On February 19th, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued an executive order designating military zones along the West Coast and laying the groundwork for US authorities to remove citizens of Japanese descent from their homes and imprison them in camps. While it is widely acknowledged that racism was central to this shameful chapter of American history, the role of religious discrimination cannot be overlooked, says scholar and Soto Zen priest Duncan Ryuken Williams.
“There was a time in our country’s history when Buddhism was considered not only un-American but . . . anti-American,” explains Williams, the director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California. “Buddhist priests, Shinto priests—they were designated as national security threats.”
This often neglected dimension of the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is the subject of Williams’s new book, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Harvard University Press, Feb. 19, 2019). But while pointing out how religious differences were used to incite fear, American Sutra also demonstrates the ways that faith provided a sense of purpose and meaning for those facing persecution. By holding onto their Buddhist practice and cultural traditions while adapting to a new and unaccepting society, the tens of thousands of people detained in internment camps ended up creating a uniquely American Buddhism.
Here, Williams joins Tricycle Editor and Publisher James Shaheen to discuss how Japanese Americans stood up for religious freedom, how this part of our history has shaped American Buddhism today, and how this disturbing legacy of persecution has taken on new relevance.
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