Japanese Buddhism Fading in Hawai‘i

Just in time for the onset of the Obon season, the July issue of Honolulu Magazine publishes an article by Tiffany Hill (pp. 38-42) on the “Fading Tradition” of Japanese Buddhism in Hawai‘i. Here are a few excerpts:

It’s strange to hear a Christian hymn in a Japanese Buddhist temple, being led by the minister, no less. But [Rev. Earl] Ikeda [of Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission temple near the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa] had a reason. “I was invited to do a funeral service recently,” he explains. “I talked with the family and mentioned that it didn’t have to be a strict service done in the Buddhist tradition.” He explained to the family that they could choose a gatha, or song they felt would best honor their loved one. They chose “Amazing Grace.” In fact, adds Ikeda, when it came time to sing, the Buddhist minister himself led the mourners in the Christian hymn.

Speaking to us earlier in his modest office upstairs, Ikeda, sporting his usual attire of T-shirts and shorts, says, “I like that song, and the meaning really fits what Buddhism is about. In Buddhism, the idea is to live the moment. We can’t be attached to certain ways of thinking, that’s exactly what Buddhism isn’t.” It was a story he wanted to share with his membership….

The person most credited with establishing Buddhism in the Islands is Bishop Emyō Imamura. He came from Japan in 1899 to examine life at the plantations, and he was instrumental in building temples in plantation towns. Plantation workers converted plantation homes to create the first temples. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 170 temples in Hawai‘i. They were the lifeblood of the plantation towns, where they served not only as the place of worship, but as a commmunity center and as the nucleus for political and labor discussions as the Japanese fought for a place in the Islands.

There are 33 temples still open on O‘ahu. Visit one of them today and you’ll find a small number of devoted members, all of whom pay annual dues to keep the temples open. It is not uncommon for ministers to speak in front of memberships compromising a dozen members, sometimes fewer. It’s also likely that a temple’s most active members are in their 70s, 80s, sometimes even 90s….

In addition to a shrinking membership, Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist temples are also facing a shortage of ministers. Take [Rev. Jay] Okamoto. For the past six years, he’s not only been the minister of the Waipahu Hongwanji, but also the temples in ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae, neither of which have had their own resident ministers in 30 years. The ‘Ewa temple has 30 members and the Wai‘anae temple has around 50, he says.

All Japanese Buddhist ministers must be ordained in Japan before they can work in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. This often makes it difficult to attract local men and women in the first place, because they have to speak Japanese for their studies. Often, Japanese ministers end up serving in Hawai‘i’s temples, but, says Okamoto, they, too, face linguistic and cultural challenges. It’s a catch-22.

There’s also a seasonally related article by David Thompson in the same issue headlined “Bondancersizing the Night Away” (pp. 43-45).

UPDATE: The article is about “Bondancercise” classes, a word formed from the merger of Bon + dancer + exercise, but the spelling “Bondancersizing (the Night Away)” implies right-sizing Bon dancers (weight loss).

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Filed under Buddhism, Hawai'i, Japan, migration, publishing

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