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Internment Camp Diaries Shine Light on American Buddhist Experience

UCLA, July 2, 2007

Los Angeles, USA -- For Duncan Williams, the cream-colored volumes on his bookshelves in Dwinelle Hall are anything but ordinary accounts of life in the internment camps where Japanese-Americans were held prisoner during World War II.

<< A Japanese internment camp in the USA

Totaling some 1,600 pages, these paper-bound diaries written in Japanese are windows into the interior lives of Buddhists in the camps, particularly of Buddhist priests and community leaders who carefully chronicled their responses to incarceration and to the question of what it means to be American and free during war-time.

Williams is an associate professor of Japanese Buddhism in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and in the program of Buddhist Studies. Later this summer he will also take over the directorship of the Center for Japanese Studies, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. He is the author of The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan. He is currently working on another book, Camp Dharma, for which he is translating four volumes of diaries written by Daisho Tana, a Buddhist priest incarcerated at a high-security camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico where Japanese-American leaders were held prisoners from immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until World War II concluded in 1945.

The diaries provide a new view into camp life, Williams says. Side-by-side with the wealth of scholarship that has already been done into day-to-day life in internment camps, Williams’ translations of Tana’s diaries will add insights into the spiritual lives of prisoners, including how their faith helped them cope with internment.

“Buddhism teaches about suffering,” Williams says. “These people had lost everything. Buddhism taught them how to interpret that, how to get from an incarcerated state with one suitcase, to freedom. The teachings of priests in camps helped people get through the experience.”

Williams did his graduate work at Harvard. That’s where he acquired Tana’s diaries from the priest’s son, Akira Tana, who was a former student of Williams’ mentor in Buddhist studies and who has gone on to become a major modern jazz drummer.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the Pacific Coast a “military defense zone” and Japanese-Americans (most of whom were American citizens) threats to national security. Most prisoner diaries and memoirs offer detailed accounts of daily life, including the weather and family life. But Williams notes that Tana wrote in his diaries primarily about Buddhism in America and made important observations about the different ways the religion was practiced by Buddhists from different parts of the country. At the time, Hawaiian temple leaders in internment camps conducted services in Japanese while mainland priests led them in English and often called their temples “churches.”

Williams is using Tana’s accounts to study the depth of assimilation and acculturation of Buddhists at the time in order to provide insights into the roles of race and language in American identity. “Bilingualism was a threat,” he says. “Some people still talk about bilingualism as a threat to the core of America.”

In a story illustrating endurance and ingenuity, prisoners celebrated Buddha’s birthday — traditionally honored by bathing a “baby Buddha” statue in sweet tea — by carving an infant Buddha out of a carrot and washing it with sweetened Army-ration coffee.

But the Japanese-American war story also has elements of triumph, Williams notes. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprising both volunteers from Hawaii and the mainland camps, earned more than 18,000 decorations for bravery for fighting in Italy and France. Their courage was belatedly recognized with Congressional Medals of Honor at White House ceremonies in 2000.

Their efforts won another victory for Buddhism. Since the war, Buddhism is now recognized as one of the official religions in the U.S. armed forces.

Overall, Williams says, his work illustrates — through the lens of Japanese-American Buddhism — the trajectory of American culture from West to East, and back again. Since World War II, Japanese-Americans have rebuilt their lives, today occupying important places of power in our society. While the American ethos of manifest destiny urged people to “go west” to find their fortunes, Buddhism in America has shown that “going east” may be another fruitful path.

Here at Cal, Asian studies occupy a central place. The Buddhist Studies program is the top in the country. The new C.V. Starr East Asian Library will open this fall and will house the nation’s best Japanese-language collection. In May, Williams shared his research into the role of religion during wartime with alumni during a Discover Cal lecture in Los Angeles and a gathering of Cal supporters and friends in New York City.

“The camp story suggests to us a different way to talk about America,” he says. “Europe, New England, and the West are just one strain in the American story. That narrative and the narrative of Buddhist people meet here in Berkeley.”

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