“American Sutra” to Look at World War II Camps through Buddhist Perspective
By John Sammon
A new book titled “American Sutra” will take a unique and different look at the experiences of Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II; showing how their Buddhist faith gave them strength and courage, and brought them through suffering with their dignity intact.
“The book will show there were people who found something in their faith to create a different reality,” said Duncan Ryuken Williams, author of American Sutra. “There are books out there about the injustice of the camps. What was missing was the way the incarcerated when they were removed from their homes and experienced loss; drew on their (Buddhist) faith to survive.”
The book, a culmination of 17 years of work in which Williams poured through hundreds of historic documents, diaries and correspondences, and conducted over 120 interviews of survivors, is being printed now and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com.
It is published by Harvard University Press.
The word “Sutra” is a Sanskrit word originating in ancient India and denotes a religious text, applying to Asian religions including Buddhism and Hinduism.
“It is a sacred Buddhist scripture like the Bible is to Christians,” Williams said.
In 1942 under Executive Order 9066 the U.S. Government decided to lock up 120,000 Japanese American citizens living along the West Coast under suspicion of treachery based on nothing more than their ancestry.
Williams said in addition to interviewing camp survivors, a major focus of the book was to examine contemporaneous sources, how those in the camps felt about their imprisonment at the time it was happening.
“Many of the Buddhist priests in the camps had long ago passed away before I began this project,” Williams said. “But I had access to their diaries. I translated their letters and correspondence written in Japanese.”
During the work Williams noticed a stoic attitude among many of the incarcerated, a determination to stand up to the injustice inflicted upon them and persevere.
“Among many of them you’d notice a kind of, let’s make the best of it attitude,” Williams said.
Buddhist priests were among the first targets of retribution after Pearl Harbor and were rounded up and imprisoned even before the mass incarceration that followed.
“The Buddhist faith had a ritual where on April 8 you would pour sweetened tea over a Buddhist statue to celebrate the birth of Buddhism,” Williams said. “It’s kind of like Christmas for Christians. In the camps the prisoners had army rations and coffee, so they would go to a mess hall, find the biggest carrot they could, carve it into a small shrine and pour coffee over it.”
At the Poston War Relocation Center located in a desert area of Southwestern Arizona the inmates would find some desert wood and make a Buddhist alter out of it, called a “Butsudan.”
“Buddhism teaches that the world is impermanent,” Williams said. “Things change. The incarcerated lost everything, their lives were interrupted, but they knew it was not good to cling too much to the past. This helped them rebuild their lives after the war.”
The origin for American Sutra began after Williams was tasked with clearing out the belongings of a mentor and a professor of Buddhist studies at Harvard University, Masatoshi Nagatomi, who had passed away in 2000.
“I had to help clean his office and found these documents,” Williams said. “One was a diary written by his father in the camp at Manzanar (Inyo County in Eastern California). “The documents also included pages of sermons he (Nagatomi’s father) gave in the camp. There were makeshift buildings in the different camps to serve as worship sites for Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists.”
Williams translated the elder Nagatomi’s diary from its original Japanese. This led to other families who held diaries in Japanese requesting him to translate their family archive as well. Word about his abilities spread.
“People were reaching out to me,” Williams said.
He began compiling information with a book in mind. This led him to pour through records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Williams had a background in such work, coming from a family of academicians. Born in Tokyo, he had a British father and a Japanese mother.
“My dad (Stephen Williams) was a professor of languages at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and my mom (Tsutae IIkubo) was the dean of a Japanese women’s college,” Williams said. “During World War II my mom lived in Japan and my father in England. They met and married in Japan.”
Williams said his parents’ household in Tokyo was bilingual, both Japanese and English were spoken.
Williams attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and then enrolled at Harvard University studying religions with a focus on Buddhism. He also studied languages including the ancient language of India, Sanskrit, and Sino-Japanese, classical Japanese writing.
He achieved a Master’s Degree and then in 2000 a PHD in religion at Harvard.
As the book progressed Williams began conducting interviews of World War II camp survivors.
“Back when I started 17 years ago many of these people were already in their 80’s and 90’s,” he said. “They’ve passed away now. I’m was ordained as a Buddhist minister so I knew a lot of people who practice Buddhism including ministers at Buddhist temples, for example those in San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco. They would connect me with elders who could tell me their memories and compelling stories.”
Williams interviewed over 120 camp survivors over a 10-year period.
An important part of the project was to figure out who the Buddhist leaders were at the time of the war in 1942, to gain insight into their experiences. Since most had already passed away Williams would interview a son or a daughter of a Buddhist priest to record the memories.
“I tried to keep the people I interviewed from getting nervous by using a small tape recorder,” he said. “I tried to do it in a way that was not unsettling. If they got too nervous I would hand-transcribe the notes.”
Williams said former camp inmates just after the war would likely have been unwilling to talk about their experiences but as they got older—this slowly changed.
“I think they became more willing to talk because after they got older they realized they might not get another chance to tell their story,” he said. “In the beginning they didn’t want to burden their children by talking about it and wanted to protect their children from the stigma and the experience.”
Later, the survivors’ grandchildren might come to them with a homework project from school asking about the camps. Now the survivors were more willing to talk. The willingness to talk had skipped a generation and the grandchildren of camp survivors were often the first to hear the stories.
Williams said the new openness was also helped by the “Redress,” the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, in which the U.S. Government formally apologized for its conduct toward Japanese Americans during World War II and offered reparation payments.
One of the passages in American Sutra portrays the plight of a young Japanese American girl who came home from school in Madera, California just after Pearl Harbor to find her father, a farmer, being beaten by several FBI agents dressed in suits. They had come to his house to question him and had found him holding a shotgun.
He’d been attempting to frighten rabbits away from a lettuce field.
Nearby another agent held a gun to the head of the girl’s mother who also was forced to witness the scene.
“This young girl was so scared she tried to speak to these men in English to tell them to stop,” Williams said.
The family would be forcibly removed selling their farm for a fraction of its worth and sent to a camp. But in an attempt to show loyalty, they made a fire and burned all their Japanese-made possessions, all except for a leather-bound Buddhist sutra (sacred scripture).
“They couldn’t burn that,” Williams said. “They buried it instead.”
The farm was acquired by new owners but the Buddhist sutra was never recovered. Somewhere buried to this day in Madera is a book of Buddhist scriptures.
“It showed people were willing to burn their Japan-ness, but not their faith,” Williams noted. “That’s what this book American Sutra is about, the idea I can be a Buddhist and an American at the same time.”
Williams is already the author of several books including Buddhism & Ecology (1997) by Harvard University Press, The Other Side of Zen (2005) by Princeton University Press and Hapa Japan (2017), a story about multi-racial people published by Kaya Press.
He said recent statements from government officials targeting Muslims in a similar manner to the way Japanese Americans were treated during World War II has him concerned.
“I co-authored an op-ed for the Washington Post about the (Muslim) travel ban,” Williams said. “Like Executive Order 9066 against Japanese Americans was an example of racial and religious animus, there are exclusions that happen ever- so often, it’s like a pendulum that swings back and forth. But we should learn from history to keep it from happening again.”
Williams will journey around the country for the book’s release including a visit to the Smithsonian Institution on Feb. 19 where he will appear as a key note speaker. Yale University will host him and the largest Buddhist circulation magazine Tricycle in New York on Feb. 21.
On Feb. 24 he will appear at the Presidio in San Francisco as part of a program associated with a photo exhibition on the World War II camp period.
The book’s official release will take place on the “Day of Remembrance” held every year on Feb. 19 to commemorate the imprisonment of Japanese Americans on the very day Executive Order 9066 was signed in 1942.
In early December a website will go live featuring information on the book “American Sutra” at www.americansutra.com