American Sutra: Buddhism and the WWII Japanese American Incarceration

The mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is not only a tale of injustice; it is a moving story of faith. In this pathbreaking account, Duncan Ryūken Williams '91 reveals how, even as they were stripped of their homes and imprisoned in camps, Japanese-American Buddhists launched one of the most inspiring defenses of religious freedom in our nation’s history, insisting that they could be both Buddhist and American. 

Nearly all Americans of Japanese descent were subject to bigotry and accusations of disloyalty, but Buddhists aroused particular suspicion. Government officials, from the White House to small-town mayors, believed that Buddhism was incompatible with American values. Intelligence agencies targeted the Buddhist community for surveillance, and Buddhist priests were deemed a threat to national security. On December 7, 1941, as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Attorney General Francis Biddle issued a warrant to “take into custody all Japanese” classified as potential threats to national security. The first person detained was Bishop Gikyō Kuchiba, leader of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist sect in Hawaii. In the face of discrimination, dislocation, dispossession, and confinement, Japanese Americans turned to their faith to sustain them, whether they were behind barbed wire in camps or serving in one of the most decorated combat units in the European theater. Using newly translated sources and extensive interviews with survivors of the camps and veterans of the war, Williams reveals how the Japanese American community broadened our country’s conception of religious freedom and forged a new American Buddhism.

Duncan Ryuken Williams '91 is Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Southern California and director of the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. Previously, he held the Ito Distinguished Chair of Japanese Buddhism at UC Berkeley and served as the director of Berkeley’s Center for Japanese Studies. He was also ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest in 1993 at Kotakuji Temple (Nagano, Japan). Williams is the author of American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Harvard University Press) and The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Sōtō Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan (Princeton University Press) and editor of seven books, including Issei Buddhism in the Americas (U-Illinois Press), American Buddhism (Routledge/Curzon Press), Hapa Japan: History, Identity, and Representations of Mixed Race/Mixed Roots Japanese Peoples (Ito Center/Kaya Press), and Buddhism and Ecology (Harvard University Press). 

Sponsored by the departments of religion and history, the Humanities 411 program, Senior Symposium, the Office for Institutional Diversity, and the Dean of Faculty office. Free and open to the public.

 

 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 at 5:30pm to 7:00pm


Vollum College Center, Vollum lecture hall
3203 Southeast Woodstock Boulevard, Portland, Oregon 97202-8199

Event Type

Lecture

Audience

Faculty, Students, Alumni, Open to the Public, Staff

Department
Dean of the Faculty, History, Humanities, Institutional Diversity, Religion
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