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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhism and the Japanese Internment

By August 27, 2010

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At Tricycle blog, James Shaheen has a post on the parallels between hostility toward Japanese-Americans during World War II and hostility toward Muslims in the United States today. As you may know, in one of the more shameful acts of American history, during World War II ethnic Japanese living in the western coastal states were forced into internment camps. A majority of the internees were U.S. citizens.

That much I knew, but I learned from reading James's post that some nativist organizations like the Anti-Asiatic Association and the Asian Exclusion Association also protested the building of Buddhist temples as well as Japanese Christian churches. I did a little more digging and learned that Jodo Shinshu priests were arrested by the FBI and imprisoned separately from the internment camps. (Jodo Shinshu is the largest Japanese Pure Land school.) The priests were targeted for arrest because they were community leaders.

Today I often hear President Franklin Roosevelt blamed for the Japanese internment, and indeed he did sign the executive order that made it possible. But the internment wasn't FDR's idea. My understanding is that when he signed the order in 1942 he was caving in to massive political and popular pressure (1942 was a presidential election year). I don't know if anyone took a poll back then, but older folks (I wasn't born yet) have told me that at the time most people supported the internment. Indeed, anti-Japanese hysteria had reached such a dangerous level that some people argued the Japanese should be placed in internment camps for their own protection.

I did  a little more digging and learned that during the internment, Jodo Shinshu temples all along the west coast were closed and their priests imprisoned. Many Japanese Americans hid or destroyed home altars.

Most Shodo Shinshu sanghas in the U.S. were part of a particular tradition called Hongan-ji, or "primal vow." The Hongan-ji association in North America had named itself the Buddhist Missions of North America, or BMNA. Some non-Japanese Americans already had taken offense at the association's name long before Pearl Harbor; people found the idea of Buddhist missions in Christian America very offensive (while finding no fault with the opposite, of course). During the internment the name of BMNA was changed to the less "offensive" Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).

Eventually some of the young men in the camps were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army. They were assigned to the 442nd Regiment and sent to fight in Europe. The BCA petitioned the War Department to provide the 442nd with a Buddhist chaplain. The request was denied, because the War Department did not recognize Buddhism as a religion.

Today most Americans recognize that the internment of the Japanese was wrong, yet we don't seem to be able to apply the lesson to the current wave of anti-mosque-building hysteria that seems to be sweeping the country. I'd like to think that someday our grandchildren will read about the "mosque" protests and wonder how people could have been so bigoted, but it would be nice if we could just skip the bigot phase for once.

Huda, the About.com Guide to Islam, has some background articles up about the so-called "ground zero mosque," a community center planned by local Sufis that will not be visible from "Ground Zero" if it is built. See:

"Background of the Ground Zero Mosque Issue"

"Park51 Planners"

"Answering Critics of the 'Ground Zero Mosque'"

Update: See also "The Islamic Center and the 'Pearl Harbor' Analogy"

August 27, 2010 at 2:43 pm
(1) Kyle says:

Kind of a side note:

One event, which was cited directly in the report to Roosevelt to, which led him to sign the internment act was the Niihau incident. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niihau_Incident Notwithstanding the manner in which the Japanese began an undeclared war, this story led to a greater suspicion of Japanese Americans in the press and public.

By no means am I saying the internments were proper, as they were based on a kind of mass hysteria and were in direct conflict with the US Constitution. Furthermore, many Japanese American men went on to join the US Army and fought honorably in Sicily and Italy, to which their units went on to become some of the most decorated units in the entire army.

August 27, 2010 at 8:17 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Kyle — one problem with the Niihau hypothesis is that ethnic Japanese in Hawaii were not detained, just ethnic Japanese in the West Coast states.

August 27, 2010 at 5:53 pm
(3) Mumon says:

“(1942 was a presidential election year)”

No, but it was a Federal legislative election year, and the war hadn’t been going that well until the Battle of Midway, but that battle hadn’t yet been fought when Roosevelt issued the order.

August 27, 2010 at 5:58 pm
(4) Mumon says:


It is a very good post. What’s interesting about the current whipped-up anti-Islamic sentiment is that it is trying to manufacture a problem outside one’s self (most folks complaining aren’t from NYC, let alone New York) for which a solution can only really be found inside one’s self.

August 27, 2010 at 9:54 pm
(5) David says:

I’m not sure that drawing an analogy between the internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during WWII and today’s situation is really valid. Two completely different times, and in many ways, different set of circumstances. But some may not agree with that.

A little more info:

The temples were not “closed” so much as they were emptied. In Los Angeles, at Hompa Hongwanji, which had the largest congregation, the sole remaining member was Julius Goldwater, a Jewish American who also happened to be one of the first non-Japanese to be ordained as a priest in a Jodo tradition. During the interment, Hompa Hongwanji and several of the other local temples were used to store internee’s belongings. Hompa Hongwanji also leased out space in their building, since they weren’t using it, to an African-American Baptist church and a medical clinic run by a Dr. Hodel, who was later implicated in the Black Dahlia murder case.

The use of “churches” was at the urging of Rev. Goldwater, who advocated a more “American” approach. However, there was some resistance to this, especially from the Jodo Shinshu Bishop of Los Angeles.

The imprisonment of the priests was not quiet as stringent as we might imagine. In 1943, Reverend Art Takemoto was allowed to transfer from Poston to Topaz, Utah, to study under Bishop Ryotai Matsukage. In 1944, he went to Chicago to help the minister there open up a temple. There was actually a great deal of movement between the camps.

August 28, 2010 at 9:34 am
(6) Kyle says:

Barbara – I’m not qualifying the scope or reason for internment, only stating the fact that Brig Gen. Mark C Clark’s report cites the Niihau incident as one of his arguments for action against Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. Asst. Sec of War John McCloy forwarded the report to Roosevelts desk highlighting that incidint, along with the more pressing investigations of Itaru Tachibana’s alleged spy ring involving Japanese Americans on the West Coast of the US. Certainly, he niihau incident wasn’t the only reason, but the hysteria surronding it can’t be ignored.

As for the Japanese Americans fate in Hawaii, the Territorial Governor of Hawaii at the time, Joseph Poindexter refused calls for mass internment, but did declare marshall law, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. A military govener of Hawaii was declared in cahrge shortly after, who put into place very draconian rules for all citizens of Hawaii.

Indeed, since the almost 1/3 of Hawaii’s population was of Japanese heritage, the military decided not intern the population due to the fact that it relied heavily on the local labor to build and fix ships, also the logistics of interning several hundred thousand people ws impossible. Furthermore, in the event of a Japanese invasion of Hawaii, the military command, and they even said as much, did not want the Hawaiian populaion to have a reason to support the Japanese ground troops.

Ironiclly, although all phone, transport and correspondence was heavly monitored and censored, the Japanese Amerians on Hawaii enjoyed greater freedoms than those on the mainland. Under Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt left the deicision to intern up to the command of the different areas. And despite the no internment policy in the territory of Hawaii, not one act of sabotage occured during the duration of the war.

Who knows what was going through Roosevelts mind at the time he signed the order, all I can say is the Niihau incidint was front and center, right along with the other information he took away from the military commision.

August 28, 2010 at 5:21 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

Kyle — “Official” histories of the internment often cite what sound like legitimate security concerns, but I don’t entirely buy them. Roosevelt was being pressured by West Coast politicians, most especially Gov. Earl Warren of California. Gov. Warren may sincerely have believed that California’s Japanese communities presented a security threat, although I understand there was never any solid evidence of subversive plots among the mainland ethnic Japanese. However, it’s also true that local and state politicians on the West Coast were being pressured by agricultural interests wanting to eliminate competition from ethnic Japanese farmers.

Also, over the years I’ve spoken to people who were adults living on the West Coast at the time, and what they described to me was a widespread anti-Japanese hysteria that sounds even worse than what we’re seeing now with the anti-mosque building hysteria. I’ve been told there was genuine concern that mobs might attack Japanese communities and start killing people. Again, that’s not something you read in the history books, but I’ve heard it said by more than one old timer. So I think it’s possible Roosevelt’s primary concern was just to get people to calm down.

August 30, 2010 at 2:10 am
(8) Hein says:

As a South African I am not qualified to really add anything to this discussion. Firstly we have a mere 1500 Japanese people in our country; secondly, there are only about 30 000 Buddhist in the country (mostly Taiwanese people) and thirdly; there was no internment of Japanese people (as far as I know) during WWII and there is currently no anti-moslem/anti-mosque hysteria in SA.

What we do have is what is called “xenophobia”. It is mostly local black people attacking foreign (i.e. African) black people. There are nothing said about religion although people taking the brunt of the attacks are Somali (mostly Moslem people) refugees and Zimbabweans (Christians mostly).

These happen IMO due to incorrect views generated by fear. A few years ago the fear was against the “Rooi Gevaar” (literally “Red Threat” i.e. the Communist) and the “Swart Gevaar” (“Black Threat” i.e. Black nationalism). Now we have an ailing Communist Party and Blacks ruling the country (and quiet peacefully except for a few isolated incidents and crime). Now African foreigners are the new “Gevaar”, because of the “fear” that Africans prevent local blacks’ job opportunities. Of course the government denies the existence of xenophobia and ascribe the phenomen as an incidence of “crime”.

Be that as it may. People will always make some or other unskilfull decision or commit some or other atrocitious action based upon fear.

The really enemy is fear NOT people.


August 30, 2010 at 10:42 am
(9) Pete in b-more says:

I personally had to leave Christianity, other than the direct teachings of Jesus, because I found it to be so insufficient to my needs. My daughter finds most of her spiritual inspiration in the Bible and I respect her and encourage her spirituality in her chosen faith. My roomate is Muslim and we have interesting discussions highlighted by reason and lack of the inflamed emotions that hijack so many discussions in the world. Very enjoyable. I always encourage his many positive qualities without trying to convert him from his faith. So, I think there is room for different traditions in the world and in the US. The freedom in America allows Mosque builders to build anywhere they want. I definitely don’t support fundamentalism, wether Christian, Muslim or whatever. But freedom and reason can be fruitful for all of us. I’m not sure how to curtail all of the violence and intolerance around the world, but part of it must surely to be found through reason and the growth of unflagging love and wisdom in our hearts.

August 30, 2010 at 10:50 am
(10) J. Andy Lambert says:

Great Post, Barbara.

I think is a far more apt comparison then I’ve heard others make. You proabably heard KEith Olberman’s rant regarding this issue and his comparisons to Nazi Germany. While there’s no question that hate is present in both cases, I don’t think the motivations were similar at all.

The Japanese internment was far more similar but you don’t see the mainstream media pointing out this comparison.

August 30, 2010 at 11:08 am
(11) Engyo says:

I must second David’s comment above. Similar things happened with the Nichiren Shu temples on the West Coast as well (many of which are still called Church). Most of the Nichiren Shu ministers were sent to the camps along with their congregations.

August 31, 2010 at 2:31 pm
(12) Kyle says:

I agree, and you are quite correct about Earl Warren, among others who put the political pressure on. Bigotry played a huge role, no question, even Gen. DeWitt’s corespondence says so.

What saved the Japanese on Hawaii is a great story; one in which Elenor Roosevelt played some part in keeping the internments from happening. I’m working on a story about that, i think it is quite interesting.

September 3, 2010 at 1:26 am
(13) Chuck says:

I’m not supporting the racism and xenophobia that lead to the interment without due process. Nor the interments themselves. But we often judge history with both information and emotions that were not present at the time the history was being made. This distorts our judgment of the people who made the choices. I’m not defending them, but they had a complex set of opinions what we need to understand so as to better understand a despicable act of our Government, and to prevent it from ever happening again.

There was plenty of anti-japanese feeling on the West Coast prior to Pearl Harbor. The immigrants, many of them farmers, were hard working, industrious, and were making competition for the preexisting white farmers.

Also, realize that people and the Army on the West coast expected an invasion by the Japanese in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Blackouts, barbed wire on beaches, check points on roads, anti air craft batteries in Golden Gate Park caused deep fear. People were terrified. it was well known from China in the ’30s what the Imperial Army did when it conquered a City. Many families moved east for safety, or sent kids and wives there.

There was an economic motivation too – their lands and assets were seized and never returned. That may of been a motive for some of the wealthy businessmen and politicians like Warren. Greed and theft.

What is different regarding mosque baiting is that a very few people on a platform like Fox News or Talk Radio have a great deal of power to create and inflame things that aren’t really issues. Obama is a crypto-muslim! Death Panels that never existed. Show the birth certificate.

While there is reasonable fear of islamic terrorism, the mosque issues and the fear of the spread of Islam in the US is largely a ratings boom and creation of the right wing media. It is disgusting.

September 3, 2010 at 2:24 pm
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

Chuck — I understand what you’re saying, but it’s also the case that in 1942 white Americans were conflating Japanese ethnicity and Japanese nationality far, far more than German or Italian ethnicity and nationality. And I understand U-boats sometimes were close enough to be visible from the East Coast, so it’s not as if there weren’t a reason to fear Germany. So there was definitely a level of hysteria and bigotry behind the internment that went way beyond what was rational. And there is a very similar sort of conflating going on in regard to the Park51 project, in which a congregation of Sufis that’s been in New York for many years is conflated the 9/11 terrorists, all foreign nationals of the Wahhabi fringe. And I believe many of the powers fanning the flames of the hysteria are only doing so for the political advantage. So there’s a combination of large numbers of people being stampeded by fear into doing something wrong and powerful forces encouraging the stampede for its own ends. Details vary; the basic theme is too similar.

September 8, 2010 at 3:26 pm
(15) David says:

Your last comment about “conflating Japanese ethnicity and Japanese nationality far, far more then German or Italian ethnicity” is far too simple a statement for such a complex time. There were camps containing German citizens and Italian citizens, many of whom entered into military service to leave the camps, which was also true of the Japanese Americans.

Furthermore, The United States has a history of “picking” on the new guy. Almost like some sort of hazing ritual. The Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, the Mexicans. Everyone bitches and moans about the “new guy” on campus and bitterly complains of how they are taking jobs and stealing things from real Americans. When all “real Americans” are descendants of immigrants themselves. I am not saying I agree with this practice, just that it is there. It just so happened that, at the time, the Japanese were the “new guys” and their home country decided to make a first strike. A double wammy so to speak. I am in no way agreeing with what happened, just understanding why it did.

Finally, I am unclear as to how Buddhism relates to any of this. I believe that you are trying to tie in something that is simply not there, or at least unrelated to what is transpiring today. The focus during the internment was the Japanese as a nationality not which religion they were. Japanese Buddhists, Shinto and Christian practitioners were all interned.

I feel that you are reaching for something that really isn’t there. Simply put, Japanese come from one country. Muslims come from many. Japan is a nation, Islam is a religion. Furthermore, I don’t understand the connection with internment and mosque building. One being imprisonment the other an infringement on freedom of religion. You are comparing apples and oranges here.

September 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

Your last comment about “conflating Japanese ethnicity and Japanese nationality far, far more then German or Italian ethnicity” is far too simple a statement for such a complex time. There were camps containing German citizens and Italian citizens, many of whom entered into military service to leave the camps, which was also true of the Japanese Americans.

We’re discussing this matter on a very simple level, and I don’t really want to spend more time on it here, but the treatment of Japanese Americans was not the same as the treatment of German and Italian Americans. Those small percentage of Americans with German and Italian ancestry residing in the U.S. who were detained generally were detained for specific reasons pertaining to individuals. The reasons were not always justified in hindsight (they included German Jews who had escaped persecution), but you can’t say that they were rounded up only because of their ancestry. Some of them were Nazi Party members, and a few were suspected of espionage.

The Japanese Americans, on the other hand, were detained only because of their ancestry, and because of racist hysteria. The U.S. had no specific evidence that any mainland ethnic Japanese were a security threat.

I am unclear as to how Buddhism relates to any of this.

You are reading it backward. I’m not saying people were persecuted because they were Buddhists. I’m saying the internment impacted U.S. Buddhism and is part of the history of Buddhism in the West. And it’s interesting that you couldn’t see that perspective.

My larger point is that the waves of hysterical bigotry such as we’re seeing today about American Muslims are recurring features of American history, beginning at least with 19th century Know Nothings if not earlier. The details are a lot nastier than a “hazing ritual.” And of course native Americans were also targets of bigotry. I have observed that some people who are capable of recognizing the episodes of the past were “wrong” somehow cannot apply the lesson to the present, and the hysteria begins again.

September 15, 2010 at 6:07 pm
(17) Bob says:

I lived in Hoopeston Illinois for 15 years and they still have the Japanese internment camp brick buildings and the entire complex and structure is fully intact, even the barbed wire fences. It’s not a museum but definitely a reminder that it wasn’t just Japanese on the west coast that were put into internment camps. They were all over the mid-western states as well as the east coast of the U.S.

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