American Sutra: Buddhism During Japanese Internment

Reed alum Duncan Ryuken Williams ‘91 gives a presentation on his new book

On Wednesday, December 4, Reed alumnus Duncan Ryuken Williams ‘91 gave a lecture on his new book American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War. Williams, a Professor of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures and Director of the University of Southern California Shinso Ito Center for Religions and Cultures, was born in Tokyo and grew up in England before moving to the United States to attend Reed. An ordained Buddhist priest and lifelong scholar of Buddhism, Williams stumbled onto his new book topic while helping clear out his former professor’s office. 

Professor Nagatomi, Williams’ Ph.D. thesis advisor at Harvard, was a foremost Buddhologist and collected many interesting documents over the years. After his passing, his family asked Williams to help sort through his papers and translate personal writings. During this project, Williams uncovered a diary of Nagatomi’s father from when he was imprisoned in the Manzanar internment camp during World War II. Rev. Shinjō Nagatomi was the only Buddhist priest for over 10,000 people in the camp, most of whom were Buddhists. Rev. Nagatomi’s story inspired Williams to dig deeper into the important role that Buddhism played in the experiences of imprisoned Japanese Americans. 

Over many years of research, Williams translated over 6,000 diary pages from various people, interviewed 120 survivors, and spent years digging through the National Archives. He shared the poignant story of a woman who, at eleven years old, had to serve as a translator between her father, a member of a local Buddhist group, and the FBI who had come to investigate him. After the FBI left, her father burned everything that connected the family to their Japanese heritage — but couldn’t bring himself to burn a family Buddhist sutra. As Williams explained, “they were willing to burn away their Japanese-ness but they weren’t willing to burn away their Buddhist faith.”  

In his lecture, Williams outlined five Buddhist ideals through which to view the internment of Buddhist Japanese Americans. First, bukkyo tozen, or the eastward flow as exemplified by a 1942 poem by Nyogen Senzaki. Next, hoben, meaning skillful adaptations — because anything written in Japanese (excluding the Christian Bible and English-Japanese dictionaries) was banned, people had to be very resourceful; for example, carving alters out of scrap wood and making prayer beads from peach pits. Third, Renge, or lotus flower, after the allegory of a lotus blooming above muddy water,  represents efforts to transcend the suffering of the physical world. Hotoke, translated as both the dead and the Buddha, honors the large numbers of people who passed while imprisoned. During the winter of 1942–1943, funerals were held nearly daily for people who died due to inhumane conditions in the camps. Lastly, kie, meaning a return to refuge, because when Japanese Americans were released, they faced a difficult transition back to their pre-internment ways of living. 

Williams’ excellent lecture provided an interesting introduction to the topic and his book. Nyoze Gamon: Thus I have heard.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


We would love your thoughts, please comment!x