Book of the Week: ‘American Sutra’

American Sutra: A story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

Duncan Ryuken Williams

2019, 258 pages text; 136 pages notes and end materials

Adult non-fiction


American Sutra begins with the traditional opening words of Buddhist religious texts, or sutras: “Thus have I heard.” This opening dates from the time when these texts were passed down as an oral tradition. Duncan Ryuken Williams passes down to us the story of what happened to Japanese-American Buddhists and Buddhism from Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the war against Japan, through to the days when Japanese priests, language teachers, families and soldiers had to find new homes and start new lives in the aftermath of dislocation and war.

The story moves from tragedy to tragedy. The first to be targeted were Buddhist priests and teachers of Japanese. This was based on the idea that Buddhism was un-American, and that Buddhist priests were inherently traitors who would subvert the war effort. Then the families were taken, and all were moved to relocation camps. Then the Japanese of all religions were forcibly relocated.

Inside the camps, Buddhism was being modified by detainees whose interest was best served by having a religion that could outwardly fit the Christian norm. It was there that the Buddhist Mission of North America, the largest single sect in the camps, became the Buddhist Churches of America. Priests were called ministers, buildings for worship became churches, and services changed to include music and hymns.

Some young Japanese-Americans did enlist in the military, despite the fact that the government was holding their families in detention. Some distinguished themselves as undercover operatives and Japanese language specialists in the Pacific. Others belonged to a segregated unit which fought with great distinction in Europe.

The lives of all Japanese-Americans changed forever after the dislocation of the camps. It was generally impossible to return to life as it had been before the war. The final chapters recount this struggle to relocate, regain economic stability, and re-establish churches, temples and community.

This book is dense with information and eye-opening to the reader. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the cultural history of the United States.

Tricia HutchinsConcord Public Library

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Author: Insider Staff

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