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  • The Power Behind the Scenes [enno shitano chikaramochi]: The Activism of Buddhist Women in Hawai‘i
  • Kelli Y. Nakamura (bio)

Onna no chikara . . . It’s not the strength that is on the outside, but from the inside. From way deep inside . . . The women are the backbone of the temple.1

These remarks by Atsuko Hasegawa, former president of the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin temple fujinkai (women’s organization), bring to light the often unacknowledged contributions of women in the spread and success of Buddhism in Hawai‘i. These women were not simply spouses and helpmates; they were teachers, activists, and organizers who fulfilled both family and community roles and responsibilities in a female-centered understanding of their activities. Many of these individuals have been characterized as possessing “Onna no chikara” [a woman’s strength] as they were critical to the success and survival of many temples that became the center of community life in many early Japanese communities. Although women provided critical spiritual, financial, and community support to the temples, their activism was often conducted in a domestic capacity—like cleaning, cooking, or maintaining the temple—resulting in the perception [End Page 89] women have played a secondary, if not insignificant role in Buddhism in the Islands. Thus, while studies often point to the many men who founded the church, the activism of the thousands of women who sustained the Buddhist church in its over 100-year history deserves recognition, as they played a critical role in the establishment and perpetuation of Buddhism in the Islands.

By reexamining their actions through a constructivist approach that promotes the importance of ideas in establishing organizations and creating notions of identity, it becomes clear that they created what Benedict Anderson termed an “imagined community” of followers committed to establishing the Japanese immigrant population in the Islands through the duality and overlapping responsibilities of their public and private roles.2 As Buddhism arrived in the Islands to meet the spiritual needs of the immigrant community, these women helped to establish the Japanese community in Hawai‘i through work and family life. They provided religious support and fellowship by creating a spiritual sisterhood of minister’s wives, laypersons, and fujinkai members who served as the “backbone of the church.” Women were critical in the stabilization of the Japanese community as well as the spread of Buddhism in the Islands through their spiritual, social, and financial contributions.

Despite the thousands of Japanese women who served as bōmori (ministers’ wives), missionaries, and participants in fujinkai, which were attached to many of the temples, scholars have not examined these organizations or the role of women in the spread of Buddhism due to a number of related factors. First, conventional research methodologies often assume the natural superiority of men in community organizations, ignoring women’s participation and contributions. Secondly, many researchers often focus on the business, political, and economic areas of community decision-making in which women have been assumed to be absent.3 Thus, women are seldom perceived as local power elites, and their invisibility in the local community power structure is often taken for granted.

Yet, historically, women have played an important role in Buddhism for over 2,500 years, attracting the full spectrum of womankind: grieving mothers and rebellious daughters, courtesans and empresses, and scholars and illiterates. Modern scholars have often overlooked women’s contributions in Buddhism and, in some cases, women were [End Page 90] denied equal participation in the religion in changing social and cultural milieus. Thus, while Buddhism has sometimes been a progressive influence that has supported female leaders who challenged male dominance through their activism, it has also existed within patriarchal societies that limited women’s roles and visibility.

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Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin Fujinkai Installation of Officers (1962)

This paradox of activism and invisibility explains in part the role of Buddhist women in Hawai‘i—women who were active members within the newly formed social and religious community of Japanese immigrants. The women themselves have described their role as, “enno shitano chikaramochi,” or the power behind the scenes.4 The fujinkai adoption of domestic skills in the public sphere in particular corresponds with...


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pp. 89-115
Launched on MUSE
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