Published in the Sambodhi Journal
Japanese Immigration To Hawaii And The Flourishing of Buddhism
Hawaii is a tiny archipelago in the vast Pacific Ocean approximately five hours by jet off the West Coast of the continental United States, and approximately eight hours by jet from Japan, (see map, Appendix 1). The seven inhabited islands are (see Appendix 2): Oahu, (where most of the people live), Kauai, Maui, the Big Island, (also known as Hawaii), Lanai, Molokai, and Niihau, (a privately owned island by the Robinson family which is not shown on Appendix 2).
Historically, Hawaii’s connection to Japan played an important role in the establishment and rise of Buddhism in Hawaii. Shintoism and Buddhism were two co-existing religions which were incorporated into the daily lives of the people of Japan. In 1868, the first Japanese immigrants, approximately 148 in number,1 came to Hawaii as contract laborers to work in the sugar cane and pineapple fields. Between 1868-1924, there were approximately 159,288 Japanese men, women and children in Hawaii, constituting approximately 42.7 percent of the total population.2 Plantation owners also brought in Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Portuguese contract laborers to work the fields. The diverse races made Hawaii a multicultural, multi-racial center.
However, plantation housing concentrated people of like race to live in close proximity to each other in what were known as “camps.” In this manner the Japanese were able to perpetuate the cultural norms and behaviors that they knew in Japan within a homogenous enclave. Buddhist temples sprang up on nearly every Japanese concentrated plantation, and temple activities thrived, especially during the midsummer festival of obon, a remembrance of departed souls that drew the community together in dances, comradery, and food.
Plantation life was extremely difficult with substandard company housing, long hours in the fields with back breaking work, and harsh overseers called, “Lunas,” who imposed and enforced strict rules. Some Japanese laborers left the plantations at the end of their contracts and moved to the Mainland United States. Some remained in Hawaii to open their own “mom and pop” stores or businesses. Some fled before their contracts expired. Some returned to Japan. On the Mainland, they faced greater isolation, and racial discrimination because they were a distinct minority.
The Japanese immigrants who remained in Hawaii, despite the harsh working conditions, cultivated a vibrant society with Japanese newspapers, schools, stores, temples, baseball teams, and micro credit groups to help each other out financially. They also made up a substantial percentage of the population, and their close knit communities allowed them to confidently replicate their traditional practices.
The Pure Land Buddhist temple was the first Buddhist temple built in Hawaii by Okabe Gakuo from 1894-1896. He built the temple on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island. In 1899, a representative from Japan of the Jodo Shinshu sect came to the Islands to assess the feasibility of establishing a Buddhist temple. Hongwan-ji also dispatched an official priest to establish a formal branch in Hawaii. The first Honpa Hongwanji Mission was established in 1898, and it is still operational today. Nichiren Buddhism established its first temple in the islands in 1900. Soto Zen Buddhism established its first temple in 1902. Shingon Buddhism established its first temple in 1914. The Okinawan community built its first temple, Jikoen Hongwanji in 1935, and it remains a major center today for Okinawan cultural activities in Honolulu, the capital city on the Island of Oahu.3
In a relatively short period of time there were over 180 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Hawaii, with over 100 active priests from over a dozen Buddhist sects.4 Buddhism was thriving in Hawaii with many adherents participating in temple activities and attending weekly services. The Japanese community looked to Buddhism to conduct funeral services for the passing of their loved ones, and to handle all follow up services to ensure the smooth transition of the departed souls into the afterlife. The temples were vibrant centers that met the spiritual, economic, cultural, social and educational needs of the communities. Plantation owners also made financial contributions to the temples because of their important role in the lives of the Japanese workers.
The Advent and Impact of World War II
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a major naval base on the Island of Oahu, on December 7, 1941, this caused the United States to enter World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 to place the Japanese people in internment camps and move them away from military areas, as well as the coastal areas because they were considered a security threat to the United States. This was done despite the fact that many of the Japanese and their children were American citizens.
In Hawaii, especially in Honolulu, the Japanese were essential to maintain the smooth flow of commerce because they were the majority race, (sans the U.S. military personnel, who were primarily Caucasian). Moving them enmasse to the interior of the mainland United States would have created too large of a labor deficit. Smaller enclaves of Japanese on islands other than Oahu, were sent to the internment camps on the Mainland.
However, Honouliuli, a then secret internment camp on Oahu was established, and became the largest and longest operating internment camp. Of the ten sites that were associated with the history of internment during World War II, Honouliuli was specifically built for long term detention. Although internment was justified on racial grounds, rather than religious grounds, Buddhist priests were given close scrutiny and were considered the highest security risk whose apprehension and detainment were of urgent priority.
Hawaii was placed under martial law which allowed the government to make major incursions into the lives of the people. Through hundreds of orders, curfews were established, blackouts were mandatory, Japanese language schools, temples, shrines and newspapers were shut down. The Japanese, (except for their smallest children), were fingerprinted and identification papers issued. They could not move residences, and all cameras, portable radios, firearms, flashlights, and any instruments which could be used in espionage were confiscated. The army suspended or censored long distance phone calls, wire transmissions, and all mail.
Under these stringent abrogations of their freedom, many Japanese sought refuge in Christianity, and felt the need to fully assimilate into Western culture. The US government also encouraged assimilation, and as a consequence, new generations of children were born not learning how to speak Japanese, as some parents insisted that only English be spoken at home, and many of the cultural traditions and practices became lost.
The celebrated 442nd and 100th Battalions and their distinguished service by Nisei, (i.e. second generation of Japanese born in America), who were finally allowed to serve in the US military commencing January, 19435 helped to change the perception of Japanese Americans from alien enemies to loyal Americans. The 442nd became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare.6 Benefitting from the GI Bill, (US legislation that paid for the educational costs of military service members), many of them became doctors, lawyers, engineers, businessmen and highly respected community leaders.
The Hawaii Japanese entered into politics and through block voting, the Democratic Party finally dominated Island politics previously controlled by the Republican Party. This shift in political access and control opened the doors to the Japanese and other races to have a voice in shaping and participating in political, economic and judicial processes on the local, national and international levels. Hawaii remains strategic in the Asia-Pacific region, as it continues to be a major location for US military installations, and a convening center for important global initiatives.
Post World War II And The Temporary Revival, Then Decline of Buddhism in Hawaii
After World War II, the interned Buddhist priests were able to return to Hawaii and revive their congregations which were prohibited from meeting during the war.7 The Buddhist Church of Hawaii and Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii made some fundamental changes to their organizations. They substantially loosened their ties with Japan and elected their own Bishops. They also relinquished control of the organizations to the Nisei. However, many other Buddhist organizations maintained their ties to Japan, and resumed the pre-war traditions and practices which included having priests trained in Japan and sent to Hawaii to lead the Buddhist temples.
The return of the Nisei soldiers, the release of those interned, the resumption of gatherings, the reinstatement of Japanese language newspapers and schools, and the recognition by the US government of Buddhism within its religious identification system which allowed deceased soldiers to have the dharmachakra, (i.e. the Buddhist “Wheel of the Dharma,” which represents the teachings of Lord Buddha that lead ultimately to Nirvana), placed on their tombstones, among other events, created a revival of Buddhism in Hawaii. The temples became places of renewed social cohesiveness, and attendance was robust.
However, this revival did not last, and over time, attendance began to dwindle. The upward mobility of the Japanese who had good jobs in government, the private sector, and on the Mainland, moved away from Japanese centered communities which had been enclaves of poverty. Many moved to the surrounding suburbs that were being rapidly built. Hawaii transitioned from being a US Territory to the 50th State of the United States in 1958. Through their rapid assimilation into Western traditions and culture, ties to Japan became increasingly remote. Hawaii also transitioned from being an agrarian centered economy to a tourist, US military centered economy. Hotels and businesses flourished as skyscrapers, and high rise condominiums changed the physical landscape. The rural, paradisiac look and feel of old Hawaii gave way to replicas of metropolises found on the mainland.
Those Buddhist organizations in Japan that continued to send priests trained in Japan to Hawaii, discovered that the younger generations of Japanese Americans spoke primarily English, and could not relate to services in Japanese. They began to drift away from weekly services, and attendance began to decline. Their parents and grandparents who were staunch supporters and attendees of the Buddhist temples were claimed by death and the infirmities of old age. The Japanese population in Hawaii also dropped, and increased secularization further eroded the cultural traditions and practices previously upheld by older generations.
Most of the Buddhist temples are facing the same problem of not only retaining members, but growing their numbers in the face of decline. They are looking at ways to possibly reach out to non-Japanese as well as the younger generations of Japanese who do not practice any of the traditions of their grandparents, nor see it as integral to their daily lives, or their sense of belonging to community as in previous times. The Japanese Buddhist organizations’ strong identification with only Japanese people became a drawback in their ability to attract non-Japanese members. The influential factors that brought and kept the Japanese people together in Hawaii waned, and intervening historic events changed the complexion of Island life, propelling it into a new future that rode the waves of the American dream of opportunities.
In this age of globalization and ubiquitous information technologies that have poured into the forefront of our consciousness in a daily inundation of worldwide events and issues in real time, there is an awareness that historic insularities of identity, whether by race, religion, class, gender, politics, and the like, are eroding in traditional structures, but paradoxically, simultaneously solidifying in non-traditional ways. As our global connectivity, through information technologies, trade and transportation systems, creates the feeling of the vastness and complexities of the issues that confront humanity in our unprecedented population growth of 7.3 billion people, (with an anticipated projection of 9.7 billion people by year 2050, and 11.2 billion people by year 2100),8 the more overwhelmed and helpless people can feel by their seeming insignificance in the face of such enormous numbers. This creates a need to belong to groups or causes that can give meaning to their lives and help them to feel connected to something greater than themselves. Through group mobilization (often commencing in the virtual world), that can manifest in large scale action on the ground, individuals working together in this manner can feel impactful in the world through causes that are worthwhile to them.
While historically religion played a role in helping its congregants to cultivate a relationship with a Source greater than themselves, many now feel a need to become engaged in causes or issues that they care about; whether its climate change, poverty alleviation, sustainable development, or a host of other societal and global concerns. Their causes that they commit themselves to have often become their moral high ground, their service to making this world a better place for others, and their new communities that provide the common ground of issues-based identification.
In the face of this new landscape, the essential teachings of Buddhism have great relevance and importance because the need for inner realization, peace, and transcendence in the midst of rapid external changes that can cause great turmoil and psychic as well as physical dislocations, breed an internal hunger for an enduring spiritual life that can place the individual on a stable foundation built on internal peace, ultimately externally expressed. May the teachings be disseminated in ways that are able to keep up with the rapidly changing modalities of communication that go beyond the boundaries of structured physical walls that previously contained them.
1 Kuykendall, Ralph S. The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1854-1874 (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1966), p 183
2 Schmitt, Robert C. Demographic Statistics of Hawaii: 1778-1965, (Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1968), p 75
3 Mitsugu Sakihara, Okinawans In Hawaii: An Overview Of The Past 80 Years, in Uchinanchu, University of Hawaii Press (1981), p 112
4Hunter, Louise, Buddhism in Hawaii: Its Impact on a Yankee Community University of Hawaii Press (1971) p
5 Hosokawa, William, Nisei, The Quiet Americans, (New York, William Morrow and Co., Inc. 1969). P 393-422
6 Shenkle, Kathryn (May 2006), “Patriots Under Fire: Japanese Americans In World War II” United States Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Center of Military History.
7 Nishigaya, L. and Oshiro, E. 2014, “Reviving The Lotus: Japanese Buddhism and World War II Internment,” in Breaking The Silence, edited by Falgout S. and Nishigaya, L. Social Process In Hawaii, Volume 45
8United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Projected To Reach 9.7 Billion By 2050,” (July 29, 2015), www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-reporthtml