Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Aloha Buddha-The Secularization of Ethnic Japanese-American

Academic journal article Journal of Global Buddhism

Aloha Buddha-The Secularization of Ethnic Japanese-American

Article excerpt


The relations between religion, migration, transnationalism, pluralism, and ethnicity have gained increasing focus in religious, cultural, sociological, and anthropological studies. With its manifold transfigurations across time and location, Buddhism is an obvious case for investigating such issues. Hawaii, with its long migration history and religious pluralism, is an obvious living laboratory for studying such configurations. This article investigates Japanese American Buddhism in Hawaii, focusing on the relationship between religion and ethnicity. By analyzing contemporary religious life and the historical context of two Japanese American Zen temples in Maui, it is argued that the ethnic and cultural divide related to spirituality follow a general tendency by which the secularization of Japanese Americans' communal Sangha Buddhism is counterbalanced by a different group's spiritualization of Buddhism.

Japanese Buddhism is present in several Western regions (Pereira and Matsuoka, 2007), characterized by a division between the two "kinds" of Buddhism. In North America "religion and ethnicity are closely related phenomena" (Tanaka, 1999: 5). Not only the Japanese new religions, but also Zen Buddhism, which in its "Western" form can also be regarded as a new religious movement (Sharf, 1995a and b), have appealed to Euro-Americans, while other traditional Japanese Buddhist traditions have been used and transformed by different immigrant waves settling in countries such as the USA (Kashima, 1977; Asai & Williams, 1999; Williams and Moriya, 2010), Brazil (Rocha, 2006; Usarski, 2008), and Canada (Harding, Hori and Soucy, 2010; Mullins, 1988). Hawaii is in many ways a particularly interesting place for observing immigrant Buddhism (Ama, 2011; Hunter, 1971; Kashima, 2008; Tanabe, 2005; Tanabe and Tanabe, forthcoming) as it constitutes both the "American West" and "Pacific East" (Williams and Moriya 2010, x). The first Japanese came to Hawaii five generations ago, establishing a migrant community whose descendants often identify themselves as Japanese Americans. Such hyphenization is common in Hawaii, where hybrid identification challenges concepts and bounded categories such as ethnicity and race. Furthermore, according to Lamb, Hawaii is "among the most religiously diverse areas in the world" (1998: 210) with one religious center for every 1,000 people (ibid.), thus, even though the reference is fifteen years old, Hawaii remains quintessentially an example of cultural and religious pluralism.

The aim of this article is, via historical outline and investigation of contemporary religious communities, to analyze how and to what extent ethnicity plays and has played a role in Japanese Buddhism in Hawaii. The empirical data used in this article is based on fieldwork in the village of Paia on the north coast of the island of Maui.2 The place was chosen primarily because former research on contemporary Rinzai Zen Buddhism in Japan (Borup, 2008) might act as a comparative frame for investigating the only Rinzai temple related to Myoshinji abroad (Rinzai Zen Mission). Furthermore, the village contains a Soto Zen temple (Mantokuji), a small lay Zen group (Maui Zendo), as well as a thriving spiritual market, making comparison between different kinds of (uses of) Buddhism possible. Analyses of the cases are further discussed in relation to general tendencies in immigrant Buddhism in a contemporary pluralist context in which a growing spiritual market has also adopted Buddhist elements. It is argued that ethnicity has played important and different roles in the history of Japanese-American Buddhism and that ethnic divisions in different kinds of contemporary religiosity are related to both secularization and spiritualization of Buddhism.

Japanese-American Buddhism in Paia

The first Japanese came to Hawaii as a part of the Hawaii labor program (kan'yaku imin, 1885-1894). A total of twenty-six ships brought 29,069 government contract people, followed by approximately 125,000 "free migrants" in the period from 1894 to 1908 (Ama, 2011: 32). …

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