Wind storm and barrack homes at the internment camp in Manzanar, California, where Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during World War II.
Wind storm and barrack homes at the internment camp in Manzanar, California, where Americans of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during World War II.

How They Kept the Faith

Duncan Ryūken Williams ʾ91 uncovers the story of how Japanese-American Buddhist families survived imprisonment and fought for their freedom.

By Angie Jabine ’79 | December 3, 2019

The brutal World War II internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans in dirty livestock pens and tarpaper barracks across the U.S. has been documented in exhibits and monuments, fiction and film. But no historical account until now has focused specifically on what it meant to be a Japanese American Buddhist during those wartime days. American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War (Harvard University Press) meticulously documents how the U.S. government singled out Buddhist priests and their congregants as particular threats to national security—and how Buddhists challenged this discrimination while taking comfort from their beliefs and forging a new American Buddhism.

Author Duncan Ryūken Williams ’91, an ordained Soto Zen Buddhist priest who also directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California, says he has "one foot in the academic world and one foot in the priestly world." His background is equally bifurcated: he had a Japanese mother and an English father, and attended both Buddhist temple and an Anglican-Episcopalian church in Tokyo. "I grew up bi-religiously, if that's a word," he says.

Both parents were professors, his father at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and his mother at a Japanese women's college. The international high school Duncan attended in Tokyo had sent several graduates to Reed, but his arrival on campus was a bit of a shock. "I went to a pretty strict all-boys school with uniforms in Japan, and I landed at Reed in 1987 with a coed dorm and coed showers," he says by phone from Los Angeles. "It was a different universe. Some people loved it and some people hated it—I became one of the people who loved it."

Acquaintances from that era recall him warmly. Amherst religion professor Maria Ruth Hibbets '91 (now Heim) says Duncan was always "a special and nice presence to be around, open to the world." Religion professor Steven Wasserstrom [1987-] vividly remembers his "calm, almost serene presence, with a beautiful smile and great determination and focus. He had a deep seriousness without being solemn."

Deepak Sarma '91, now a Case Western professor of South Asian religions, used to revel in the philosophical dialogues he and Duncan would conduct on the old Commons steps. "People would sit nearby and listen to us debate. Once one of the campus dogs came by and Duncan did a classically Buddhist thing. He said, "We should all be just like this dog and be here in the moment." By their senior year, Deepak remembers Williams as a full-on Zen practitioner, wearing "monochromatic gray clothes" and leading meditation groups on campus.

Says Duncan, "I was searching during my Reed years for this question of who am I—British or Japanese? Christian or Buddhist? Buddhism provided an outlook that says you don't need to choose. There's a Japanese word, chudo, that means 'middle way,' where you find liberation and freedom between two extremes." By his senior year he had taken precepts and started to live at the Dharma Rain Zen Center in southeast Portland, and he was ordained in Japan the summer following graduation.

An avid environmentalist, he was arrested as a freshman with other Reedies in an anti-nuclear protest at the Nevada Test Site. He wrote his religion thesis on environmentalism and Buddhist leaders, one of whom was the poet and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder '51. "I ended up doing two chapters of my thesis on him based on two or three long interviews," Duncan recalls. He drew from this thesis for Buddhism and Ecology, a book he co-edited in 1997 while still a PhD candidate at Harvard.

Duncan calls Prof. Steve Wasserstrom's classes on theory and methods in religious studies a key influence on his research approach. Sanskrit scholar Prof. Edwin Gerow [religion and linguistics 1985–1996] was another huge influence, and not just for Duncan. Following a distinguished career at University of Chicago, Gerow was invited to Reed to teach religion, humanities, and, with a core group of seniors, Sanskrit. "He really treated us like graduate students," recalls Deepak. Gerow's influence on that group, which included Williams, Heim, Sarma, Kermit Rosen ’51, and Rob Stein ’91, was so intense that all five proceeded directly to graduate programs in religion and Asian studies—three at Harvard, one at University of Chicago, and one at University of Virginia.

The germ for American Sutra, says Duncan, was the death in 2000 of Masatoshi Nagatomi, a mentor at Harvard. Nagatomi's widow, Masumi Nagatomi, asked Duncan to review a trove of family documents, journals, and Buddhist sermons dating to World War II. Moved by their conversations about the hardships she and her late husband had experienced as Japanese Buddhist internees, Duncan embarked on seventeen years of research, translating diaries and interviewing dozens of survivors.

"About three or four years ago this was a 700-page manuscript," he says."I was advised by editors to cut it in half. They said the other big challenge for the broader readership was that all these Japanese names are hard to follow. They said, 'Can you get them down to seven main characters or something like that?' The challenge was, I'd interviewed 120 camp survivors and army veterans, or I'd read their diaries. To leave them out of my book would have felt like an erasure. So the book has an extensive section of end notes that references these people."

The book's epigraph, a poem written in 1942 by the Buddhist monk Nyogen Senzaki, invokes the style of a Buddhist sutra, or scripture—hence the title. "The point he makes," says Duncan, "is that people's lived Buddhism is not in India, not in a text from 2,500 years ago, but in Los Angeles in a horse stall... These people's lives are themselves like a teaching. They are the people who really had faith in both Buddhism and America and embodied it in the most trying circumstances. When you can enact Buddhist aspirations and American ideals, that makes something called American Buddhism."

Not until the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, more than forty years after their forcible uprooting, did the interned families receive an official government apology and modest financial reparations. Today, more than thirty years onward, as Gary Snyder notes in his cover blurb, "the meaning of 'citizenship' in America is still unsettled"—making American Sutra more timely than ever.

Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion