A Pure Land in the East: Study of a Sangha in New York: Influence of Internment Camps on Community Development

Article excerpt


This study of a Japanese American Buddhist congregation in New York City reveals the effect that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II had on community building. Following World War II, membership in the Buddhist community in New York City grew dramatically, only to be followed by a decrease within a couple of years. However, those people who stayed created a close-knit, active community. This article focuses on both the history of the Buddhist community in the United States as well as the uniqueness of Japanese Americans in New York City. With the end of the "good old days," the congregation needs to be open to communities outside of the Japanese lineage to survive.

To most scholars studying ethnicity in America, "Japanese Americans in New York" are not a familiar category. While extensive scholarly research has been done on people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast, those on the East Coast have been neglected. However, for more than half a century on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, a Jodo Shinshu (True Pure Land School), a Buddhist temple, has witnessed the lives and history of people of Japanese ancestry in the New York area.

The Japanese American Buddhist Church (JABC), (1) was founded in New York in 1938. It stands as one of only five temples of the fifty-six that belong to the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) to be located in the Eastern District (Buddhist Churches of America n.d.). Since the majority of the BCA temples are located on the West Coast, where there is a large number of people of Japanese ancestry, the congregations on the East Coast have drawn little attention. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 288,854 Japanese live in California, while only 37,279 Japanese are listed as residents of New York State. About 60 percent of that number are residents of New York City (U.S. Census Bureau 2000).

This study probes the transformation of the JABC from a Japanese-ethnic Buddhist church to a multi-ethnic Buddhist congregation, particularly focusing on the aftermath of World War II. Through discussions with individuals who have been to the BCA churches on the West Coast, I make the claim that the location of the JABC makes the culture of the church fairly unique. JABC's ethos and character are distinct in that the church is located in an area where fewer Japanese are living and fewer people of Japanese ancestry are attending the church, which has become a multicultural community. The JABC's history, however, is part of the history of people of Japanese lineage in the mainland United States.


Jodo Shinshu is one of the Buddhist schools that evolved in Japan around the Kamakura period, from 1192 to 1333. As such, the question is why Japanese immigrants would bring this particular religious school to the United States in the late nineteenth century. According to Tetsuden Kashima (1977), more than 60 percent of Japanese immigrants between 1889 and 1993 were from Hiroshima, Kumamoto, Yamaguchi, and Fukuoka, which are southern parts of Japan where Jodo Shinshu has a strong influence. Whether one had actively practiced Jodo Shinshu in Japan or not, the Buddhism might have reminded the Japanese immigrants of their home country.

In mainland America, Jodo Shinshu was originally incorporated as the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA). Around World War II, the BMNA changed its name to the BCA. When Jodo Shinshu was first brought to the United States in the late nineteenth century, not only American society but also the Japanese Consul in Seattle had an unfavorable view of the idea of introducing Buddhism to North American society. In contrast, Japanese immigrants were hoping to find a place for their religion in a foreign country that was inhospitable toward them. In fact, Japanese immigrants in California sent a petition to Hongwanji in Kyoto, Japan, in 1889 to send Buddhist monks to them. …