By John Sammon
Planned renovations and seismic upgrades to the Buddhist Church Betsuin Annex Building, Gymnasium and Educational Building in San Jose’s Japantown will help insure that a vibrant part of the community will continue to serve as a tie that binds future generations.
“That’s a big motivator,” said Buddhist Church Betsuin Board President Todd Tsudama. “The improvements will allow these facilities to continue to play an important part in the community for the generations to follow.”
For that reason, the project has been given the title, “Generations.”
Located at 640 N. 5th St. in San Jose, the Buddhist Church is an ornate chapel where services of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha (means True Essence of the Pure) are conducted practicing a brand of Buddhism that had its origins in Kyoto, Japan. The church was built in 1937 and had a seismic (earthquake) upgrade 15 years ago.
However, its Gymnasium, Annex, and the Educational Building housing the Lotus Preschool across the street from the church, constructed in the 1950’s, today need similar improvements.
Tsudama said the projected $10 million project kicked off in November of 2013 and to date, approximately $1.9 million of the needed funds have been raised.
“The majority of the money for the upgrades will have to come from private donations,” he said.
Phase One of the project will make improvements to the church’s Annex Building, built of wood and concrete, with seismic and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access improvements. Similar upgrades will be made to the concrete-constructed Gymnasium and kitchen. Phase Two will rebuild the Education Building (Lotus Preschool) site.
“This is a renovation,” Tsudama said. “We will break ground in 2015 and we’re timing it to start after we hold the Obon Festival (yearly celebration of Japanese culture) in July.”
Phase One could take a year to complete. The start date for Phase Two (Education Building) is in five years. Tsudama said the project dates are dependent on raising the needed money. Phase One will cost $3.8 million, Phase Two the balance of the $10 million.
The Lotus Preschool site will involve a complete tear-down and rebuild.
Tsudama said the number one reason for the project; the facilities have outlived their useful life.
“The church and its buildings have also been designated as a gathering place in case of emergencies,” he said. “We’ve been working with the Red Cross to make it a place of shelter.”
A retired engineer, Tsudama said raising the money will be the big challenge. But he noted it is his generation’s turn to step up and meet the goals.
“Issei (Japanese immigrants) were able to give money to build the church in the 1930’s during The Great Depression,” he said. “The Nisei (second generation born in the U.S.) provided funding for the Annex Building and the Gym. Now it’s our turn.”
Tsudama said the Buddhist Church has a membership of 1,000 people and 65 percent of them are elderly. He said the facility remains a primary gathering place and a major contributor to quality of life in the community.
“Kids today have so many competing activities including school , sports and computers, but we called the project Generations because we want to remain an important centerpiece in the community for all ages,” Tsudama said.
The church provides food distribution working with the charity nonprofit Second Harvest Food Bank of San Jose once a week for those in need including the elderly.
“We also have many senior programs including tai chi (stress reducing exercise), and square dancing to name a few,” Tsudama said. “We host Boy and Girl Scouts meetings here, also the San Jose Buddhist Judo and Kendo (marital arts) programs.”
The church and its facilities play host to yearly Japanese cultural festivals like the Obon and the Nikkei Matsuri held in April.
Tsudama grew up in Fresno where his grandparents had lived. Before World War II they were in agriculture growing oranges, grapes, fruit trees and a little lettuce. When the war came they were imprisoned in a concentration camp as suspected enemy aliens along with 115,000 other Japanese Americans living along the West Coast.
“My Dad Gary was sent to Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona,” Tsudama said. “My mother Betty was sent to another camp, Amache Internment Camp in Colorado. They lost everything.”
Tsudama said after the end of World War II the San Jose Buddhist Church acted as a boarding house and shelter for returning refugees.
“People who had been interned were coming back to San Jose after the war and the church provided them with housing and sanctuary,” he said. “There were not only people from the camps who had lost all their possessions who stayed at the church, but members of the 442nd Infantry Battalion as well.”
The 442nd, composed of Japanese American volunteers from the camps, fought for the United States and became one of the most decorated units of World War II.
“The church helped these people get back on their feet and find a place to live,” Tsudama said.
After the war Tsudama’s father eventually secured a job with the U.S. Post Office.
Tsudama went to California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) where he studied industrial engineering. He worked for Cisco Systems Inc., a multinational corporation in San Jose that sells networking equipment.
He said that as a boy he had been involved with the Buddhist Church in Fresno.
“It was the same type of environment as the church in San Jose and I made a lot of friends there,” he said.
The San Jose Buddhist Church has been instrumental as a training ground for athletes including basketball players who used its gymnasium to form Japanese American leagues back in the days when opportunities to take part in regular leagues with Caucasian players was denied.
“Today we have teams like the San Jose Ninjas and Zebras (Asian youth basketball),” Tsudama said. “Over the years a lot of players started learning the game right here at the church.”
Tsudama said the Generations project will continue the rich history of the Buddhist Church in San Jose bringing people together of all ages whether to practice the Buddhist faith, to help those in need or find relaxation, fellowship and fun.
“I view it as a continuing cycle,” he said. “It’s something I’ve grown up with and it’s what I want for my children and their children. It will continue to provide an anchor for this community into the future.”
A Town Hall Meeting to discuss the project will be held on Dec. 4, at 6:30 p.m. at the Buddhist Church Betsuin Annex Building, 650 N. 5th St. in San Jose. Light appetizers will be served.
To donate to the project go to sjbetsuin.com, or call the church office at (408) 293-9292.