One of the more terrible things in United States history happened during World War II was when Japanese Americans were forced by the American government to move into internment camps in 1942 following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Religious freedom is one of the founding principals of the United States, but this did not seem to matter when strong religious sentiment was put toward Japanese American Buddhists within the internment camps. There were three goals of these internment camps: “The first was to provide for the physical upkeep of the internees; the second was… to relocate the Japanese out of the camps into ‘normal’ communities; and third to deal with the hostile anti-Japanese elements…”(Okishiro 222). The goal of making these people “normal” meant that the government saw Buddhism as “not normal”, but as a civil religion for the Japanese, connecting them to their homeland. This meant conversion to Christianity was a necessity in order for them to become true Americans and to effectively disconnect themselves from their ancestral homeland of Japan.

Ansel Adams photograph in Manzanar Relocation Center
Entrance, Catholic Chapel

Japanese Americans had to make a tough choice whether to go against the nudging of the United States and continue practicing Buddhism or to bury all traces of their former religion and culture in order to not stand out. There were many Japanese American families who converted to Christianity prior to the attacks at Pearl Harbor who felt the same pressures as the Japanese American Buddhist families. A prime example of religious pressure is the physical structure of the internment camps, with churches being placed in the center of the camps. This structural propaganda forced the migration from Buddhism to Christianity, or in a way, from Japan to America depending on how this is looked at.

Forced migration to these camps is analogous to a forced migration from Japan to America in terms of culture. The American government, by encamping these people, was effectively trying to move Japanese Americans from their historical, physical, and cultural pasts. This can be seem as a more modern version of the forced migrations of Native Americans that happened earlier in American history. Just like the Japanese Americans, natives were removed from their homes and put into programs to Americanize them culturally and spiritually. Japanese internment is a prime example of history repeating itself all over again. The country can justify itself saying that this was done in order to protect the Japanese Americans from racism and cultural persecution, but forceful migration is still without choice.

–Enrico Araceli Gonzalez, December 2015

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  • Okihiro, Gary. “Religion and Resistance in America’s Concentration Camps.” Phylon 45, no. 3 (1984): 220-33.
  • Robinson, Greg. By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
  • Nagano, Paul, ed. Special issue: “Japanese American Internment.” American Baptist Quarterly 13, no. 1 (March 1994): 4-108.

Image 1: Ansel Adams, “Entrance, Catholic Chapel (V), Manzanar Relocation Center.”  Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.