Okano set to assume Hongwanji leadership

Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Feb 24, 2007

Honolulu, Hawaii (USA) -- The Rev. Thomas R. Okano, a Buddhist minister in Hawaii for 40 years, will become the top executive and spiritual leader of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii on Thursday.

Okano was appointed to a four-year term as bishop of the largest Buddhist denomination here, to succeed retiring Bishop Chikai Yosemori. His selection by a committee of clergy and lay people was confirmed earlier this month by the 95th Legislative Assembly of delegates from the 36 Hongwanji temples in Hawaii.

He has been director of the Buddhist Study Center near the University of Hawaii since 2000 and previously served as minister at missions in Moiliili and Wahiawa, and temples in Lihue and Hilo. Okano was born in Hawaii and graduated from Waipahu High School and the University of Hawaii. He earned a master's degree in Shin Buddhism from Ryukoku University in Kyoto, Japan.

"One of important jobs I have to assume is to open Hongwanji to the community," Okano said. There is a wide interest from non-Buddhists in the religion's teachings and practices, which different groups including the Buddhist Study Center have tried to meet with education programs. "I am responsible ... primarily for the propagation of our teaching, inside and outside" of the Hongwanji denomination.

"We have been in Hawaii for close to 119 years ... so we are a well-established religious organization. We are the oldest Buddhist denomination in Hawaii." It numbers more than 8,000 families, most of whom are descendants of the immigrants from Japan who brought their faith to Hawaii in the 19th century.

The new bishop said, "I would like to see more local-born people go into ministry, English-speaking people, not only from Hawaii, but from the (mainland)." Most ministers at Hawaii missions were born in Japan.

A problem the denomination faces is the dwindling membership of small rural temples that were opened when sugar plantations thrived. "For their survival, I would like to have people look into the possibility of merging. People want to maintain their own temple identity, but there is no strength in that anymore. They take responsibility for financing support as well as upkeep of their temple."

Okano will travel to Japan for confirmation of his appointment at the Kyoto Hongwanji headquarters.

A formal investiture ceremony will be held at 4 p.m. May 3 at the Honpa Hongwanji Betsuin Hawaii, 1727 Pali Highway.

A banquet will follow at the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel. Tickets, $60, can be reserved by calling 522-9200 or e-mailing execsec2@lava.net. April 15 is the reservation deadline.