AMERICAN SUTRA: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

I had been seeing posts about the book American Sutra online, and was able to make it to hear the author, Duncan Ryūken Williams, speak. There was a good size audience, which he wryly acknowledged, saying the book had taken him seventeen years, so it would suck if no one came to hear about it. He also gave a bit of personal background – he was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and British father, and had grown up spending time in both countries.

His journey to the book had started from his Buddhist studies program. In cleaning out a professor’s office, he came across a WWII diary of a Buddhist priest who had been incarcerated at Manzanar. As Japanese/British he had not known of the forced relocation, and as he delved into the history, found that religion was a largely ignored component.

In fact, the first person of Japanese ancestry picked up after Pearl Harbor was a priest. United States law enforcement had been surveilling Buddhist temples, and considered them suspicious.

While others have mentioned the racial component of treatment of peoples whose countries of origin were at war with the United States, Williams discussed that it was not only the racial difference but also religious difference that led to the Japanese being the sole group subject to mass incarceration. Despite religion allegedly being one of the four freedoms, the US was a Christian country, and non-Christian religions did not enjoy the same privilege. Besides speaking a different language and having a different culture, the fact that most Japanese practiced a different religion heightened the feelings that they were un- or even anti-American, and unassimilable.

Williams mentioned how on the infamous loyalty questionnaire, number sixteen was “What is your religion?” The point values for various answers were: Shinto -2, Christian +2, Buddhist -1. When Japanese Americans were allowed to serve in the military, there was a struggle to get B for Buddhist as an option on dog tags. In a somewhat ironic twist, many of the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) personnel who served in the Pacific had acquired their Japanese language skills from Buddhist sponsored language schools. And the difficulties of the confinement strengthened or renewed the Buddhist practice for many.

It was neat getting to hear Williams speak, as he was obviously passionate about the subject and has devoted many years to the book. Of course I’ve gotten a copy, although I have not read it yet. But I got the impression it is a good balance of detailed scholarly research and generally accessible readability. The talk was very informative, and I’m sure the book will be even more so.

Book reviews: Asian Pacific American Librarians Association; Emiko Yoshikami, whose family’s story is one of the many told in the book

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