And, with the ministers and the many Buddhist lay leaders incarcerated, leaving only the wives and young children stranded, massive chaos in the religious institutions was the order of the day. The membership was apprehensive about approaching their templeA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... for fear of being apprehended. . . .

Though some were released, most of them were herded into Internment Camps further inland. Without due process of law they were considered dangerous and detained under security measures for the duration of the war. Under limited facilities the Buddhist ministers and members did their best to hold services and study classes.

An interesting story is related by an elder ministerMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam). who was detained at Bismark, North Dakota. For the first Hanamatsuri [Buddha’s birthday] service, a figure of the standing baby BuddhaBuddha means “awakened one” and specifically refers to Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Siddhartha Gautama (traditional date, sixth c. BCE), the historical founder of the tradition that became known as Buddhism. All Buddhist traditions agree that ther... was unavailable for the Hanamido. Arthur Yamabe, who was later to become a minister, carved a figure from a carrot which he obtained from the mess hall kitchen.

War hysteria nurtures much misguided and misinformed news. Those who had little confidence in their own religious beliefs believed that any association with a Buddhist organization would be to their disadvantage. Possession of Japanese writings became suspect and a source of concern; thus, the fearful ones removed their Buddhist altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said., destroyed their sutraA sutra is a text containing religious teachings. In the Buddhist tradition, sutras constitute one of the three canonical categories of teachings: vinaya (code of discipline), abhidharma (metaphysics), and sutra (discourses). This last category covers tho... books and burned their family albums containing photos of relatives or friends in uniform.

Therefore, the Buddhist templesBuddhist temples differ considerably from one another depending upon culture and particular school, but most are associated with the residence of the sangha of monks. Theravada temples focus on one or more images of Sakyamuni Buddha. In Mahayana and Vajra..., the hardest hit organizations, tried to function in this time of absolute turmoil. While the ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists... churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... and the Catholics could look to their white counterparts, the Buddhists had almost no outside support. . . .

Further adding to the problem was the hysteria and emotional upheaval created by the “anti-Japanese” racist groups and individuals who had little love for the immigrant Japanese and their children, the Nisei. Newspapers propagandized the ostensible spy and espionage activities of the Japanese people. “No Jap is to be trusted,” they said. “The only good Jap is a dead Jap.” The word “Japanese” was a dirty epithet. Being Japanese and at the same time a Buddhist was even worse. Some people had gone to the extent to say, “Even with the war, you’re still a Buddhist?”

…This was also the period when many members were thinking about changing the name “Buddhist Mission of North America” to the “Buddhist Churches of America.” The change was primarily to emphasize the word “America” and to indicate that the Jodo Shinshu organization should be representative of all the Buddhist groups.

With U.S. war losses becoming marked, the alleged submarine attack along the Santa Barbara coastal regions and further hysteria raised by blackouts, greater restrictions upon the Japanese people were being contemplated.

There are many stories of the evacuation… Certain areas already receiving rumors concerning an evacuation began to have the temple windows and doors boarded up. The shrine section of many were dismantled and the image of the AmidaAmitabha Buddha, called Emituofo in China and Amida in Japan, is the Buddha of “Infinite Light.” This Buddha is the main focus of devotion in the Pure Land school of Chinese Buddhism, and the Pure Land (Shin) and True Pure Land (Jodo Shinshu) schools ... or the scroll was taken by the resident minister, his wife, or a responsible lay leader.

[From Buddhist Churches of America, 75 Year History, 1899-1974, vol. 1 (Chicago: Nobart Inc. 1974), 61-64. Permission granted by the Buddhist Churches of America.]