Buddhism is a fascinating religion in that, wherever it spreads, it always seems to adapt itself to the cultures it enters, even to the pre-existing religious ways of those new environments  (Becker 143). Regarding its shift into the American West, these adaptations came to light particularly clearly during the time of Japanese American internment during World War II, as Japanese immigrants and their families attempted to maintain their religious heritage in the face of unwarranted injustice.

When war erupted, Japanese Americans were practically herded like sheep into so called “internment camps,” where any potential wrong-doers or anti-US fringes would be kept at bay. This is where their attempts to conform began, and where those efforts would continue to evolve and spread throughout the US long after internment ended, from generation to generation. In a concerted effort to show their patriotism and loyalty to those imprisoning them, Buddhists in the camps renamed their temples, “churches,” and amended many of their long-practiced rituals to mold to Protestant culture. This was certainly not the most worrisome issue, however. More concerning was the fact that there were many sects of Buddhism, Zen, Shinto, etc., all packed into the same building for worship. In this way the space was contested, like many others throughout history. For this reason, it became apparent that an adaption needed to be made, and so it was, even if not all by their own doing. The War Relocation Authority, or WRA, forced Buddhists of all sects to “cooperate with each other,” meaning that ritualistic differences were put aside to make way for a common Buddhist worship ceremony (Williams, 195). In this way, many different kind of Buddhism became one, which is evident in the practices still found today by Buddhists all over the country.

Buddhism represents a wide array of historical Japanese traditions that had to be altered within the internment camps. The WRA called this strategic and influenced altering the “Americanization Program.”  Efforts to initiate this process of realignment “began early [in Hawaii, with] the work of Bishop Yemyo Imamura,” whose goal was to “create a more independent movement in the United States” that would distance Buddhism from its traditional roots (Williams 196). This distancing was not limited to merely the altering of celebrations such as Obon Odori to include Americanized dress and even caroling during Christmas! American hobbies and pastimes such as basketball and even boy and girl scout clubs were assimilated into daily rituals. For these reasons and others, Buddhism today resembles aspects of Christianity more so than it does traditional Japanese heritage as it once did.

A typical Buddhist service today looks astonishingly similar to that at a church on Sunday:

  1. Organ prelude
  2. Temple bell
  3. Meditation (congregation)
  4. Aspiration (chairman)
  5. Gatha ( = hymn)
  6. Homage
  7. Invocation (chairman)
  8. Creed (congregation)
  9. Sutra chanting (congregation)
  10. Responsive Reading
  11. Sermon
  12. Offertory
  13. Meditation
  14. Benediction<
  15. Postlude

(Becker 148, adapted from Layman, Horinouchi)

As is evident, the religious adaptation that emanated from the interned Japanese immigrants and their families out of necessity in the American West, set the stage for the current Americanization of modern Buddhism nationwide.

-Sam Matlick, December 10th, 2015

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Knitter, Paul F. “Rita Gross: Buddhist-Christian Dialogue About Dialogue.” Buddhist- Christian Studies 31 (2011): 79–84.

Okihiro, Gary. “Religion and Resistance in America’s Concentration Camps.” Phylon 45, no. 3    (1984): 220-33.

Queen, Christopher, and Duncan Ryuken Williams. American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Image 1: Hikaru Iwasaki, “Heart Mountain Relocation Center, Heart Mountain, Wyoming.  ‘Tubbie’ Kunimatsu and Laverne Kurahara demonstrate some intricate jitterbug steps, during a school dance held in the high school gymnasium, November 1943.”  Public domain.