The Role of Buddhism in Japanese-American Internment Camps > News > USC Dornsife

After translating a diary written by a Buddhist priest who was interned with his family during World War II, USC Dornsife’s Duncan Williams was compelled to research how Buddhism was used by the US government and state officials. army to mark Japanese Americans for internment and how religion offered solace. to those in the camps. [6 ½ min read]

When Masumi Kimura, 10, born in Madera in California’s San Joaquin Valley, rushes home to her Japanese parents after news of the Pearl Harbor attack, she finds her father beaten by men in suits and her mother . sitting at the kitchen table, very still, while a man points a shotgun to her head.

“Even though this little Japanese-American girl is only 10 years old, she realizes that she has to step in because her parents speak almost no English and it is clear that these men in suits, who she would momentarily discover are were FBI agents, didn’t speak Japanese,” says Duncan Williams, a Buddhist priest and professor of religion, East Asian languages ​​and cultures, and American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife. College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

As she translates, Kimura discovers that her father is on an FBI list that requires him to be interrogated in the event of a war with Japan because he is a senior member of the Buddhist temple‘s board of trustees. local.

This incident appears in Williams’ bestseller American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in World War II (Harvard University Press, 2019). The book explores the role of Buddhism in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The book was inspired by Shinjo Nagatomi’s diary, written during his internment. Nagatomi, a Buddhist priest, was the father of Williams’ mentor, Masatoshi Nagatomi, the first professor of Buddhist studies at Harvard. The diary, which Williams discovered among his mentor’s belongings after his death, was written in Japanese, and Williams translated it for the family at their request 17 years ago.

“It made me want to learn more about what happened to the 120,000 people of Japanese descent living on the West Coast of the United States, and how they were taken to these remote camps in Wyoming, ‘Idaho, Colorado and Arizona,” says Williams. . “What happened to them there and why?

Although not a subject in which Williams had an academic background, as he translated the diary he felt compelled to learn more. Shinjo Nagatomi wrote of the sermons he gave in the camp on how to deal with dislocation and loss, especially during that first winter and spring of 1942 to 1943 when many – especially the most vulnerable , the elderly and young babies – did not survive. .

As a Buddhist priest, Shinjo Nagatomi performed funerals and tried to console families who, after losing their homes, jobs, income, place in society and almost all of their material possessions, were now losing family members. beloved in difficult conditions. in which they were forced to live.


While most historians have argued that it was the racial animosity of this era that placed the Japanese-American community, not the German-American or Italian-American communities, in these camps, Williams’ research showed another important factor.

American Sutra shines a light on how Japanese Americans fought to defend their faith and preserve religious freedom during one of our nation’s darkest hours.

His discovery of declassified memos between President Roosevelt and Attorney General Francis Biddle shows that Japanese Americans were singled out for internment because of their religion. Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, who oversaw the internment process, also pointed to the fact that they were majority Buddhists as a factor in his own assessment of why they posed a threat to national security.

“What I found in my research is that in addition to race, religion played a very important role in the assessment of US government and military officials as to the perception of this majority Buddhist community as a national security threat,” Williams said.

His research also shows that the very thing that put Japanese Americans in these camps—namely their Buddhist faith and affiliation—was also what helped them survive this extremely difficult time in their lives.

“It was a moment where in this dislocation and loss people turned to their faith,” Williams said.

Williams’ book describes how Japanese Americans selected for internment were given a week to 10 days to opt out of college or sell their businesses and pack only what they could carry before being taken to remote camps. There, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard towers, they faced indefinite captivity.

Williams estimates that more than 1,200 Japanese Americans perished in the camps.

Although there were a dozen cases of people being shot by guards at the fence, most of the deaths were caused by the harsh conditions.

“Unsurprisingly, they put these camps in very remote, mostly desert conditions,” Williams says. “The harsh environment and weather conditions have been the hardest for the most vulnerable occupants: namely newborns and the elderly. Poor food, sanitation and living conditions have contributed to illnesses such as influenza and pneumonia.

Williams translated the diaries of those interned in the camps and interviewed over 100 camp survivors. He also spent several years at the National Archives in Washington, DC, declassifying documents and exploring additional archives.

The book – a 17-year labor of love – made the Los Angeles Times‘ bestseller list for non-fiction for three weeks, peaking at number three. Williams has spoken about the book at nearly 50 venues, from the Smithsonian to Yale Law School to Apple.

“It’s been interesting to talk about this story,” he says, “but also to talk about how it relates and connects to some of the discussions going on today about immigration, race and religion. and that belongs to America.”

Williams says what he most wants readers to take away from his book is this idea that people can be both Buddhist and American.

Two-thirds of this community of 120,000 people were US citizens, but they did not enjoy due process, Williams notes.

“With each of these constitutional promises of equality before the law, due process, or religious freedom – these really fundamental American values ​​- there are only words on a piece of paper, unless someone tells them. embodies and actualizes it.”

A third space

A Buddhist funeral was held in 1943 at Heart Mountain Camp, an American-Japanese internment camp in Wyoming. (Photo: Courtesy of Duncan Williams.)

Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a British father, Williams grew up almost entirely in Japan until the age of 17, when he moved to the United States for college.

He joined USC Dornsife in 2011 from the University of California, Berkeley. At USC Dornsife, he chaired the School of Religion, establishing a new Ph.D. program to compete with the best institutions in the country. He also created the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Cultures, of which he is the director.

In addition to his British-sounding name, Williams says he doesn’t sound particularly Japanese and wasn’t considered all-Japanese growing up.

“And of course when I went to the UK it was very clear I couldn’t pass as 100 per cent British either,” he says. “So I felt it didn’t quite belong in either place. I think that’s one of the reasons I came to America. It was that third space, where I could explore and imagine what it might mean to belong in a different way.

This is also one of the reasons why he was drawn to Buddhism.

“The Buddha teaches that the self is not actually solid, permanent, or self-contained, but rather interdependent, flexible, and dynamically changing. It resonated with my own experience growing up. Williams was ordained a Buddhist priest at the age of 21 and trained as a monk in Japan. He is currently affiliated with a Japanese-American temple in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.

Williams believes his own experiences of growing up without belonging drew him to this field of study.

This majority Buddhist community of interned Japanese Americans, despite being told they did not belong, persisted in their practice of Buddhism, and in doing so they may ironically manifest a very basic American principle of religious freedom. , argues Williams.

“This is what I want readers to take away from American Sutra: Is America fundamentally an all-white, Christian nation? Or is it a multi-ethnic, religiously free nation?