Japanese-American Religions

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Japanese-American Religions

This article is not about Japanese religions in America, but about Japanese-American religions. That is an important distinction. There is much writing about Japanese religions in America—about Zen Buddhism, Soka Gakkai, etc.—and those religions have a prominent public profile, including celebrity believers. These faiths have tens of thousands of adherents, but their adherents are mainly European Americans (along with a few African Americans and others). This article, rather, is about the religious experiences of Japanese Americans.

The Japanese-American population is now four and five generations removed from Japan. The main period of immigration from Japan came between the first importations of workers to Hawaiian plantations in the 1880s and the U.S. government's abrupt cutoff of Asian immigration in 1924. The majority of those immigrants, like other Japanese of the Meiji era, carried a mixture of Buddhist, Confucianist, and Shinto religious beliefs and practices. Shinto, an amorphous blend of nature-oriented religious expressions, identifications, stories, and quasi-deities that had long existed in Japan at the folk level, was codified by the government into a national cult in the last third of the nineteenth century as a prop to a growing national identity.

Most Japanese immigrants, called Issei, had some familiarity with this religious field. But they had a more articulate sense of Buddhism as a formal religion with doctrine and institutions. Confucianism was the religio-philosophical system that underlay the patriarchal, extended Japanese-American family structure. As such, it may be seen as foundational to all Japanese-American religious experience, for it was in the family, not in formal communal institutions, that most religious activity and expression resided.

Most Japanese-American families in the immigrant generation (and many in succeeding generations) kept a butsudan, or home shrine or alcove. In these sacred spaces, believers would light incense, contemplate the Dharma, remember deceased loved ones, and recite prayers and the name of the Buddha. Families had recourse to formal religious institutions for weddings, funerals, and other ceremonial occasions. Yet though a majority bore the Buddhist label gladly, that did not mean regular activity at a formal religious institution. By the early twentieth century there were Buddhist temples in every city with a significant Japanese population, and a few Shinto shrines in places, such as Honolulu, with heavy concentrations of Issei. Buddhist priests (almost always missionaries from Japan rather than American-born, even today) were reckoned by all to be community leaders.

A significant minority of the immigrants had become Christians in Japan and chose to emigrate in part because they perceived the United States to be a Christian nation. Many more became Christians in America. Indeed, Christian missionaries were very active in Japanese immigrant communities, where they provided English classes, lessons in American social behavior, health care, employment referrals, and other practical services along with spiritual tutelage. Thus they won many converts.

Many Issei adopted Christianity partly because they saw it as part and parcel of becoming American, or at least of succeeding in America. Some historians emphasize a Japanese nationalist role for Protestant Christianity in the years before World War II—fully as much as Buddhist institutions, they say, Issei Christian institutions abetted Japanese nationalism in the diaspora. Whatever its political role, Christianity appealed to some Issei more than Buddhism because they saw Christianity as an activist religion rather than a fatalistic one, and thus better suited to the American cultural scene.

By the 1930s, Christian and Buddhist institutions had come to assume similar shapes in Japanese American communities. Each called itself a "church," each had Sunday school and regular worship services, each sponsored youth groups and basketball teams and women's societies. All these activities took place in a racially segregated environment; except for a few Christian missionaries, all the participants were Japanese Americans.

The Japanese-American second generation, or Nisei, came of age during World War II. Nearly as many of them were Christians as Buddhists. There were even more Christians in those places where Japanese Americans were relatively better integrated into the non-Japanese population. There were comparatively more Christians in the Pacific Northwest than in California and more in California than in Hawaii, where the Japanese community was dense and tied together by Buddhist institutions in a way that did not occur on the continent. Shinto as a formal religious expression declined after the first generation, although a residual link with nature remained in the popular Japanese-American consciousness.

In the concentration camps in which the U.S. government imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II, Buddhism was suppressed and came to be viewed by many as an expression of resistance to government oppression. This further impelled the more assimilationist elements of the American-born population toward Christianity. In the postwar period, many Nisei fled identification with Japan and things Japanese and sought to merge into the white middle class. As they did so, some moved from Buddhist to Japanese-American Christian churches. Others left institutional religion altogether or sought places in white congregations. Private, family worship and a Japanese-derived sense of spirituality (self-discipline, contemplation, harmony with nature, devotion to the family) continued informally even as formal linkages changed.

Today Buddhism is barely a majority religious identity among Japanese Americans. The Japanese-American variety is quite different from the Buddhisms best known to non-Japanese Americans. White forms of Buddhism, particularly Zen, concentrate on individual meditation and enlightenment. The most populous variety of Japanese American Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, is a more populist religion, stressing ritual recitation of the name of the Amida Buddha, ethical living, community, and the goal of achieving the western Pure Land in a future life.

Families with both Christian and Jodo Shinshu ties have been characterized by adherence to Japanese ethical values or attitudes that some call religious. Most prominent among them are on (obligation), giri (duty), shikataganai (acceptance of things beyond one's control), enryo (restraint), gaman (endurance), and arigatai (gratitude). All these together spur hard work, concern for the collectivity, and suppression of individualistic tendencies—values that have contributed to material and social success for the Japanese-American population at large.

One remarkable development in Christianity has been the growth, since the 1970s, of a pan-Asian American religious identity. This has paralleled the Asian-American movement in politics and education, wherein formerly distinct Asian peoples such as Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Japanese have banded together under an umbrella identity to pursue common political goals. In religions this has given rise to pan-Asian American churches, Japanese-American ministers in Chinese-American churches and vice versa, writings on Asian-American rather than ethnically distinct theologies, and so forth.

The dominant social trends of the current Japanese-American generation are dispersal, middle-class status, assimilation toward white America, and intermarriage. It has reached a point where, outside Hawaii, hardly a Japanese family lives within walking distance of another, and a majority of Japanese Americans marry non-Japanese. In that climate, pan-Asian-American Christianity may become the dominant expression of Japanese-American religiosity, for the long-term maintenance of ethnically discrete institutions and practices seems unlikely.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Buddhism; Chinese-American Religions; Confucianism; Conversion, Dharma; Korean-American Religions; Practice; Religious Communities; Ritual; Sociologyof Religion; Soka Gakkai; Zen.


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