Duncan Ryuken Williams in front of the Peace Pagoda in Japantown’s Peace Plaza, San Francisco, 2017 | Photograph by Aaron Wojack

After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that began the largest forced migration in American history. During this period, over a hundred thousand Japanese American families were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to internment camps across the western United States. While this history of wartime internments based on race is well known, far less discussed is the role that religious affiliation played in the immediate days after Pearl Harbor, when many Buddhists were deemed a national security threat by the FBI and sent to high-security camps—a year before non-Buddhist Japanese Americans were arrested and sent to the camps en masse.

Given recent calls for a Muslim registry, this chapter of American history has now become especially relevant. Enter Duncan Ryuken Williams, a Soto Zen priest and Director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California. Williams has spent the past ten years researching the history of Japanese American internment and the ways in which Asian American communities maintained their religious traditions throughout a time of extreme racial and religious discrimination. His soon-to-be-published book, “Camp Dharma: Buddhism and the Japanese American Incarceration During World War Two,” tells stories drawn from the letters, diaries, and memories of people who were torn from their homes and forced to live in squalid camp conditions.

One such family was that of 10-year-old Masumi Kimura, whose father, a first-generation immigrant, was a leader at a Buddhist temple in California’s Central Valley. After the FBI came to the family’s farmhouse one afternoon and wrestled Masumi’s father to the ground—unluckily, he had been holding a gun, preparing to chase rabbits from the vegetable garden—the elder Kimura burned every item in his home that contained Japanese text or had a “Made in Japan” label. Unable to bring himself to burn the family’s bound edition of the Buddhist scriptures, however, he swaddled the sacred texts in kimono cloth and rice cracker boxes and buried them in a hole behind the family garage.

This narrative—moving in its own right­—is a metaphor for the often unrecognized ways that Asian American Buddhist communities have shaped Buddhism in the West. On the surface it might appear that by burying their heirlooms to prove that they were assimilated Americans the Kimuras were erasing part of their Japanese and Buddhist identity; but in fact, their response had the effect of protecting their faith and  heritage. The metaphor extends to the buried contributions of Asian Americans that have often gone unseen by convert Buddhists. The creative efforts of Asian Americans have preserved Buddhist teachings that today benefit all who practice in the United States.

At the same time, the story serves to illustrate how, in a country that prides itself on religious freedom, suspicion and bigotry can undermine even our most cherished values. Williams’s book, nearing completion, has taken on new urgency as the threat of religious and ethnic persecution by the government has become daily reality for millions across the United States and indeed the world. In order to shed greater light on the politics of the present, he generously agreed to share his knowledge of the past.

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