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Advice for Modern America, from When Buddhism Was Seen as a National Threat - Part 2

Duncan Williams.


Read Part 1 >>

Hondo Lobley: Your work reminds us that at one time in this country being Buddhist was synonymous with being a racial “other” and thus considered by many to be incompatible with being an American citizen and seen by the government as a potential terrorist threat. Why was Buddhism was seen as a threat?

Duncan Williams: The best examples come from Hawaii, in the sense that it lies at the far western edge of American territories, that in the political philosophy of Manifest Destiny, was to be Americanized by Christianizing the region. You initially have Christian missionaries and commercial interests that define a territory as American. It becomes a militarily a zone where America will place its bases. American business can prosper in that zone. And it’s going to be, as its identity, a Christian space.

There are two examples in Hawaii that precede Pearl Harbor that get at why Buddhists were targeted right away.

On the day of Pearl Harbor: 8, 9, 10 am, the attack is going on. At 3:30 pm, martial law is declared. Before martial law is declared, at 3 pm — certainly before the United States Congress declared war — the first person is already arrested. That person was a Nishi Hongwanji Bishop in Hawaii.

How did that happen? The answer lies in the decades prior to December 1941.

The first example I think about are the strikes of 1904 and 1919 — labor disputes in which the government, the commercial interests, and the Christian Church felt under threat. The Japanese were at the forefront of these major labor disputes, and the Buddhist temples were where all the striking workers gathered. Many of the labor leaders came from the Young Buddhist Association. Buddhism became associated with that which would disrupt American business — or, that which would disrupt the entire identity of Hawaii as it became an American, Christianized territory.

Around that time, people began using the term “repaganization of the Hawaiian Islands.” By that, they meant that the Native Hawaiian peoples, whose religion they viewed as pagan, had been civilized by Christianity. But the Buddhists did not become Christian. That’s “repaganization.” They worried that Hawaii was going to become a more Buddhist-dominated space.

The second example: in 1927, there was a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tokushige vs. Farrington. Farrington was the Governor of the Hawaiian territory at that time. The territorial legislature tried to ban the Japanese language schools that were primarily run by Buddhist temples. It went through the Ninth Circuit and eventually the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the Japanese language schools. The territorial government was frustrated with DC and the Supreme Court for saying, in a sense, Yes you can be in an American territory and have a religion that’s different and speak a language that’s not English. It’s a very important case that very few people study.

The point is: all throughout these ‘10s and ‘20s, before Pearl Harbor, there was a very dynamic conversation in Hawaii about what it meant to be an American. And, because the Buddhists hadn’t converted to Americanism by becoming Christian, they weren’t “true” Americans — they weren’t showing loyalty to their adopted home. They weren’t assimilating. This was a conversation that happened within the Japanese American community in Hawaii in the decades before World War II.

Many of the people who helped the FBI come up with their lists were part of the group in Hawaii who believed that to be American is to be Christian and that Buddhists and Buddhist organizations were undermining — or were in fact a threat to — national security. That’s where it begins.

Buddhism has gone from being seen as a terrorist threat and a religion of heretical, “foreigner Asians” to being embraced by a faction of white American liberal culture and has even become trendy. How do you understand this apparent shift?

I think of it as Buddhism as an idea vs. Buddhism an embodied practice. There’s a difference between Buddhism as a threat to national security versus this image of an innocuous, peaceful philosophy–spirituality — a practical set of methods, such as meditation, that allow one to reorient one’s life.

There has always been a certain small segment of people who were not born into Buddhist families who have either been sympathetic or have actually converted to Buddhism. Thomas Tweed famously writes about Victorian Buddhism in late 19th century East Coast America. Most people only read about Buddhism in books, but they were fascinated by it. Tweed talks about people who were drawn to Buddhism and categorizes them into 3 kinds: rationalists, romantics, and esoterics. I think, in some ways, those categories still hold even in the 21stcentury. This is the late 19th century when he was talking about people, the rationalists, who saw Buddhism as a philosophy that was not anti-science. The romantics saw it as the mystical East. To them, Buddhism embodied a repository of wisdom in an almost-poetic way. Finally, the esoterics viewed Buddhism as magical–mystical, containing these hidden truths that you would be able to access if you were initiated in a certain lineage.

John Dower writes in War Without Mercy, his famous Pulitzer prize-winning book on the Pacific war, about the absolute brutality of the war in the Pacific and the view of the Japanese as uberhuman-but-not-actually-human. However brutal the war in Europe was, it was not that racially-based war. It was the same on the other side: the Japanese viewed the Americans in racial terms, too. It was a very serious clash, with each side not viewing the enemy as human.

We can see that there has been a shift post-war. Japan, these days, is identified with fashion, design, pop culture, anime, manga, and economic power. It shifted, right? So, its possible, in less than half a century, to shift perception. For me, I’m curious to see what it takes to shift today’s mainstream American discourse about Muslim Americans. What is it going to take so that, 50 years from now, Islam will be seen as innocuous, like Buddhism is, today?

How did Japanese American Buddhist organizations have to change in order to avoid repercussions from the government and stigmatization from the general public? How did these changes, and the incarceration experience in general, shape the current practice of Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists?

During war, questions of identity and loyalty come to the fore in a very heightened way. One of the responses of the Japanese American Buddhist community under martial law in Hawaii and inside the mainland U.S. camps was to accelerate the process of Americanizing Buddhism.

I always say that there are two dynamics at work when Buddhism moves from one cultural context to another. Here’s an example. In the field of Chinese Buddhism, there are two classic books out there: one about how the preexisting Confucian and Taoist traditions and the philosophical–religious landscape of China took this thing from India and transformed it socially and doctrinally to fit the Chinese milieu. There’s another book, The Buddhist Conquest of China, in which the basic notion was that this new unique religion radically transformed the Chinese ways of thinking and the religious landscape of China. There will always be these debates. But actually both are true; when religions move from one context to another, they get transformed and bring something new to the table.

Both of those things were happening prior to the war, there were already places in Oregon that were using the word “church” to talk about their temple. There were places that mimicked the Christian congregational style of worship. Jews from Europe also shifted to that model in the US. Like the idea of meeting on a certain day — like Sunday — and having a worship service. In the case of Japanese Americans prior to WWII, they already had this process of singing Buddhist hymns, often transposing Christian hymnal music and notation styles and putting Buddhist terminology and thematics in them. jodo

What the war does is it heightens this, because of the questioned loyalty of the Japanese Americans. So they “Americanized” their Buddhism first by transferring its formal registration to American citizens, who would be listed as the de facto leaders of the movement, putting it under American control. In 1944, in Topaz — which is where the largest of the Japanese American school of Buddhism, the Nishi Hongwanji school of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism — they held a series of meetings to become more American by democratically electing their leadership. Prior leaders were not elected. They were appointed by Kyoto, which is where the headquarters were based. They changed the name of the organization from “Buddhist Missions of North America” to “Buddhist Churches of America.”

As we discussed earlier, it appears now that Muslims and Muslim Americans are currently faced with a similar hostility that conflates their religion and ethnicities as being a dangerous, un-American threat to national security, much like the Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists during WWII. What lessons that we can learn history, and how can this understanding help prevent it from happening again?

“Never Again,” an illustration by artist Gregorio Martinez, depicts a Muslim family standing in front of Japanese American concentration camps.

People who were not Japanese who came to the defense of Japanese Americans during WWII — whether it was lawyers within the ACLU, the American Friend Service Committee, the Quakers, or more mainstream Christian groups — some of them were criticized for siding with the enemy, even within their own organizations.

In Los Angeles, after the war, when people were coming back from these camps, having lost their homes and businesses, the Buddhist temples often served as hostels. The Senshin Buddhist Temple, which is in an African American neighborhood, had quite a few African American neighbors who helped Japanese Americans find jobs or helped with groceries. You find examples of people who — when the war with Japan was seen as so brutal, when the Japanese and by extension Japanese Americans were often seen as the enemy — went out of their way to show these people that they viewed them as their neighbors. For the Japanese Americans who experienced those expressions of kindnesses, it meant a lot to them. I would say it was important, then, for people who were outside of that group to have of a sense of friendship and allegiance with the members of that group. Maybe it’s important today.

Is there any message from your research that you want to convey to the younger Japanese and Japanese American Buddhist community, who may not know much about the history of American Buddhism and incarceration and the way its affected Japanese American Buddhist organizations and practices?

There were pioneers who founded many of these Buddhist temples, who carved out a religious space in America, which contributed a different set of ideas and practices to American society. They struggled in the face of people telling them you can’t be both Buddhist and American at the same time. They asserted that you can be both Buddhist and American at the same time. That was hard-earned. One could take pride in knowing that one’s ancestors helped to make that possible.

I feel like they paved the way for people like Mazie Hirono, the U.S. Senator from Hawaii, or Colleen Hanabusa in the House of Representatives, and others who became the first Buddhists to serve in the U.S. Congress. Colleen’s grandfathers were co-founders of the Waianae Hongwanji Mission. Mazie comes from a Jodo Shu background.

Whether it’s getting “B” for “Buddhist” on dog tags, or Buddhist chaplains in the military, or tombstones for fallen soldiers with a dharma wheel instead of a Christian cross — if they didn’t work for that, we wouldn’t be in a place where Buddhism is an accepted religion. Ancestors and pioneers who broke these barriers, who staked a claim to being both Buddhist and American — I think it’s important to keep these things in mind as American Buddhists today.

* * * * *

This interview is dedicated to the enduring spirit of those that held onto their identity and beliefs in the face of a powerful oppressive force, and to those that must still to this day. —Hondo Lobley


*This article was originally published on on June 15, 2018.


© 2018 Funie Hsu; Hondo Lobley

buddhism Duncan Williams identity immigration japanese americans muslim americans religion terminology United States World War II