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Journal of Asian American Studies 5.2 (2002) 113-137

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Religion and Japanese Americans' Views of Their World War II Incarceration

Stephen S. Fugita and Marilyn Fernandez


MUCH SCHOLARLY ATTENTION has been paid to the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the unprecedented violation of the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans during World War II. In particular, the complex political, economic and socio-cultural factors involved in their exclusion from the Pacific Coast and incarceration in desolate inland camps have been carefully scrutinized. 1 Examination of the long-term consequences of exposure to the upheaval on individuals and the ethnic community in which they were embedded, in contrast, has received little attention. In particular, there is very little, if any, systematic information about how those who were caught up in the incarceration now view or recall their World War II experiences. In part, this lack of attention is an understandable product of the complex methodological issues involved in attempting to document the consequences of exposure to this multifarious event some 60 years later.

Fortunately, there have been numerous previous and ongoing efforts at qualitatively documenting and preserving how specific individuals recall their World War II experiences. These have generally taken the form of oral and visual histories, and autobiographical and biographical efforts. 2 Many describe the universal features of coping with being uprooted, incarcerated and resettled. Others focus on relatively unique experiences or roles, for example, being a new mother, draft resister, army volunteer or student in the camps. Only a very small number of these personal accounts [End Page 113] have examined the role that religion may have played in the experience. 3

It seems quite likely that religious orientation is one of many personal dispositions or characteristics that could influence individuals' social construction of a major traumatic experience such as the incarceration. Some other differentiating characteristics that might operate similarly are gender, age or point in the life-course, and access to economic, human and social capital. If a disposition such as religious orientation can be shown to have an influence on the meaning of former incarcerees' recollections of their World War II experiences, then it may help to explain some of the variability found among Nisei (second generation) in their current views of the incarceration. This may, in turn, facilitate understanding aspects of the former incarcerees' contemporary social and political behavior.

In this paper, we explore the effects that the two major, broad religious orientations found in the Japanese American community, Buddhism and Protestantism, may have had on how Nisei reacted to, and recall, their wartime experiences. A caveat is warranted before we proceed. We recognize that there is a great deal of variability in religious beliefs and practices within these two categories. However, our omnibus survey instrument only permitted respondents to indicate their current, self-identified religious category. It did not inquire about specific religious attitudes or behaviors. Thus, we will be able to examine only the most overarching potential distinctions between the two religious orientations.

Japanese American Religious Orientations

The literature on Japanese American religious life is quite modest. A small number of monographs and articles discuss the history and social organization of the major Japanese Buddhist and Christian denominations. 4 Thomas and Thomas and Nishimoto, as part of the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study (JERS), analyzed behavioral correlates of self-reported religious preferences. 5 Lester Suzuki, a minister who preached in the camps, has written one of the only books solely devoted to religion in the camps. 6 [End Page 114]

Religious institutions continue to be quite vital in the Japanese American community. Of the many organizations currently found in this ethnic group, churches appear to be the most robust. More Japanese Americans attend ethnic churches than any other formal organizational venue in the community. 7 Moreover, similar to many other American religious institutions, Japanese American churches serve a multitude of functions in addition to religious ones. Most provide a wide range of services such as sponsoring, and in other ways supporting, cultural, youth, athletic...


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