American Sutra – A Conversation with Duncan Ryūken Williams

SutraDuncan Ryūken Williams is Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures at the University of Southern California, where he directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture. In his new book, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War, Williams documents the struggle of Japanese American Buddhists in the months and years following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

ECM: Clearly the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II concerned nationality and race. You frame it as a religious freedom issue. Why?

 DRW: Generally speaking, when we think about why people of Japanese ancestry were targeted for incarceration during World War II—even though the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy—we think of race and national origin. But while researching this book I discovered that, well before December of 1941, the Office of Naval Intelligence, Army G2 [military intelligence], and the FBI already had Buddhist temples under surveillance. They had registries and lists of Buddhist priests who were to be arrested in the event of war with Japan. In fact, on December 8, 1941, at 3pm, before martial law had been declared, the first person arrested was Gikyo Kuchiba, the head priest at the Honpa Hongwanji temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Honolulu. So religious leaders were identified by military intelligence as a special category of threat to national security.

Later, when the mass incarceration was underway—when ultimately 120,000 or so of the West Coast Japanese would be sequestered in camps—religion would be implicated as well. In 1943, Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the architect of forced removal, issued a report in which he justified mass incarceration based explicitly on the “race, customs, and religion” of the prisoners.

So religion played a key role in both the initial roundup and the mass incarceration. That’s why I like to cite this combination of race and religion as central to determining who gets included and excluded in America.

ECM: How did the treatment of Japanese Buddhists differ from that of Japanese Christians, or either from that of Germans and Italians?

DRW: If we stick to the question of the Japanese, as I said, Buddhist priests and Shinto priests—that is, the non-Christian clergy—were identified specifically by intelligence agencies as threats to national security that needed to be monitored. Christian ministers were not identified, even though they were also important community leaders. There were fewer of them, of course. The Japanese American community as a whole—both in Hawaii and the continental United States—was majority Buddhist, so its religious leadership was also majority Buddhist. But from the start of the roundup, religious difference factored into how arrests were conducted—into who was targeted and who was not.

From there, the government used religion to determine which members of the community were loyal and which disloyal. In 1943 the camps were issued a document called the Leave Clearance Form that sought to make this determination. Question #16 was on religion. Those who responded that their religion was Christian were given two points, those who responded that their religion was Shinto were automatically denied clearance, and those who identified as Buddhists were docked a point. This is just one example among many. The government differentiated clearly between Buddhists and Christians as to their relative loyalty to the United States. It was presumed that Christian faith indicated a higher degree of Americanization and therefore a higher degree of loyalty to the country.

And in terms of the difference with Germans and Italians, during the internment process, very few German and Italian nationals were interned for the duration of the war compared to the Japanese. And there was no mass incarceration of the German and Italian American communities.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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