The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Buddhists Enemies of the State?

Image of people leaving Buddhist church at Manzanar Relocation Center in California

Japanese-Americans leaving Buddhist church at Manzanar Relocation Center, an internment camp in California. Source: Library of Congress

Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI is rarely remembered for its restrained investigation methods. Yet, one target of its scrutiny is particularly surprising today: Ordained Buddhist priests.

After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941, all Japanese-Americans were held under suspicion, but officials considered Buddhism to be a particularly concerning tie between Americans of Japanese descent and Japan. Even before Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 mandating the internment of Japanese immigrants on the West Coast two months after the attacks, the FBI began surveilling and detaining Buddhists priests. Considered potential spies, Buddhist priests were listed as “A1” national security risks, a label reserved for threats of greatest urgency.

BackStory sat down with Peter Manseau, author of One Nation Under Gods: A New American History, to understand how a religion now almost universally viewed as peaceful was feared and vilified not so long ago.

Q: Did discrimination against Buddhists happen on a broader public level, or was it mostly from law enforcement and the FBI?

A: You have to see it as part of this much longer history, and a general suspicion around “Asian religion” in America. This suspicion went back to the end of the 19th century with concerns about the Chinese, Chinese immigrants, and Chinese temples, and the widely popularized feeling that there was something suspect going on at these places. They were practicing religious traditions that seemed alien to many Americans, even though the first Chinese temples in California were in the 1850s, so they have a deep history of being here in the United States — it’s that kind of suspicion generally, among certain parts of the American public that sets the stage for the suspicion of Japanese Buddhists during World War II. It was part of the overall suspicion on the West Coast of Japanese Immigrants, and so it wasn’t specifically targeted against Buddhism as such, either for the FBI or for the public– but yes, there was a broader suspicion.

Q: Before many Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps, how was this discrimination affecting Buddhist Americans’ lives?

A: It’s during the war when it becomes a real issue, and it affected the rate of conversion among Japanese immigrant communities. Many Japanese immigrants or second generation immigrants had already converted to Christianity or were Christians to begin with. But others, who had been Buddhists or practicing Shinto, were more likely to consider conversion to Christianity because they believed it would make them seem more American, or they would seem more assimilated, and as a consequence they hoped that that might keep them from being sent to camps. That was not the case of course; the internment did not pay attention to religion in that way. Whether or not you had converted to Christianity or maintained the Buddhism or Shintoism of your family, you were rounded up just the same.

An image of President Obama and the 442nd Combat Team in the Oval Office, applauding after signing a bill that collectively granted the entirely Japanese unit the Congressional Gold Medal.

President Obama granted the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an entirely Japanese unit, the Congressional Gold Medal for their dedication to service during World War II. Source: Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Q: When were Buddhists no longer considered public enemies by the FBI?

A: Even after internment Japanese-Buddhist priests were kept on FBI watch lists and were essentially put on parole. They had to check in with parole officers. Some of them were not allowed to go back immediately to the West Coast.

But the really interesting thing is ten years or so after World War II, there began to be a movement among Japanese-American Buddhist veterans for greater recognition of religious differences in the U.S. military. During internment, the rates of Japanese-American enlistment were high, as a way of proving their patriotism essentially. As a result, they had high rates of casualties fighting in the European theater. In the mid-’50s, there was a movement among Japanese-American Buddhist veterans groups to make sure that their Buddhist identity could be identified and memorialized in military cemeteries. [I found that] during congressional testimony on the upkeep of a military cemetery in Hawaii, for example, there was a long debate about if they were going to erect religious markers. They raised the idea that the military should be more broadly accepting of religious difference than it had been. And now, there are Buddhist symbols in  military cemeteries.

Q: How did Buddhism come to be seen as a particularly peaceful religion today?

A: One way that happened was through the influence of Buddhism on the American counterculture essentially, beginning with writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They would go to places where there were a lot of Buddhists, like San Francisco, encounter Buddhist ideas, and then translate them in such a way that they were acceptable to a broader public.The embrace generally of Eastern religious ideas throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s really helped the recognition of Buddhism as the way we see it today.

Q: I think a reason this story is so fascinating is that it was such a stark reversal in public sentiment over a fairly short period of time, would you agree?

A: Yes, and it’s really just a matter of more people being aware of what the tenets of Buddhism actually are. At this time that we’re talking about, early in the middle part of the 20th century, most people didn’t have any understanding of what Buddhism was about at all. It really was when other elements of American culture began to embrace and explain it, that went a long way towards making the religion  better understood. Of course, you can question whether or not that kind of popularized Buddhism presents the same ideas that Japanese immigrants brought but nonetheless it’s still putting the vocabulary of the religion out before a broader public.

Q: Do you think there’s something Americans today can learn from this part of history?

A: Certainly, I think they can look back and see that throughout our history,there has been the perception of a kind of religious boogeyman– this idea that foreign religious ideas come in and threaten our way of life.  But in every case, their history in America is often much longer than perceived, and the threat is nonexistent. So I think that it’s not at all a stretch to look at the suspicion directed at Japanese Buddhists during World War II and make a connection to suspicion of Islam today. It’s based on ignoring the much longer history of religious minorities in this country, and it’s very much using the misunderstanding between religions as something to build on fear of “the other” that is always there.

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Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist