Lon Kurashige: When Buddhism Was an Enemy Religion

Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States, by Lon KurashigeWe welcome a guest post today from Lon Kurashige, author of Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the Immigration Act of 1924 to Japanese American internment during World War II, the United States has a long history of anti-Asian policies. But Kurashige demonstrates that despite widespread racism, Asian exclusion was not the product of an ongoing national consensus; it was a subject of fierce debate. This book complicates the exclusion story by examining the organized and well-funded opposition to discrimination that involved some of the most powerful public figures in American politics, business, religion, and academia.

In a previous guest post, Kurashige considered how Teddy Roosevelt might approach today’s immigration debates. In today’s post, he blends his own family history with America’s history of the intersection of religion and politics.


My grandfather immigrated to the United States from Japan in 1928, four years after Congress banned the Japanese from doing so. As a Buddhist missionary, he was one of the few who could enter the country legally as a “non-immigrant” accompanied by his wife (my grandmother). This was a small concession Congress granted because it did not want Japan to enact quid pro quo exclusion against American missionaries. My grandfather was sent by one of Japan’s largest schools of Buddhism to minister to Japanese immigrants and spread the faith among them, all the while, in true missionary spirit, seeking to share his religion with an entire nation of not-yet-Buddhists. He ended up in Fresno, California, and after a brief return to Japan, settled in Seattle until World War II.

A few months after the Pearl Harbor attack, the FBI took my grandfather away from his wife and seven children and confined him and hundreds of other Buddhist priests apart from their families and congregations. Their main “crime” was to be leaders of an enemy religion. There was no evidence produced to implicate my grandfather or any Buddhist priest of wrongdoing.

The incarcerated priests were joined by leaders of many Japanese faiths, including Shinto (Japan’s state religion at the time), and new religions such as Tenrikyo and Konkokyo, but not Christianity. There were no Japanese Protestant ministers or Catholic priests incarcerated with my grandfather. They were not separated from their families and congregations, even though they were included in the mass incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans held by the government’s War Relocation Authority (WRA).

This view of enemy religion informed the WRA’s crucial determination of internee loyalty. Positive points were awarded to those from Christian faiths, while Buddhists and especially followers of Shinto received negative points. These points could mean the difference between being released or not from the WRA camps; it could also determine whether one was sent to a special “troublemakers” camp.

After the war, my grandfather returned to Seattle as head of the city’s major Buddhist temple. He became a U.S. citizen after Japanese immigrants were allowed to do so in 1952. Each of his seven children would graduate from a local university and marry other Americans. The four male children fulfilled their U.S. military service, and my mother married a U.S. Army Ranger. Although the only child in the family born in Japan (during my grandparents’ brief return), she raised me and my siblings with little consciousness of her birth country, including her large extended family over there. None of us kids learned Japanese. Our main exposure to Japan was at Buddhist “church” where we went to Sunday school, sang Buddhist hymns, and followed the church’s cub scouts and boy scouts in saluting the American flag. In typical Christian fashion, the minister gave a sermon, once in Japanese and then repeated in English. As a child, I would daydream during the Japanese sermon, not understanding a word of it. This was when my Sunday school classmates would act up because few of us could speak or understand the language.

In my childish mind, Buddhism was just like Christianity, except we prayed to Buddha instead of Christ. Much later, I would learn how mistaken I was. I now realize that Buddhism and Christianity are two distinct religions with very different theologies and histories. And yet I wonder, how wrong is it to recognize commonalities between the two? Both religions value universal truth based in selflessness, kindness, and empathy for all—especially the poor, weak, and disadvantaged. If one looks beyond theology, ritual, and the worldly exterior of religions, there is much to appreciate at the intersection between Buddhism and Christianity. How else to explain the rising popularity of Buddhism in the United States and Europe?

My sense is that the many Westerners who meditate or embrace Zen notions of mindfulness do not reject Judeo-Christian faiths as much as they appreciate the common humanity at the heart of both Buddhism and Christianity, or Buddhism and Judaism—as in the case of Jewish-Buddhists known as “Jewbus.” It seems like Buddhism today is in harmony rather than at odds with Western religions. This view is consistent with the current Dalai Lama’s efforts to advance an “ethics for the new millennium” that looks beyond any one religion to bring people of all faiths, cultures, nations, and creeds together in shared humanity.

The popularity of the Dalai Lama in the United States suggests that many—perhaps most—Americans no longer consider Buddhism an enemy religion. But the cycle has started over with another religion. Decades from now how would a future third-generation American like me describe the ordeal of his or her grandparent who immigrated to the United States to spread Islam and in so doing was considered an enemy of the state? Based on my family story, I’m inclined to think that this future American will portray the many adaptations by both Islam and American society that happen as part of the inexorable process of culture change. Throughout U.S. history this process over time always has led in a positive direction of increased trust, mutual respect, and boundary blurring and crossing, even for groups like Japanese Buddhists initially seen as worlds apart from the American mainstream.

I am hopeful that over the long term Americans will look beyond the exterior differences between Islam and Christianity to appreciate the universal truths embraced by both faiths. Until then, let the history of Japanese Buddhists in the United States remind us that true universal religions including Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity are rooted in values of kindness, love, and compassion followed by millions of good-hearted people around the world. While individuals and groups can do harm in their name, these faiths as a whole can never be an enemy religion.

Lon Kurashige is associate professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism in the United States