AMERICAN SUTRA book review

Buddhism in the West History Japan Jodo Shinshu Pure Land Zen

AMERICAN SUTRA: A story of faith and freedom in the Second World War  by Duncan Ryūken Williams

Harvard University Press, 2019
ISBN 9780674986534
7.4 x 10.5 in, 400 pages, illustrated


Buddhist identity in America is a chimerical thing. Many have tried to grasp its image, only to find its nature fragmented into seemingly irreconcilable facets. Many a heated argument has resulted from debates about which interpretation is correct.

Without a solid understanding of the history of Buddhism in America, such debates are rather like walking through a hall of mirrors at the carnival – fun but distorted.

By the same token, there is no shortage of books, fact and fiction, about the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. American Sutra, by Duncan Ryūken Williams, is an indispensable addition to the field.

When Williams was a graduate student at Harvard, his late professor Masatoshi Nagatomi’s widow, Masumi (Kimura) Nagatomi, asked him if he would sort through the professor’s papers to separate public from personal items. He agreed, thinking it would be a pleasant summer’s work. Instead, it proved to be the gateway into a seventeen-year journey into the history of Japanese American Buddhism in the crucible of WWII. His book is a treasure trove of material from primary sources, meticulously researched and presented.

What makes American Sutra unique is its focus on the Buddhist priests, community leaders, and congregants and their (few) American supporters caught up in the internments. It is Williams’ intent to capture “both the loss and the hope that made possible the birth of an American form of Buddhism.”

Book-ended by Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima, this is a story of how Japanese Americans struggled to come to terms with the racist and religiously bigoted attitudes of Christian Americans, and to adapt their religious attitudes, practices, and institutions, in conditions of extreme hardship.

These are universal themes. As the saying goes: history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. As I read the book, I frequently found myself reflecting: oh, this sounds just like how the Nazis gathered up the Jews in the Holocaust; oh, Americans treat African Americans with the same systematic discrimination; oh, America is still doing that to native Americans; oh, it’s still going on at the Mexican border with Trump’s wall. However, instead of sound-bites in the 24-hour media cycle, Williams has the expansive format of a book to detail in almost microscopic detail the day-to-day unfolding of how Japanese American Buddhists were treated, and responded, during the period from 1941 to 1945, with a bit of context before and after.

Several key topics emerge:

  • Although the US Constitution proclaims freedom of religion, the lived reality for Japanese Buddhists in Hawai‘i and on the American West Coast was that being American and being Christian were inextricably bound up together.
  • Some Japanese Americans had been under surveillance since Japan entered WWII, but after the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941, the US government enacted sweeping laws and decrees to round up Japanese Americans, focusing on Buddhist clergy (as community leaders).
  • Internment camps made no provision for Buddhist priests, and the DIY religious efforts of interned citizens were often met with hostility from the bureaucracy. Priests were often unable to perform their duties, and treated as ordinary inmates. Temple communities were split up and sent do different camps, and groups from different sects had to figure out ways to worship together.
  • Buddhist individuals and groups fared much more poorly than their Christian counterparts, because the Americans felt Christian Japanese Americans were more likely to be assimilated and loyal to the USA.
  • The loyalty questionnaire that internees were eventually required to take was a contentious riddle with seemingly no right answer.
  • Even when restrictions began to be lifted after 1943 (for example when nisei Japanese Americans joined the US military and fought valiantly in Europe), Japanese Americans continued to face distrust, broken promises, hostility, lack of opportunity, and other barriers long after the war itself ended. 

Williams notes in his prologue that, “The long-ignored stories of Japanese American Buddhists attempting to build a free America—not a Christian nation, but one of religious freedom—do not contain final answers, but they do teach us something about the dynamics of becoming: what it means to become American—and Buddhist—as part of an interconnected and dynamically shifting world.”

We can look back from the vantage point of the present to see how Japanese American Buddhism has evolved since the pivotal period of the Second World War, but until the publication of Williams’ book, the causes and conditions responsible leading to that evolution were not widely known and only vaguely understood. American Sutra provides the forensic detail needed to see the roots of that transformation clearly. It is one of a small handful of books on American Buddhist history that will stand the test of time.

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