The crucible of World War II

Following imperial Japan’s attack on Pu’uloa (Pearl Harbor), Hawai’i, the federal government engineered the forced removal and mass incarceration 120,000 Japanese Americans, the majority of whom were law-abiding American citizens. Under the guise of military necessity, an argument that the federal government later conceded was a smokescreen for engrained racism, wartime hysteria, and an abject failure of leadership, a bureaucratic machine liquidated Japanese American communities across the Pacific Coast (Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians 1982/1983, 2000). In Los Angeles, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, alongside Los Angeles Police Department officers, wasted little time in targeting community leaders suspected of subversion due to their ostensible connections to Japan: Japanese language journalists, martial arts instructors, and language teachers who were often Buddhist priests, such as the Betsuin’s Rev. Tokumon Aoki. Although he and other priests were originally “interned not because they were Buddhist ministers, but because they were on the staffs of the Japanese language schools operated by the Betsuin,” according to temple historians (Lennox et al. 1980, 29), Christian ministers were spared the level of scrutiny directed at their Buddhist counterparts (Williams 2019).

In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which created the West Coast military zone and catalyzed the dislocation of Japanese Americans. As a result, Nikkei Angelenos made hasty decisions about what to do with their personal property. In best circumstances, they entrusted their land and possessions to dependable non-Japanese guardians, whether attorneys, farm workers, or friends. What was far more likely was a haphazard set of decisions to sell property at below-market values or simply destroy it, lest it fall into the hands of rapacious buyers or “human vultures” as some Buddhist historians called them (Buddhist Churches of America 1974a, 62). One thing was certain for Buddhists: their religion marked them for intensified suspicion. As a result, they concealed or destroyed precious items such as home altars known as o-butsudan or sutra books that contained scriptures written in Japanese and classical Chinese (Buddhist Churches of America 1974a, 61).

In a matter of weeks, the fate of Japanese Americans became unclear. Once verdant farms were emptied and Little Tokyo witnessed its transformation into Bronzeville, a new community comprised African American defense workers who remained segregated by restrictive covenants (Jenks 2011). Churches ceased offering services, except for weddings to allay the fears of some Nisei who worried about separation (Buddhist Churches of America 1974a, 63). Some Buddhist churches served as storehouses for their sangha members’ possessions. Rev. Goldwater supported his Betsuin sangha with dedication and aplomb: against his own safety, “he watched over internees’ homes, preventing the illegal sale of one by alerting the FBI. He wrangled with suspicious officials, trying to make them understand that Buddhism was autonomous and not connected with the Japanese government,” noted his 2001 obituary (Woo 2001). Furthermore, in order to generate profit for the temple, Rev. Goldwater negotiated a lease agreement with the Providence Baptist Association, an African American church, to use the Betsuin’s sanctuary during the war. However, the Nichiren, Higashi Honganji, and Zenshuji temples endured theft and vandalism (Williams 2019, 238-239). In the camps, devout Buddhists of a variety of sects recreated, as best they could, religious communities. Significantly, in 1944 at Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, the BMNA disbanded and reorganized itself as the BCA, shifting to a Nisei lay leadership that would oversee the reestablishment of Shin Buddhism after World War II.

Rebuilding Buddhism in post-war Los Angeles

Japanese Americans, who returned to Los Angeles beginning in 1945 after the federal government rescinded exclusion orders, found themselves in a city in flux. During and after the war, defense workers from across the nation poured into the city seeking economic opportunity. Later, military veterans and their families settled in the city, enjoying suburban comfort following years of privation. For working class people, including Japanese American returnees, the dearth of housing was a significant problem and powerful anti-communist sentiment unraveled plans to construct public housing (Parson 2005). Meanwhile, the racism that tethered segregation to home values compelled Japanese Americans and other people of color to contend with the stranglehold of restrictive covenants and, after the Supreme Court ruled their enforcement unconstitutional in 1948, exclusionary lending practices.

For Japanese Americans who had no home or could not seek shelter in temporary boarding houses or War Relocation Authority resettlement camps, chur-ches-tumed-hostels offered refuge. Located in the historically African American neighborhood of South Los Angeles, Senshin Buddhist Church, originally established as a Betsuin language school, was one of the largest and best-known hostels. Founded by Rev. Kanmo Imamura, his spouse Jane, Rev. Julius Goldwater, and YBA leader Arthur Takemoto, Senshin’s hostel was open to Japanese Americans of any faith. Although the use of the temple property was a boon, the Imamuras, Goldwater, and Takemoto had to build the hostel from the ground up, fabricating partitions and restroom facilities, and cooking hundreds of meals each day. Like other church hostels, it relied on the donations of food and furnishing from sympathetic members of the larger public, including several black neighbors. Other Buddhist hostels were located at the Gardena Buddhist Church and the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple in Boyle Heights (Williams, 239; Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple n.d.).

Ironically, however, the largest Buddhist temple, the Betsuin, faced the greatest difficulty reopening its doors, let alone establishing a hostel. The agreement that Rev. Goldwater negotiated with the Providence Baptist Church went awry when the new congregation refused to vacate the temple grounds when their lease expired. A protracted legal battle ensued, although the Baptists ultimately relented. One of their church leaders stated in court that “the Japanese were a minority people like [African Americans],” and so the church “had no wish to deprive them of their own property” (Williams 2019, 241). This allowed the Betsuin to reestablish its activities and launch the growth of new temples throughout the Southland.

Though circumscribed by residential segregation, Japanese Americans reinvigorated or established new communities throughout Los Angeles which shaped the geography of Shin Buddhism. Due to the efforts of realtors such as Kazuo Inouye, a savvy Nisei veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Japanese Americans settled in new areas such as Crenshaw, alongside a substantial black community, and Monterey Park in the San Gabriel Valley (Kurashige 2010, W. Cheng 2013). Otherjapanese Americans created communities where they had once lived in resettlement camps, such as in Sun Valley. Meanwhile, pre-war neighborhoods in Gardena, Long Beach, Sawtelle, and Boyle Heights grew due to the Nisei baby boom. These patterns of suburbanization of color unique to Southern California drove the growth of new Shinshu temples as far north as Pacoima, as far east as West Covina, and as far south as Orange County. Given the external restrictions of housing discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s, these churches and temples often existed within tight-knit, place-based networks that included a community center that hosted athletics and martial arts as well as cultural activities, an ethnic Protestant church, language schools, a Veterans of Foreign Wars post, and a chapter of the civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens’ League ([ACL).

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