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‘I felt obliged to tell this story’

Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams, winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion, discusses the faith of Buddhists interned during World War II

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams is the winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer Prize in Religion. He spoke Tuesday at Caldwell Chapel on the campus of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Does being non-white and non-Christian make one less American?

Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams answered that question in a book it took him 17 years to complete, “American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War,” his 2019 work that won him the 2022 Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Williams delivered his Grawemeyer lecture Tuesday in Caldwell Chapel at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which along with the University of Louisville awarded Williams this year’s prize. Watch Williams’ hour-long lecture here.

Williams, an ordained Buddhist priest in the Soto Zen tradition, teaches religion and directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California.

“It’s wonderful to receive this honor and lecture to you gathered today,” Williams said, “and so wonderful to be in this chapel together with my family,” including his wife, who helped edit the book, published by Harvard University Press.

Williams wondered: What are the roots of the kind of exclusion Asian Americans have witnessed in recent months, which have included acts of violence? Williams said he embarked on the book project about two decades ago when his academic mentor died just as Williams was set to defend his dissertation. While helping the professor’s family clean and sort his office, Williams found some yellowed papers full of Japanese characters.

“I started reading,” he said. “It was part diary, part a set of sermons.” It turned out the professor’s father was a Buddhist priest who’d been taken to a concentration camp — one of 10 opened in the U.S. in 1942 to inter about 120,000 Japanese Americans throughout the war.

“To appreciate this mentor, I translated the documents. I never thought I would write a book,” Williams said. But other families soon began approaching him: “Can you translate our documents too?”

“That’s how the project began,” Williams said. “I had a karmic connection. I felt obliged to tell this story.”

He discovered the first two Japanese Americans picked up by the FBI on Dec. 7, 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were Buddhist priests. In a time of war, Williams figured the FBI would be more interested in detaining and questioning, say, Japanese consulate officials. He discovered the FBI had prepared well before Pearl Harbor a set of warrants for arrests for those it considered the most dangerous — among them Buddhist and Shinto priests, but not Christian pastors. Temples had been under surveillance for years before 1941.

Before Japanese Americans were considered by many to be suspicious, that role fell to Chinese Americans, who came to this country to work on sugar plantations and in gold mines and perform the dangerous and often deadly work constructing the transcontinental railroad. Congress followed that up in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act. “Voices said there were too many Chinese, and that they were religiously unacceptable,” Williams said.

One family taken to an internment camp in 1942 reported that all their books with Japanese text were taken away — even those with haiku poetry. There were two exceptions: Japanese-English dictionaries and the Bible. The message behind that policy, Williams said, is “You are a threat and you don’t belong. If you want to belong, learn English and become a Christian if you aren’t already.”

“This book is the embodiment of these people,” he said. The nation’s founders “didn’t say you had to be Christian to be American.” Those interned Buddhists said, “We’re going to maintain our faith. How did they do that?”

They had to become creative and adaptive, Williams said, introducing one of several Japanese words he used during the lecture: Hoben, which means skillful adaptation. The term comes from the Buddha’s teaching. Williams said the Buddha would adapt his medicine to the person right in front of him. “That’s the best dharma (teaching),” Williams said. “Instead of abstractions, make it real.”

Buddhists in the camps took scraps of wood “and found ways to build beautiful Buddhist altars,” Williams said. Buddhist cooks “would take mediocre and bad ingredients and transform them into something meaningful.”

Williams discovered that in 1943 his mentor’s father helped to build a five-tier monument to those who died during the early months of their internment. “They went barrack to barrack, asking for five-cent and 10-cent donations,” he said. A Catholic architect designed the monument, and a Protestant pastor helped dedicate it.

As the war went on, imagine the irony, Williams said: Japanese Americans served with distinction in segregated units in the U.S. military just as African American soldiers did. The Japanese American contingent was dubbed the Purple Heart Battalion. Fighting in Europe, this segregated unit became the most decorated regimental combat team, for its size, in the history of the U.S. Army. Japanese Americans also worked in military intelligence, translating and codebreaking. General Douglas MacArthur’s chief of staff said without the Japanese American codebreakers, at least one million more GIs would have been killed in the Pacific Theater and the war might have gone on two years longer.

Those interned were assigned a letter identifying their religion — C for Catholic, P for Protestant, H for “Hebrew” and X for no religion. One man in a Hawaiian camp asked for a B for Buddhist, a request that was denied. Then give me a P, the man said. When asked why, he said, “Because I protest.”

“That was his way of trying to find a place,” Williams said. “He was assigned latrine duty for three weeks after that … He was making a claim that we belong, forcing the government to recognize Buddhism was a religion the founders would have been open to, this idea you could be American and Buddhist.”

The final Japanese term Williams introduced was Kintsugi, literally “gold to join again.” A term from the ceramic tradition, it’s a way of giving additional life to, for example, a broken teacup by using lacquer to rejoin the parts and adorning the fracture line with gold.

After Williams’ book was published, a few readers began using the book cover to fashion paper cranes to decorate the wall along the nation’s Southern border. They felt “a kinship,” Williams said, with the northbound caravans that were then being stopped at the border. “Many camp survivors from the Second World War felt something about family separation and being put in family detention centers,” he said. “We felt our interlinked history with this current situation.” Williams found himself working alongside Latinx dreamers.

“Our pasts are interlinked. When we note that, we don’t have to shy away from the cracked lines,” he said. “We can adorn them with gold, with reparations.”

While it’s been three years since the book was published, “it’s feeling timely. It’s time to recognize those who were excised from the American story,” Williams said. “All of us can find our interlinked connections as we create a nation that is not about singularity or exclusion, but multiplicity and inclusion. Are we going to rise to the challenge in our time to make a multiethnic and religiously plural nation?”


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