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Buddhism and the Japanese Internment

by Barbara O'Brien, Barbara's Buddhism Blog, August 27, 2010

Source: http://buddhism.about.com/b/2010/08/27/buddhism-and-the-japanese-internment.htm

New York, USA -- At Tricycle blog, James Shaheen has a post on the parallels between hostility toward Japanese-Americans during World War II and hostility toward Muslims in the United States today. As you may know, in one of the more shameful acts of American history, during World War II ethnic Japanese living in the western coastal states were forced into internment camps. A majority of the internees were U.S. citizens.

That much I knew, but I learned from reading James's post that some nativist organizations like the Anti-Asiatic Association and the Asian Exclusion Association also protested the building of Buddhist temples as well as Japanese Christian churches. I did a little more digging and learned that Jodo Shinshu priests were arrested by the FBI and imprisoned separately from the internment camps. (Jodo Shinshu is the largest Japanese Pure Land school.) The priests were targeted for arrest because they were community leaders.

Today I often hear President Franklin Roosevelt blamed for the Japanese internment, and indeed he did sign the executive order that made it possible. But the internment wasn't FDR's idea. My understanding is that when he signed the order in 1942 he was caving in to massive political and popular pressure (1942 was a presidential election year). I don't know if anyone took a poll back then, but older folks (I wasn't born yet) have told me that at the time most people supported the internment. Indeed, anti-Japanese hysteria had reached such a dangerous level that some people argued the Japanese should be placed in internment camps for their own protection.

I did  a little more digging and learned that during the internment, Jodo Shinshu temples all along the west coast were closed and their priests imprisoned. Many Japanese Americans hid or destroyed home altars.

Most Shodo Shinshu sanghas in the U.S. were part of a particular tradition called Hongan-ji, or "primal vow." The Hongan-ji association in North America had named itself the Buddhist Missions of North America, or BMNA. Some non-Japanese Americans already had taken offense at the association's name long before Pearl Harbor; people found the idea of Buddhist missions in Christian America very offensive (while finding no fault with the opposite, of course). During the internment the name of BMNA was changed to the less "offensive" Buddhist Churches of America (BCA).

Eventually some of the young men in the camps were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army. They were assigned to the 442nd Regiment and sent to fight in Europe. The BCA petitioned the War Department to provide the 442nd with a Buddhist chaplain. The request was denied, because the War Department did not recognize Buddhism as a religion.

Today most Americans recognize that the internment of the Japanese was wrong, yet we don't seem to be able to apply the lesson to the current wave of anti-mosque-building hysteria that seems to be sweeping the country. I'd like to think that someday our grandchildren will read about the "mosque" protests and wonder how people could have been so bigoted, but it would be nice if we could just skip the bigot phase for once.

Huda, the About.com Guide to Islam, has some background articles up about the so-called "ground zero mosque," a community center planned by local Sufis that will not be visible from "Ground Zero" if it is built. See:

"Background of the Ground Zero Mosque Issue"

"Park51 Planners"

"Answering Critics of the 'Ground Zero Mosque'"

See also "The Islamic Center and the 'Pearl Harbor' Analogy"

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