Advice for Modern America, from When Buddhism Was Seen as a National Threat

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Buddhism was considered a threat to America. Hondo Lobley interviews scholar Duncan Williams about what we might want to remember from that time.

Funie Hsu
15 June 2018
Flag at American concentration camp
Barracks at Manzanar, one of ten concentration camps where the US government interned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans during WWII. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

The history of American Buddhism is a story of immigration.

Our understanding of the historical relationship between American Buddhism and immigration is obscured by a history of exclusion, white supremacy, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Today, the aggressive dismantling of protections for incarcerated non-citizen immigrants and frequent raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) serve as reminders that this legacy is a continued reality for many who currently reside in the U.S. It is worthwhile, then, to turn to the history of American Buddhism to recognize that previous generations of Asian and Asian American Buddhists have endured exclusion, erasure, and violence as immigrants in America and to consider what Buddhists in America today can do to support immigrant communities under attack.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first federal law to prohibit immigration based on ethnicity. To accommodate the demands of white labor organizations like the Workingmen’s Party of California, President Chester Arthur signed the law that curtailed Chinese immigrant labor. The Act also effectively stymied the growth of the first significant community of Buddhist practitioners in the U.S. Later, Japanese and Japanese Americans became the target of anti-Asian hostilities as their population quickly grew in the West Coast during the turn of the 20th century. As a predominantly Buddhist community, their religion was viewed as a marker of their foreignness. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists became a special threat to national security. Martial law was immediately declared in Hawai’i, and FBI agents were quick to detain Buddhist priests for questioning. Executive Order 9066 authorized the eventual mass removal of 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast and sanctioned their incarceration into concentration camps for the duration of the war.

In the interview that follows, Hondo Masato Lobley, a descendant of Japanese American Buddhists incarcerated in the Amache camp and a member of the Kaiho Collective, sits down with scholar and Soto Zen priest, Dr. Duncan Ryuken Willams, to discuss his forthcoming book on Buddhism and World War II incarceration, American Sutra: Buddhism and the World War Two Japanese American Experience. The conversation presents an exploration of American Buddhism as it pertains to the Japanese American experience and issues of immigration and American identity. As such, it provides important considerations for our contemporary climate, especially in regards to the treatment of Muslims and Muslim Americans by the current administration. It also illuminates, as Dr. Williams details, the manner in which Asian immigrant Buddhists have paved a path towards liberation that Buddhists in America walk today. —Funie Hsu, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of American Studies, San José State University

A note on terminology: In choosing to use the terms incarceration and concentration camp in lieu of internment/camp, we adhere to the growing consensus among scholars and activists that denotes the accuracy of the former terms in best describing the political realities and conditions of the incarceration experience.

Muslim family stands in front of Japanese American internment camp.
“Never Again,” an illustration by artist Gregorio Martinez, depicts a Muslim family standing in front of Japanese American concentration camps.

Hondo Lobley: “This is not normal” has become a common liberal outcry against the Trump administration, regarding actions like the travel ban, the proposed Muslim registry, and the blatant racism of cabinet members. Your research on the racial and religious persecution of Japanese Americans during WWII highlights the fact that state-sponsored prejudice has, in fact, been normal through the course of American history.  What noteworthy incidents of government-sanctioned discrimination have you come across in your research?

Duncan Williams: There’s been a very long history. It’s not that the government itself says, “Let’s figure out a policy approach to specifically target a particular race or religion.” It’s more of a broader societal conversation that involves civic leaders, local politicians, state level people, church leaders, newspapers

There’s a model of inclusion that presumes Anglo-Protestants at the center of American identity. Those at the center of this model then make decisions on how to widen the circle of inclusion. When people started talking about America as a “Christian nation,” that was a move to start including Catholics — Italians and Irish — so it wasn’t just Protestants. Being Christian covered these groups. By the time we got to Judeo-Christians, we had a moment when America began to be seen as inclusive of Jews. Right after 9/11, George Bush made a famous speech when he talked about the “Abrahamic faiths.”

These frameworks for understanding national identity inform whether something is a threat to that national identity. The presence of people with different ethnic, race, or religious identity sometimes challenges an established understanding of Americanness.

To me, what’s interesting about Buddhism and Hinduism — religions that have nothing to do with the origins of the Abrahamic faiths — is that you can’t include them that way. There’s something interesting about the way Asians disrupt the idea of what America is and what it means to include Asians in America.

Dr. Duncan Ryuken Willams.
Duncan Williams

Looking at the Asian and Asian American example, we can start as far back as the late 19th century. San Francisco newspapers would use the term “heathen Chinese” — this idea of the unchristian, uncivilized Chinese migrant worker in America, which conflated a people being not-quite-human and not-quite-Christian. In that period, those things were all very much conflated.

The Japanese American incarceration is not only about race and national origin, but the idea of the religious other. That begins earlier with South Asians. The word “Hindu” meant both a race and a religion. It pointed to a backward people that were seen as not-on-par with immigrants from Europe, who were Christian.

So, to me, government policies don’t come out of the blue. They’re discussed within these kinds of frameworks. Senator Phelan of California’s discussion, right before the 1924 Immigration Act, doesn’t actually mention that one of the primary targets is Asians — just like executive order 9066 (which precipitated the Internment) doesn’t actually say the word “Japanese.” They are smart enough to understand that there’s something slightly unconstitutional in what they’re doing, and it’s slightly un-American. But, this framework is so dominant that there’s an urge to want to protect America by protecting that idea.

Going back to “it’s not normal” — saying that is okay, because it’s a strategy of de-normalizing the dominant idea. There are ways to reinforce the dominant idea and there are ways to undercut it. Saying “it’s not normal” is one of many ways to undercut it. There were allies to Japanese Americans during WWII — attorneys from the ACLU or members of the American Friends Service Committee — who used the same language: “this is not normal.” I’m okay with people saying it, not as a historical fact, but as a strategy to de-normalize things that people say are normal. I think Trump certainly has moved some lines about what is “normal.”

In an early draft of your upcoming book, you describe the role of what is currently referred to as “fake news” in generating wartime hysteria against the Japanese and Japanese Americans during WWII.  Can you talk about the significance of fake news during that period?

It was widely recognized that news media outlets reported things that were blatantly false. A week after President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 announcement, in February of 1942, they reported a huge attack by the Japanese on the city of Los Angeles — 30 or 40 planes. Many newspapers reported that the local Japanese and Japanese American community aided and abetted these attackers. The attacks did not at all happen. The next day, the Secretary of the Navy had to clarify it did not happen. The newspapers ultimately said it was a rumor.

What happened was that American military personnel fired anti-aircraft artillery at something they perceived as Japanese planes. Once the artillery went up, locals panicked and thought they were under attack. This was made possible because the public was prepped by the news media of that time to think that an attack by Japan on the US mainland was quite possible and probable.

There are many other instances of that kind of reportage. What is troublesome — and potentially linked to today — is that it led to Japanese and Japanese Americans being targeted by mob violence and police arrests. One guy was trying to fix his headlights and he was arrested because they thought he was trying to signal the enemy. People were prepped to believe not only that Imperial Japan would attack, but also that Japanese Americans were ready to be traitors to their country. That was certainly fanned by the news media of the time.

Kaiho collective protestors.
Members of the Kaiho Collective demonstrate on inauguration day to oppose the president’s proposed Muslim travel ban. Photo via Kaiho Collective on Twitter.

A difference today is that, at that time, they didn’t have a Breitbart. They didn’t have an alternate-universe news outlet. These articles were in the mainstream press of the time. There are positives and negatives with the multiplicities of news outlets today. I think it’s quite likely that if we tracked down the people who commit violence towards Muslim Americans, we would find that the news world they live in and the Facebook groups they belong to are populated with news that is not based in reality and reinstates a paranoia about a particular ethnic group. We have seen that story run before.

Your work reminds us that at one time in this country being Buddhist was synonymous with being a racial “other” and thus considered by many to be incompatible with being an American citizen and seen by the government as a potential terrorist threat. Why was Buddhism was seen as a threat?

The best examples come from Hawaii, in the sense that it lies at the far western edge of American territories, that in the political philosophy of Manifest Destiny, was to be Americanized by Christianizing the region. You initially have Christian missionaries and commercial interests that define a territory as American. It becomes a militarily a zone where America will place its bases. American business can prosper in that zone. And it’s going to be, as its identity, a Christian space.

There are two examples in Hawaii that precede Pearl Harbor that get at why Buddhists were targeted right away.

On the day of Pearl Harbor: 8, 9, 10 am, the attack is going on. At 3:30 pm, martial law is declared. Before martial law is declared, at 3 pm — certainly before the United States Congress declared war — the first person is already arrested. That person was a Nishi Hongwanji Bishop in Hawaii.

How did that happen? The answer lies in the decades prior to December 1941.

The first example I think about are the strikes of 1904 and 1919 — labor disputes in which the government, the commercial interests, and the Christian Church felt under threat. The Japanese were at the forefront of these major labor disputes, and the Buddhist temples were where all the striking workers gathered. Many of the labor leaders came from the Young Buddhist Association. Buddhism became associated with that which would disrupt American business — or, that which would disrupt the entire identity of Hawaii as it became an American, Christianized territory.

Around that time, people began using the term “repaganization of the Hawaiian Islands.” By that, they meant that the Native Hawaiian peoples, whose religion they viewed as pagan, had been civilized by Christianity. But the Buddhists did not become Christian. That’s “repaganization.” They worried that Hawaii was going to become a more Buddhist-dominated space.

The second example: in 1927, there was a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Tokushige vs. Farrington. Farrington was the Governor of the Hawaiian territory at that time. The territorial legislature tried to ban the Japanese language schools that were primarily run by Buddhist temples. It went through the Ninth Circuit and eventually the Supreme Court, which decided in favor of the Japanese language schools. The territorial government was frustrated with DC and the Supreme Court for saying, in a sense, Yes you can be in an American territory and have a religion that’s different and speak a language that’s not English. It’s a very important case that very few people study.

When religions move from one context to another, they get transformed and bring something new to the table.

The point is: all throughout these ‘10s and ‘20s, before Pearl Harbor, there was a very dynamic conversation in Hawaii about what it meant to be an American. And, because the Buddhists hadn’t converted to Americanism by becoming Christian, they weren’t “true” Americans — they weren’t showing loyalty to their adopted home. They weren’t assimilating. This was a conversation that happened within the Japanese American community in Hawaii in the decades before World War II.

Many of the people who helped the FBI come up with their lists were part of the group in Hawaii who believed that to be American is to be Christian and that Buddhists and Buddhist organizations were undermining — or were in fact a threat to — national security. That’s where it begins.

Buddhism has gone from being seen as a terrorist threat and a religion of heretical, “foreigner Asians” to being embraced by a faction of white American liberal culture and has even become trendy. How do you understand this apparent shift?

I think of it as Buddhism as an idea vs. Buddhism an embodied practice. There’s a difference between Buddhism as a threat to national security versus this image of an innocuous, peaceful philosophy–spirituality — a practical set of methods, such as meditation, that allow one to reorient one’s life.

There has always been a certain small segment of people who were not born into Buddhist families who have either been sympathetic or have actually converted to Buddhism. Thomas Tweed famously writes about Victorian Buddhism in late 19th century East Coast America. Most people only read about Buddhism in books, but they were fascinated by it. Tweed talks about people who were drawn to Buddhism and categorizes them into 3 kinds: rationalists, romantics, and esoterics. I think, in some ways, those categories still hold even in the 21st century. This is the late 19th century when he was talking about people, the rationalists, who saw Buddhism as a philosophy that was not anti-science. The romantics saw it as the mystical East. To them, Buddhism embodied a repository of wisdom in an almost-poetic way. Finally, the esoterics viewed Buddhism as magical–mystical, containing these hidden truths that you would be able to access if you were initiated in a certain lineage.

John Dower writes in War Without Mercy, his famous Pulitzer prize-winning book on the Pacific war, about the absolute brutality of the war in the Pacific and the view of the Japanese as uberhuman-but-not-actually-human. However brutal the war in Europe was, it was not that racially-based war. It was the same on the other side: the Japanese viewed the Americans in racial terms, too. It was a very serious clash, with each side not viewing the enemy as human.

We can see that there has been a shift post-war. Japan, these days, is identified with fashion, design, pop culture, anime, manga, and economic power. It shifted, right? So, its possible, in less than half a century, to shift perception. For me, I’m curious to see what it takes to shift today’s mainstream American discourse about Muslim Americans. What is it going to take so that, 50 years from now, Islam will be seen as innocuous, like Buddhism is, today?

How did Japanese American Buddhist organizations have to change in order to avoid repercussions from the government and stigmatization from the general public? How did these changes, and the incarceration experience in general, shape the current practice of Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists? 

During war, questions of identity and loyalty come to the fore in a very heightened way. One of the responses of the Japanese American Buddhist community under martial law in Hawaii and inside the mainland U.S. camps was to accelerate the process of Americanizing Buddhism.

I always say that there are two dynamics at work when Buddhism moves from one cultural context to another. Here’s an example. In the field of Chinese Buddhism, there are two classic books out there: one about how the preexisting Confucian and Taoist traditions and the philosophical–religious landscape of China took this thing from India and transformed it socially and doctrinally to fit the Chinese milieu. There’s another book, The Buddhist Conquest of China, in which the basic notion was that this new unique religion radically transformed the Chinese ways of thinking and the religious landscape of China. There will always be these debates. But actually both are true; when religions move from one context to another, they get transformed and bring something new to the table.

There were pioneers who asserted that you can be both Buddhist and American at the same time.

Both of those things were happening prior to the war, there were already places in Oregon that were using the word “church” to talk about their temple. There were places that mimicked the Christian congregational style of worship. Jews from Europe also shifted to that model in the US. Like the idea of meeting on a certain day — like Sunday — and having a worship service. In the case of Japanese Americans prior to WWII, they already had this process of singing Buddhist hymns, often transposing Christian hymnal music and notation styles and putting Buddhist terminology and thematics in them. jodo

What the war does is it heightens this, because of the questioned loyalty of the Japanese Americans. So they “Americanized” their Buddhism first by transferring its formal registration to American citizens, who would be listed as the de facto leaders of the movement, putting it under American control. In 1944, in Topaz — which is where the largest of the Japanese American school of Buddhism, the Nishi Hongwanji school of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism — they held a series of meetings to become more American by democratically electing their leadership. Prior leaders were not elected. They were appointed by Kyoto, which is where the headquarters were based. They changed the name of the organization from “Buddhist Missions of North America” to “Buddhist Churches of America.”

As we discussed earlier, it appears now that Muslims and Muslim Americans are currently faced with a similar hostility that conflates their religion and ethnicities as being a dangerous, un-American threat to national security, much like the Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists during WWII. What lessons that we can learn history, and how can this understanding help prevent it from happening again? 

People who were not Japanese who came to the defense of Japanese Americans during WWII — whether it was lawyers within the ACLU, the American Friend Service Committee, the Quakers, or more mainstream Christian groups — some of them were criticized for siding with the enemy, even within their own organizations.

In Los Angeles, after the war, when people were coming back from these camps, having lost their homes and businesses, the Buddhist temples often served as hostels. The Senshin Buddhist Temple, which is in an African American neighborhood, had quite a few African American neighbors who helped Japanese Americans find jobs or helped with groceries. You find examples of people who — when the war with Japan was seen as so brutal, when the Japanese and by extension Japanese Americans were often seen as the enemy — went out of their way to show these people that they viewed them as their neighbors. For the Japanese Americans who experienced those expressions of kindnesses, it meant a lot to them. I would say it was important, then, for people who were outside of that group to have of a sense of friendship and allegiance with the members of that group. Maybe it’s important today.

Is there any message from your research that you want to convey to the younger Japanese and Japanese American Buddhist community, who may not know much about the history of American Buddhism and incarceration and the way its affected Japanese American Buddhist organizations and practices?

There were pioneers who founded many of these Buddhist temples, who carved out a religious space in America, which contributed a different set of ideas and practices to American society. They struggled in the face of people telling them you can’t be both Buddhist and American at the same time. They asserted that you can be both Buddhist and American at the same time. That was hard-earned. One could take pride in knowing that one’s ancestors helped to make that possible.

I feel like they paved the way for people like Mazie Hirono, the U.S. Senator from Hawaii, or Colleen Hanabusa in the House of Representatives, and others who became the first Buddhists to serve in the U.S. Congress. Colleen’s grandfathers were co-founders of the  Waianae Hongwanji Mission. Mazie comes from a Jodo Shu background.

Whether it’s getting “B” for “Buddhist” on dog tags, or Buddhist chaplains in the military, or tombstones for fallen soldiers with a dharma wheel instead of a Christian cross — if they didn’t work for that, we wouldn’t be in a place where Buddhism is an accepted religion. Ancestors and pioneers who broke these barriers, who staked a claim to being both Buddhist and American — I think it’s important to keep these things in mind as American Buddhists today.

This interview is dedicated to the enduring spirit of those that held onto their identity and beliefs in the face of a powerful oppressive force, and to those that must still to this day. —Hondo Lobley

Funie Hsu

Funie Hsu

Funie Hsu, PhD, works as an assistant professor of American Studies at San Jose State University.