Issei Buddhism in the Americas

By Tanaka, Kenneth K. | Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, July 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Issei Buddhism in the Americas

Tanaka, Kenneth K., Japanese Journal of Religious Studies

Duncan Ryuken Williams and Tomoe Moriya, eds., Issei Buddhism in the Americas Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010. 216 pages. Cloth, $70.00; paper, $25.00. isbn 978-0-252-03533-3 (cloth); 978- 0-252-07719-7 (paper).

This volume joins a growing body of literature in English on Buddhism outside Asia, particularly in the United States, but is distinct in two ways. It covers topics beyond American Buddhism to include two essays, one on the Canadian and the other on the Brazilian experience. Secondly, it focuses on the pioneer or the first generation (issei) Japanese Buddhists. Consequently, virtually all of the eight articles, by established authors on both sides of the Pacific, take up topics from the late 1800s to World War ii. And they seek to do so, as noted by the editors, to avoid the simplistic framework of both a Japan-centered diaspora model and an Americacentered assimilationist model in an effort to retell a part of American religious history from the perspective of those whose homeland is not Europe but Asia.

The volume is divided into four parts, the first of which is "Nation and Identity." In the first essay, "Can I Put This Jizo Together with the Virgin Mary in the Altar? Creolizing Zen Buddhism in Brazil," Cristina Rocha discusses Japanese Brazilians who participate in two religious customs of Buddhism and Catholicism. For example, a third-generation woman, Nicia Takeda, observes both a seventh-day mass for her deceased mother at a Catholic Church and a forty-ninth day service at a Zen temple. Nicias' mother was a Catholic but had carried on the practice of taking care of the Buddhist altar at home. She is not an exception as many Catholic Japanese Brazilians continue to observe Buddhist practices as a way staying connected to familial and cultural roots. Rocha opts to use "creolization" rather than "syncretism" or "hybridity" for these practices of religious blending. The essay further discusses the phenomenon where a growing number of Japanese Brazilians (80 percent being Catholic) are turning to Buddhism for not only cultural connection but also for its enhanced prestige within Brazilian society.

Masako Iino's essay, "Bukkyokai and the Japanese Canadian Community in British Columbia," provides a glimpse into the Japanese Buddhist experience in Canada. It focuses on the first thirty years of the twentieth century, with particular attention paid to two publications, Otakebi (A War Cry) and Buddha, published by the Young Buddhist Association. Like the Buddhists in the U.S., Canadian Buddhists struggled with discrimination and tensions with Japanese Christians, which forced them to rely on Bukkyokai (Buddhist organizations) for their spiritual, cultural, and social needs. As Japan became more militarized through the 1930s, the Japanese Canadians felt greater pressure from not only the larger Canadian society but more importantly within themselves to realize their identity. They expressed their concerns in the above publications as they sought ways to be good Canadians equal to other races by cultivating their self-esteem through Buddhism at the Bukkyokai.

The first essay in Part Two (Education and Law) is by Noriko Asato and is entitled "The Japanese Language School Controversy in Hawaii" utilizes newly-discovered Japanese sources to tell a more detailed story about the struggles of the Japanese language schools in Hawaii run by Buddhist temples during the first two decades of the twentieth century. These schools played a vital role in the missionary work of Buddhist priests. As they sought to expand their schools, the Buddhists were confronted by two foes, the dominant political groups and the Japanese Christians. When these groups blocked Buddhist efforts on the grounds that the schools were anti-American, Bishop Yenmyo Imamura of the Honganji Mission countered that the language schools were actually a means of Americanizing the Buddhist children. Even though in 1927 the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Buddhist-run language schools, the controversy ensued until the schools were completely shut down due to the war. …

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