Japanese Americans and the birth - and rebirth - of Buddhism in the City of Angels

Jean-Paul R. Contreras deGuzman

Like incalculable others, I turned to Buddhism, a 2600-year-old religious tradition with global reach, in a time of crisis. As a harried graduate student facing an uncertain future, I sought spiritual guidance and, living in Los Angeles County, my options were bountiful: Theravada immigrant temples in Long Beach, fashionable Westside meditation centers with a vaguely Zen outlook, the spectacular Hsi Lai temple in Hacienda Heights, and abundant Soka Gakkai groups among others. I turned to the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, a branch of the venerable 120-year-old Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), due to friends who were longtime members and a set of teachings relevant to coping with the stresses of daily life. There I deepened my personal study of Buddhist teachings (or Buddhadharma) but as an historian of race also learned that the ubiquity of choices outlined above belies a deeper history characterized by exclusion and racism, but also experimentation and innovation.

Inspired by literature on Buddhism in Los Angeles (Yoo 1996, Ama 2009, 2011, 2018, Suh 2012, Padoongpatt 2015) along with analysis of temple archives and local news media, I articulate the development of a localized Buddhist modernity, focusing on Jodo Shinshu, historically the largest Japanese Buddhist denomination in North America. Contributing to scholarship that redresses the erasure of Asian Americans in the history of American Buddhism (Han 2017, Hsu 2017, Gleig 2019, Williams 2019), I suggest that Buddhist modernity emerged as a set of responses to the processes of immigrant adaptation, segregation, suburbanization, and the attendant racialization of Angelenos of Japanese descent. In this sense, I narrate the genesis of Buddhist modernity not as a unified theory, but a dynamic cultural coalescence (Ruiz 1998) that, rather than attenuating Jodo Shinshu (or Shin) teachings, made them relevant to generations across diverse ethnic lines in ways that shaped temple practices, engagement with social movements, and outreach.

Planting the seeds of Shin Buddhism

Japanese, or Nikkei, immigration to Los Angeles began in the late nineteenth century due to Japan’s modernizing economy and imperial aspirations under the Meiji Restoration (Azuma 2019), the beckoning call of California’s Gilded Age agribusiness (Garcia 2001), and eventually the meteoric growth of Los Angeles (Sitton and Deverell 2001). By the late 1880s, first-generation Issei began farming vast agricultural land on the city’s periphery, following entrenched patterns of racial segregation. As seasonal farm laborers or truck farmers, they transformed areas such as the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Gardena valleys into fruitful produce and flower fields. Additionally, they fished from Terminal Island, toiled away in canneries near the harbor, and worked the Santa Fe and Pacific Southern railroads. Nikkei gardeners, particularly in West Los Angeles, tended to some of the toniest real estate in the city (Little Tokyo Historical Society 2010).

Located in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, Little Tokyo arose as a commercial center, cultural hub, and bulwark against racism (Kurashige 2002). In close proximity to the city’s sprawling marketplaces, Little Tokyo was replete with a professional class, boarding houses, a hospital, grocery stores, restaurants, leisure and entertainment sites, mortuaries, and newspapers. The community’s growth, however, took place within the larger context of deep-seated anti-Japanese animosity that dictated the geography of their settlement and portrayed them as pernicious labor competition and racial others. Bolstered by nativist organizations, such “Yellow Peril” ideology manifested itself in local practices that upheld housing discrimination, state-wide policies that forbade property ownership, and federal laws that banned Japanese immigration in 1907 and 1924.

Religious institutions helped Japanese Americans survive the slings and arrows of ethnic antagonism. The denominations reveal the diversity of the Japanese diaspora: Catholics, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians comprised the Christians alone. Shinto followers gathered at the Konko Church. Buddhists sects included Jodo Shinshü, Jodo, Nichiren, Shingon, and Soto Zen. Founded by Shinran (1173-1263), Jodo Shinshü (“True Pure Land School”) places Amida, the Buddha of infinite wisdom and compassion, at the center of reverence (Ueda and Hirota 1989) and was the most widely practiced form of Buddhism among Nikkei through a network of churches and temples known as the Buddhist Mission of North America (BMNA).2 In Los Angeles, the specific geography of this ethnic archipelago set the foundation for BMNA temples throughout late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.3

The origins of organized Shin Buddhism in Los Angeles were forged from acrimonious conflicts between three small churches in Little Tokyo that resulted in consolidation as the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple (also known as the L.A. Betsuin) in 1905.4 Its ministers oversaw the rapid growth of smaller churches and fellowships across Los Angeles County. Their reach was far: South Los Angeles (Seinan), San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Hollywood, West Los Angeles, the South Bay, Long Beach, and even Orange County

Buddhists all formed churches before World War II that reflected the highly segregated character of Southern California and foreshadowed certain racial politics generations later (Lennox et al. 1980).

As religious institutions, churches provided spiritual succor for survival in an often-harsh land. Reflecting on the perseverance of the Issei, Rev. Kenryu Tsuji noted: “Above all they embraced an abiding faith in Buddhism which sustained them through the vicissitudes of life” (Buddhist Churches of America 1974b, 18). For Issei who longed for their homeland, churches offered tangible connections to Japan and Buddhist practices, through rituals such as chanting sutras (Buddhist scriptures), burning incense, memorial services, or festivals such as o-bon, a summer ancestor celebration. Churches commonly served as language schools, a necessity for Issei parents who wanted to ensure their American children (the Nisei) could speak proper Japanese. For Issei, who may have felt alienated from American mass culture, churches screened films and published the newspaper, Rafu Bukkyo (Los Angeles Buddhist) (Ama 2009, 128).

Buddhist churches also provided infrastructure to support the material needs of the members of their working-class, immigrant sangha (congregation), functions not seen in temples in the homeland. They sponsored tanomoshi (internal rotating loans) and services to help bachelor Issei locate jobs and, in some instances, wives. Meanwhile, through their fujinkai (now known as Buddhist Women’s Associations or BWA), churches provided needed day care services and lodging for single women (Ama 2009). Like religious institutions in other first-generation communities, Buddhist churches functioned as immigrant resource centers and an important bridge to American-born children.

The formation of Sunday schools (later known as dharma schools) to provide Nisei with instruction on living a Buddhist life through folklore, moral lessons, and Japanese songs and dance formed some of the first steps in developing a culturally hybrid religious institution. The growth of the Nisei generation was so rapid that by the end of the 1930s, the Betsuin’s Sunday school system was composed of 1120 students and 80 teachers spread across 11 schools in the Southland (Buddhist Churches of America 1974a, 202). Sunday schools, along with church-sponsored athletics and scouting, provided Nisei children with social spaces that fostered ethnic fellowship in ways parallel to the experiences of youth in mainstream society. This represented a departure from temple activities in Japan that centered around direct dharma teaching and memorial services.

Women occupied spaces in churches in ways that reflected both the patriarchal norms of the Japanese immigrant community and American society, and newer opportunities afforded by local circumstances. Churches organized around gendered divisions: lay leadership and ministerial staff were exclusively men. Women, however, created spaces for themselves in the fujinkai. They tended to normative domestic functions, such as cooking and cleaning temple grounds. But women also cultivated organizational and leadership skills in service of supporting temple finances since they relied upon member dues and donations for economic survival. Reflective of the binational character Asian immigrants in Los Angeles, the fujinkai also raised funds for humanitarian aid on both sides of the Pacific (Lennox et al. 1980, 66). The American-born children of those women would later drive the evolution of temples, synthesizing elements from the many worlds around them.

As a voluminous scholarship has shown, the urban Nisei, akin to the Mexican-American generation, came of age in the cosmopolitanism ofjazz Age Los Angeles (Sanchez 1993, Matsumoto 2012). Far from immune to the structural inequalities and interpersonal prejudices of mainstream society, these young people crafted interstitial spaces where American popular culture, the world of their immigrant parents, and the social landscape of metropolitan Los Angeles converged. Nisei Buddhists (or Bussei) came of age in a city teeming with Protestant revivalism under charismatic preachers like Aimee Semple-McPherson or social reformer G. Bromley Oxnam (Yoo 1996, Wild 2005). To stem the loss of Bussei in a marketplace of religions, Betsuin leadership recruited and ordained a white convert, Julius Goldwater, in 1934. A relative of the future Arizona politician Barry Goldwater, Rev. Goldwater led English language services and study classes to demonstrate to the Nisei that Buddhism was compatible with American modernity (Los Angeles Times 1934a, 1934b, Ama 2018). The Los Angeles Times (1934a) coverage of the Rev. Goldwater’s ordination provided a window into the paradoxical position of Bussei. Although the reporter shrouded Shinshu ritual in exoticism, calling sutra chanting “weird” and “haunting,” they also noted that the choir was “from the Young Women’s Buddhist Association, in white sweaters and flannel skirts.” Brief as it was, this juxtaposition represented how the Bussei bridged the urban modern world around them with the Buddhist upbringing.

The Betsuin also established a Young Buddhist Association (an amalgamation of men’s and women’s groups popularly known as the YBA) whose nomenclature and activities paralleled the Protestant Young Men’s Christian Association. The YBA organized social events, staged plays, sponsored athletics, and even took to Little Tokyo for “soap-box preaching at the corner of First Street and San Pedro” (Lennox et al. 1980, 30—31). Reflective of their lives as urban youths, they lobbied for social dances at the temple, much to the consternation of temple elders. Their efforts, though encouraged by Rev. Goldwater, “created quite a stir,” according to Nisei YBA member Arthur Takemoto, who later went on to become a Shinshu priest (Woo 2001). YBAs, however, were not mirror images of the YMCA: through regular conferences of YBA chapters or Sunday school teachers. Nisei gained access to educational and leadership opportunities, camaraderie, ethnic and religious affirmation, and even the occasion to visit new parts of the West Coast, in essence, prospects that may have been circumscribed by race or religion in a larger social context (Yoo 1996). The momentum of this hybrid American Buddhist generation grew as 11 other YBA chapters formed across Los Angeles County by the eve of World War II. The opportunities that the YBA provided to become leaders were vital as the Japanese American community faced its greatest challenge during World War II.

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