Buddhists after Pearl Harbor

In the 75th year of the Japanese Jodo Shinshu Buddhist presence in America, the Buddhist Churches of America 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 ministers were removed from their temples 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 temple 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 minister who was detained at Bismark, North Dakota. For the first Hanamatsuri [Buddha’s birthday] service, a figure of the standing baby Buddha 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 altar, destroyed their sutra books and burned their family albums containing photos of relatives or friends in uniform.

Therefore, the Buddhist temples, the hardest hit organizations, tried to function in this time of absolute turmoil. While the Protestant churches 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 Amida 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.]