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  • Bishop Mitsumyo Tottori:Patriotism Through Buddhism During World War II
  • Kelli Y. Nakamura (bio)


In the dominant historical narrative about Japanese Americans in both Hawai'i and the mainland, it has been generally understood that leaders within the Japanese community, including Buddhist priests, were incarcerated for the duration of World War II. Authorities arrested 234 Issei priests from Hawai'i and the mainland during the war as well as thirteen Nisei and Sansei priests. The majority of the priests were Nishi Hongwanji Buddhists, although authorities also arrested Sōtō Zen, Jōdo, and Shingon Buddhist priests.1 One exception was Mitsumyo Tottori of the Shingon Mission in Hawai'i, who was never incarcerated even after Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officials interrogated him.2 After his release, Tottori continued to conduct services for Nisei soldiers and represented an unusual exception to incarceration policies. While 56 percent of his services were conducted for O'ahu residents, the rest were for individuals living on the Neighbor Islands. The largest number of Neighbor Island services were for Maui residents followed by individuals from Hawai'i Island and Kaua'i. Tottori even held services for individuals living on Lāna'i [End Page 115] and Moloka'i, demonstrating his widespread impact throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

It would be erroneous to characterize Tottori as an example of Hawai'i's tolerant racial attitude in light of the wartime incarceration of more than 1,200 individuals, including many priests from the Islands. However, Tottori's experience reflected some of the curious inconsistencies in the extension of martial law policies. FBI officials noted his support of the Americanization of Nisei, which seemed to outweigh his country of origin or religious activities that justified the incarceration of other Buddhist priests. His actions during the war revealed the religious need that still existed within the Japanese community—a need that led families to request private services, despite wartime restrictions, and for Tottori to conduct services for unknown young men he read about in the newspapers. Conducting these services was particularly fraught with danger during a time when martial law represented the culmination of anti-Japanese and anti-Buddhist sentiment that had existed for years in Hawai'i. The experiences of Tottori further complicate the unique circumstances experienced by residents of Japanese ancestry in Hawai'i within the unprecedented implementation of martial law and selective incarceration policies.

Arrival of Buddhism in the Islands and Fears of "Alien" Influences3

Even before officials had formulated incarceration policies targeting dangerous influences or individuals within the Japanese community, such as Buddhist priests, Buddhism had been closely associated with Japanese immigrants. Japanese first brought Buddhism to the Islands as early as 1889. Shingon Buddhism arrived nearly 30 years after the arrival of other Buddhist sects, including the Hongwanji, Jōdo, Higashi Hongwanji, Nichren, and the Sōtō sect.4 As Japanese laborers became spiritually and psychologically disillusioned with the harsh conditions on the plantations, Buddhist teachings provided consolation and spiritual guidance for laborers and their families. The rise of Buddhism in a predominantly Christian environment was due, in part, to the deeper expression among Japanese immigrants of their need for a sense of community. Since the Gentleman's Agreement of 1907 had prohibited immigrants from leaving the plantation for work [End Page 116] on the mainland, laborers were now economically tied to Hawai'i. According to scholar Dennis Ogawa, "with this loss of mobility came their growing need to normalize the community and to perpetuate cultural ties with the homeland."5 Buddhism restored cultural traditions, values, and beliefs that had been lost in the years of disruptive plantation labor. In 1902, the Reverend Yujiri Hōgen became the first Shingon Buddhist priest to arrive in Hawai'i. He established a small Daishi-dō in Lāhainā, Maui, which is the present-day Lāhainā Shin-gon Mission. Early devotees of Shingon Buddhism, who were often women, established many worship groups and by 1909 there were 115 such groups.6 By 1941, there were 11 active Shingon temples found on O'ahu, Hawai'i Island, Kaua'i, and Maui, and a total of 114 Buddhist temples...


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