From the Archive

[link to this page]

Over the last ten years, Densho has collected hundreds of hours of video testimony and tens of thousands of historical images. From the Archive is a monthly feature that highlights primary sources from the Densho Digital Archive to illustrate themes in Japanese American history. We hope that it will give you a sense of the rich depth of materials in the Archive. To access the entire collection, simply register for a free user account.


Integration of East and West: Faith among Japanese Americans

Fujin Home, Baptist shelter, 1929, denshopd-p2-00003.
"If somebody asked me what religion I am, I would like to tell 'em, 'All of 'em.'"
   -- George Morihiro

For many Japanese Americans in the first half of the 20th century, the Buddhist and Christian church served as much more than a spiritual home. They were gathering places, cultural centers and safe spots for "socializing and feeling comfortable with your own," said the Rev. Paul Nagano, a former pastor of Seattle's Japanese Baptist Church interviewed by Densho.

Church-goers held on to Japanese values while learning what it meant to be an American, a process that was tested during the incarceration years but made easier later through such ubiquitous activities as bazaars and basketball leagues.

Some moved easily between Buddhist and Christian church communities. Buddhism is not an exclusive religion, allowing adherents to also follow other faiths. Issei with a Buddhist background often saw Protestant churches as an avenue for their Nisei children to succeed in U.S. society.

Growing up in Hood River, Oregon, Densho interviewee Betty Morita Shibayama said her parents sent her to the Methodist Church in the 1930s "because they felt that (their) children are all American citizens so they wanted us to...do what other American citizens do....I don't think they really were committed to one religion or another, so they wanted us to just be more Americanized."

Buddhism held more sway with new male immigrants from Japan. Ryo Imamura of Olympia, who became a Buddhist chaplain, said Issei ministers provided a bonding experience.

RI: And when you listen to -- I guess they're not around any more -- but the old Issei ministers, they really, they were identified as leaders, and they felt like leaders, everybody looked up to them, and so they conducted themselves with a great deal of confidence. And they would have people sitting there for hours on Sundays listening to their stories and, not only about experiences here, but back in Japan. And so this whole... brought tears to peoples' eyes, just hearing, you know, the familiar themes and stories. And so it was a very much a bonding experience back then. People always made meals at the temple. They lived right around the temple because, of course all these communities were in areas that no one else wanted to live in back then. And so because of the opposition and the racism and all that, they were pushed to be together and to look to each other for comfort and support. And so it happened very naturally.

The intersection of Buddhist and Christian groups was more of a compromise than a clash among the Issei, according to Nagano.

SF: How about the relationship between the Protestant groups -- the Protestant Japanese groups and the Buddhists? I mean, how would you characterize their relationship, you know, in the early days among the Isseis?

PN: Yeah. That's a very meaningful question because -- speaking out of my own experience -- my mother came from Japan, although my father was born in Canada. And, and he was Christian because of his background and training. But my mother was Buddhist. And she maintained a lot of her cultural and Buddhist beliefs. But it became expedient for her to become a Christian, being in America, because the family was more or less Christian. But she maintained a lot of her Buddhist beliefs and associations. So there was sort of the integration of her Buddhist culture and beliefs with her Americanization. And that way there was sort of a compromise, and yet there was -- as far as affiliation was concerned -- more towards the Christian groups.

Japanese Christian churches provided a sense of community both before and after World War II. The Rev. Fukumatsu Okazaki started the Japanese Baptist Church, the oldest Japanese Christian church in Seattle, in 1899. When he arrived, Seattle had about 80,000 residents, several thousand from Japan. Okazaki's congregation catered to newcomers, offering English classes, a youth program and a safe haven for those who suffered from discrimination.1

In the early 1900s, the church helped picture brides with housing in Seattle after their arrival from Japan, especially when the would-be brides refused their prospective husbands. Okazaki's wife, Yoshiko, opened a Christian residence known as Fujin Home, which later became a training center for young married couples and provided classes in English and on the Bible.2

Shigeko Sese Uno of Seattle said Fujin Home helped women with nowhere else to go.

SU: Some of them didn't want to get married to the fellow that, whose picture they had, things like that. They refused. So they had to have lodging. And so the Baptist Home Mission Society funded the building that was built about two blocks away from the Japanese Baptist Church on East Spruce. And that became the haven for so many troubled people. I remember when I was growing up, if there were families where the husbands would die, and the wife would be left with all these little children, well they could always go to Fujin Home for, to stay there and eat there. And quite a few were there.

A successor to Okazaki was the Rev. Emery "Andy" Andrews, a white man who previously worked with the Asian community in California and Seattle. The Japanese Baptist Church welcomed Andrews "because he has this history of working with the Asians, and also...maybe it was, 'Well, there's no Nisei pastor to come to the church, so, well, we might as well have Pastor Andy come and be the English-speaking pastor at the church there,' " recalled his son, Brooks Andrews.

During the incarceration of people of Japanese descent after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Emery Andrews moved his family to Twin Falls, Idaho, to be near church members held in Minidoka. He made regular trips back to Seattle, sometimes three times a week, to gather necessities for his congregants.3

When the war ended, the church's denomination did not want the Japanese Baptist Church to re-establish, perhaps for safety reasons, but Andrews was adamant that it should.

"Most of the major denominations after World War II wanted to assimilate all the ethnic minority groups, especially Japanese Americans," said Nagano, the church's pastor from 1971 to 1986. "I thought, 'No, we've got to affirm who we are. We should take pride in our backgrounds as Japanese Americans.' "4

Not only were Japanese churches self-segregated, they held separate services in Japanese and English, with positive results, said Tsugo "Ike" Ikeda, recalling his experience at Portland's Epworth United Methodist Church.

TI: So we had a strong Issei congregation all in Japanese, and we had a Nisei congregation all in English. And so I enjoyed that experience. And I don't know, later, after the war was completed, we were taught not to be with each other, to integrate. So I happened to go to many Caucasian churches -- ended up at the First Baptist and found them to be friendly, and so I started attending there. Well, the people that came back, the Niseis that came back weren't doing that. So when the minister, Reverend Hayashi, came to Portland, Oregon to start the church again, I quickly changed my membership to the Epworth church. And found by doing that, even though it was segregated, it really made it possible for more Niseis to come. So, I had no problem in that.

Among Japanese Americans, Buddhists experienced more difficulty than Christians before, during and after the war, for various reasons. They were seen by society as a whole as "foreign" and more closely tied to Japan. Buddhists in the detention camps generally had less access to their clergy compared with Christians.5

Still, the Buddhists "remember their incarceration as a significantly less negative period in their lives than do Protestants" because they "strongly emphasize a life-as-it-is perspective and a compassionate acceptance of the role of others and themselves in the World War II tragedy."6

As Imamura put it, the injustice of the incarceration was tempered by "a Buddhist attitude of just letting go and moving on," one reason why Buddhists were also less active in the redress movement.

After the war, Japanese Christian churches became a major social institution in places like Gardena, California, as recalled by Lorraine Bannai:

LB: Well, actually, when we first started going to church, I recall going to all three of the different Japanese American churches in Gardena. I went to the Buddhist Church for a little while and the Baptist Church for a little while and the Methodist Church for a little while. And the churches very, very much served not only the traditional function of teaching the Bible and all of that, but were very, very much social institutions, the main social institutions in the community. Everyone seemed to be affiliated with one of the main Japanese American churches. There were lots of activities around those churches, church bazaars, and there was a Bon Odori and everything. And so they very much served the function of being a place where people in the community could come together, aside from serving the function of teaching the traditional religious doctrine.

Depth of faith was another matter. Bannai said her family "went to church mainly because it was one of our social institutions, it was one of our community institutions, and not necessarily because we were particularly devout."

Or not singularly devoted, as in the case of George Morihiro and his mother, of Fife, Washington, one result of the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity in a pluralistic society.

MA: And then what about your mother? You said she was more religious than your father. Did she attend church?

GM: Well, my mother thought she was a Buddhist, and then on the other hand, like other hand, she'd believe in anything, but I remember when I grew up, my mother had a picture of Virgin Mary by her bedside, and in front of that she had two Buddhist metal idols. And I remember telling her that, "Mom, according to the Ten Commandments, one of 'em is 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me,' and you have two of 'em here, two religions." And her answer was very good because it taught me a lot. And she says, "Well, I have these, this Christian religion and the Buddhist religion here on this table because," she says, "there may be a time when one can't help you, but then the other might be able to help you." [Laughs] So she didn't take a chance; two gods are better than one.

MA: And what did you, you said you learned a lot from that. What exactly did you learn?

GM: Well, it, it taught me a lot of things about you don't have to stick with one thing. You know, that you don't have to stick with the Japanese people all the time, because the other people will go and help you, too. And everything in life revolves around, if you have more friends, you're better off than having one friend. And same thing with religion, I myself believe right now that if somebody asked me what religion I am, I would like to tell 'em, "All of 'em," rather than saying I'm a Buddhist or a Christian. I got married in a Buddhist church, so that makes me a part Buddhist. My son, my wife, went to a Methodist church. I belong to the Methodist church, too, but I also take part just as much in any other church, of different faiths, and I look at them as one unit rather than separate churches.


1. Sally Macdonald, "A Century of Faith," Seattle Times, May 22, 1999.

2. John Iwasaki, "After 100 Years, Church Looks to Pass on a Torch," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 21, 1999.

3. Macdonald.

4. Iwasaki.

5. Stephen S. Fugita and Marilyn Fernandez, Altered Lives, Enduring Community: Japanese Americans Remember Their World War II Incarceration (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), pp. 175-76.

6. Fugita and Fernandez, pp. 192-93.


To create a free archive user account, go to:
  densho.org/archive/register.asp


back to top



Copyright ©1997-2014 Densho. All Rights Reserved.