The Barbed Wire Sutra

Buddhism, initially seen as a threat to national security, gained acceptance through the patriotism and sacrifice of its adherents in the Second World War.

A marine stands post at dawn at the Punchbowl National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

On a late August evening in Arizona’s Poston Relocation Center, in the hot summer of 1944, the Reverend Bunyu Fujimura of the Buddhist Mission of North America had not yet been cleared of charges of espionage.

Just 34 years old, and so slight that he was called pakkai—“spareribs,” in his native tongue—he looked in danger of disappearing into his flowing robes.

Nonetheless he was the leader of his congregation, and so an unpleasant but necessary task fell to him: delivering a sermon in memory of two Japanese American Buddhist servicemen recently killed in action. In this improvised liturgical setting of a desert internment camp, the priest hoped to provide a religious context in which to consider lives given in defense of a nation that had already taken everything else away.

At a time when elected officials tweet #StandUpAgainstIslam and warn of a Muslim “invasion,” it’s worth remembering that the trials brought upon religious minorities in America during international conflict have a deep and troubling history. Yet their story is not merely one of suspicion and suppression. The experience of Japanese Buddhists during World War II suggests that minority religions ultimately influence majority culture in ways often forgotten. Supposedly foreign beliefs often play an outsized role in pushing the nation to live up to its ideals.

73 years ago this week, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the evacuation of all of those of Japanese descent from the West Coast to ten war relocation centers—often called “concentration camps” before that term came to have other connotations.

For the most part, the wartime fears that led to the relocation of Japanese­-born immigrants and their American­-born children were justified on racial rather than religious grounds. Those forced to leave behind homes, farms, and businesses in states bordering the Pacific were not of a single faith. There were Buddhists among them, and many maintained Shinto rituals that provided spiritual connections to their homeland, but there were also Christians of various denominations, as well as those with no particular affiliation.

Religion was not ignored, however. When the FBI set about compiling its list of suspect individuals after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they naturally included members of various American Nazi parties and groups with political ties to Japan. Yet they also paid particular attention to Buddhist priests.

J. Edgar Hoover’s Custodial Detention List used a classification system designating the supposed risk of individuals and groups on an A­B­C scale, with an “A” ranking assigned to those deserving greatest scrutiny. Ordained Buddhists like Reverend Fujimura were designated “A­1,” those whose apprehension was considered a matter of urgent concern.

The priests became the first of a relocation effort that would soon detain more than 110,000. Many within this larger group, having heard of the sudden arrests and harsh interrogations endured by Buddhist community leaders, sought refuge in Christianity, hoping—in vain, it turned out—that church membership might shield them from such treatment.

Those who did not go this route were called “Buddhaheads,” an epithet often applied to the Japanese Americans of Hawaii, but more broadly used to suggest a resistance to assimilation. Within the Japanese community, Buddhists were more likely than Christians to maintain their native language, as well as the customs and rituals performed in that language. They were also more likely than Christians to read publications concerned with Japanese political affairs. Subscription rolls of such publications provided the FBI with a natural starting point for building its “A” list of suspects.

Because of the connections and the traditional knowledge Buddhist temples helped maintain, to be a Japanese Buddhist in America during the 1940s was to be considered a greater risk to the nation.

* * *

Behind the fence at Poston, Reverend Fujimura began his memorial service with a poem recited from memory:

The cherry blossoms on Mount Yoshino—  

All right if they fall,

All right if they remain.

How like a warrior’s life.

Fujimura had no firsthand knowledge of the “warrior’s life,” but the last few years had often felt like a battle. It had been early in the morning almost three years before, in a dark hour even before the milkman had arrived, that he had heard a knock on the door of his bedroom at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist temple of Salinas, California. While his wife lay sleeping, he opened the door and found two white Americans identifying themselves in well­-practiced Japanese.

“We are from the FBI,” one of the agents said.

He was not entirely surprised. For weeks, the priest had been hearing rumors that leaders of other Buddhist communities had been questioned and arrested. Some had been taken quietly from their families under cover of darkness—or they were, as Fujimura himself soon was, caught in the flash of newspaper photographers eager for images of “enemy aliens” in handcuffs on U.S. soil.

The next day’s edition of the local Index Journal displayed his image beneath a damning front­page headline: “Wholesale Jap Raids Staged by Agents in Salinas.” Shown the picture at the police station, he was dismayed to discover that he had reflexively smiled into the photographer’s lens.

Along with thirty members of his congregation, he spent several nights in the Salinas jail under constant interrogation.

“Are you a spy?” the Japanese­-speaking agent asked him.

“No,” he replied.

“Did you come to the United States because of orders from the Emperor of Japan?”


“Have you ever met the Japanese Emperor?”


“Are you a Japanese naval officer?”

“How can a skinny person like myself be a Japanese naval officer?”

Then came the transport train. As Fujimura would later write, he and several other Buddhist priests, along with dozens of people who called him sensei, teacher, were shipped “like livestock.”

When the train finally ground to a halt some 72 hours later, the doors opened to reveal a frozen white landscape, empty but for a number of green army vehicles. In California it had been a pleasant 60 degrees. Wherever they were now, the temperature was well below freezing. Like fenceposts rising from the snow, soldiers in fur-­lined hats stood at ten-foot intervals around the trucks, rifles at the ready.

The priests’ destination was Fort Lincoln, a decommissioned army base five miles south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Confined to brick barracks through the winter, they did what they could to keep warm and to carry on something like normal lives. On Buddha’s birthday in April, with the temperature still near freezing though it was time for their traditional springtime festival, Fujimura and the rest of the Bismarck Buddhists crafted flowers from tissue paper, and carved an image of the Buddha out of a large carrot stick.

After five months, just long enough for them to see spring finally arrive in the form of a few dandelions poking through the snow, Fujimura was put back on a train, shipped south and east for internments of varying lengths at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin and Camp Livingston in Louisiana, and then west to Camp Santa Fe in New Mexico, and finally to Poston, where his wife had been sent not long after his arrest.

He had not seen her in more than two years; they had been kept apart for nearly half their marriage. Making up for lost time, and uncertain when they might win their freedom, the Fujimuras set about starting a family.

Eight-and-a-half months after their reunion, his wife gave birth to a baby boy. It was a cause for great excitement not only for father and mother, but for a camp full of people eager for any portent of new beginnings. Because of conditions at Poston, however, the usual physician was not available to attend the delivery.

The only medical professionals present had been a veterinarian and an inexperienced nurse. On the infant’s death certificate, written just an hour and 20 minutes after he was born, an animal doctor wrote “asphyxiation” as the cause of death.

Everything about Fujimura’s experience of internment thus far had seemed designed to reinforce the truth of a basic Buddhist idea: impermanence. “This impermanent world,” the founder of his Jodo­ Shinshu Buddhist tradition had written, “is like a burning house.”

And now came the memorial for the young men killed in the war—an opportunity to meditate on the subject of impermanence in its most searing form.

As he stood before the dead men’s families, he recited verses from a second poem, this one as true of their experience as of his own:

Though I know

How transient this world is

Still, I cannot give him up.

“A child’s death has been said to be the death of the parents,” he added. “Telling someone not to cry is unreasonable. To cry when we should cry is what the parents of a child should do. ”

* * *

One of the men memorialized by Fujimura that night in August 1944 happened to be the brother Hisaye Yamamoto, who would later become a well-known writer whose short stories grappled with a difficult moment in the Japanese American experience.

Many years after his death, Yamamoto wrote of visiting her brother’s grave in Italy. She found that though their family had been set apart for particular scrutiny back home, in the U.S. military cemetery outside Florence, Private Johnny Yamamoto had been treated like any other G.I. She was dismayed, however, to see “only crosses and stars” over the American graves. There were “no Buddhist wheels,” she wrote, “which would have been more appropriate.”

At the time of Johnny’s burial, the dharmachakra, the eight­-spoked wheel of life and death signifying the impermanence and interdependence of all things, had not been sanctioned by the U.S. military as a symbol appropriate for the grave markers of those killed in action.

The army’s official recognition was reserved for those who fit into the triad soon to be defined by the sociologist Will Herberg as “Protestant-Catholic­-Jew.” Herberg saw American life divided along Judeo­-Christian lines and no further, and this division found expression not only on the graves of the dead but on the dog tags of the living. On the lower-right corner of the small metallic rectangle used to identify a soldier by name, rank, serial number, and blood type, Catholic soldiers had a “C”, Protestants a “P,” and Jews had an “H,” for Hebrew. All the rest were “O,” for “Other.”

In the wake of Japanese American accomplishments during the war, Buddhist groups petitioned for the military throughout the late 1940s to add a “B” to their dog tags. Such requests were repeatedly denied, but a turning point in their quest for formal acknowledgement of their right to express religious affiliation eventually came with a dispute concerning the use of crosses over the graves of the war dead.

The National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located in a volcanic depression known as the Punchbowl Crater, overlooking Honolulu, was designated as the final resting place for the service members killed in the Pacific theater in 1948. When burials began, each grave was marked with a white wooden cross. Within two years these crosses numbered 15,000.

The crosses were intended to be temporary; they were to be replaced with flat marble stones as the cemetery was developed into what one congressional patron of the effort called “one of the great patriotic shrines in the nation.” However, when the crosses came down in 1950, outrage ensued. Members of Congress led by Joseph Rider Farrington, the nonvoting representative from the Territory of Hawaii, and Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, sought funds to erect permanent crosses. The Subcommittee on Public Lands hearings devoted to debating these funds became a dramatic portrayal of differing notions of the meaning of religious liberty in America.

Speaking in defense of the bill she had introduced the previous October (H.J. 338, for “the installation of crosses to replace the white wooden crosses which until recently marked the graves at the National Memorial Cemetery”), Congresswoman Rogers delivered something of a sermon on the singular significance of Christian symbolism to the men whose remains now lay in the Punchbowl. While she allowed that those who followed other creeds might prefer different symbols, she left little doubt that the cross alone deserved pride of place in this “great patriotic shrine.”

“The resolution which we have under consideration here at this moment has a fundamental significance to our American way of life,” she said. “Ours is a Christian nation, inspired in its establishment by strong, courageous, determined men and women in their decision to worship their God in their own way. Freedom of religion constitutes and assembles the strength of America. The graves which are the subject of our hearing this morning hold for all time the fighting hearts of these Americans who, among other things, gave their lives to preserve the precious right of freedom of religious worship.”

“Yes, gentlemen,” the congresswoman said to the members of the committee, “I believe that Our Savior, Jesus Christ, is pleased to have the symbol of the cross on the graves of those who believed in him, and sacrificed their lives for the right. Who are we as government officials to dispute this fact? Who are we to contest the power and the meaning of the cross?”

It took Representative Lloyd Bentsen, the committee chair and future senator and vice-presidential candidate, several minutes to return the hearing to the subject at hand, which was the cost—nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollars—rather than the symbolism of replacing crosses that had just been removed.

“Mrs. Rogers, I would like to ask,” he ventured, “do you dispute the evidence or the opinion that has been given to us in the report, that if you go to a permanent cross, that it would cost $740,000?”

“Perfectly frankly,” Rogers said, “I am rather shocked at the government’s raising the matter of cost in this matter.”

“I know we don’t like to put a dollar value on these symbols,” Bentsen said, “but it seems to me ... that some of these funds can be expended toward taking care of veterans who are still alive, and that sort of thing, and saving the economy of our country, if it would be possible, perhaps, to put up one symbolic cross in the center of the cemetery and one symbolic Star of David, and what­ ever other religious faiths are represented, in order to make it easier to maintain the cemetery and to limit the cost to some extent.”

In response, Rogers deployed an argument that she may have suspected would be her most persuasive in the political climate of the day. She had received a great many let­ters, she explained, from constituents who “state they feel that the removal of the crosses is a move toward communism.”

At this point the most fiscally cautious member of the subcommittee, Representative Crawford of Michigan, spoke up: “Let me ask you this question: Which do you think is the greatest contribution to the progress of the Communists: The destruction of our economic powers here in the United States, or the preservation of a sound fiscal policy?”

Rogers insisted that theology, not the economy was what separated Americans from their Russian rivals. “I think the most important thing for us here in the U.S. is to state our belief in God and religion,” she said. Saving money was not the point, in other words; the salvation of the nation was.

Just as the tide seemed to turn in favor of replacing the crosses in the Punchbowl, Colonel James B. Clearwater, chief of the Memorial Division of the army’s Office of the Quartermaster General, was called to testify on behalf of the Department of Defense. Clearwater explained that his efforts as administrator of the nation’s military gravesites and other memorials were informed by a directive issued by the Secretary of Defense in 1947 that there would thereafter be no discrimination in national cemeteries based on race, rank, creed, or religion.

“Many of the Hawaiian war dead were of the Buddhist faith,” Colonel Clearwater explained to the committee. As a consequence, for the first time military funerals were held not only with Protestant ministers, Catholic clergy, and rabbis but with Buddhist priests—the very class of people who had been classified as A­1 suspects during the war.

If the crosses were to be put back in place, Clearwater insisted, they should be erected in the company of Stars of David and Buddhist Wheels of Righteousness. As a compromise to the call to replace specifically Christian markers with a stone of the same rectangular shape for all, the Department of Defense would inscribe the appropriate symbol on the face of the gravestones already in place. Crosses would return to the Punchbowl, but they would not be set above the messages of other religions.

Congressman Crawford, who was generally opposed to replacing the crosses on fiscal grounds, jumped in with concern that if you started identifying Buddhists as well as Christians and Jews, where would it end?

“To carry that further,” he said, “chances are within the very near future we are going to have Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedists, Confucianists, Taoists and Hindus mixed into this very picture. This is before you, and you can’t escape it ... and you are not going to restrict this country to three religions.”

“That is correct, sir,” Clearwater said. “It just happens, Congressman Crawford, that, so far, outside of the Christian faith, the Buddhist religion is the only one that has brought up the question.”

“But certainly there will be further additions.”

“We anticipate that,” the colonel said.

In the end, the white crosses were not replaced at the Punchbowl. Instead, the existing graves and those to come each received an inset stone featuring a medallion etched with the appropriate religious symbol. With the new grave markers at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the “Buddhist wheel,” as Hisaye Yamamoto had called it when she wished such a symbol had been available for her brother, became the third religious icon sanctioned by the Department of Defense.

Small matter though this may seem, its implications were less so. The symbols of other religious traditions followed, and now number close to 50. The deaths of Buddhist soldiers led the way for members of all faiths to join the symbols of their belief to the memory of their service.

* * *

When the Poston Relocation Center shut down for good a month after the war’s end, its former inhabitants were, for the most part, allowed to return to the lives they had left behind three years before.

Reverend Fujimura, however, was not permitted to return to California immediately upon his release. With the taint of his espionage charge still lingering, and still considered an “enemy alien,” he was told he would remain on probation for a year, during which time he would be legally prohibited from living on the Pacific coast. Making the best of an impossible situation, he moved to Chicago, where he resumed his ministry. He could come and go as he pleased from his home but had to receive prior approval from the FBI in order to leave the city.

When finally Fujimura was permitted to return to Salinas, four years after he had been transported out of town on a darkened train, he found that his temple had not been able to fully recover from the forced relocation of all its members. Only 26 of the 300 families who once attended the temple had returned, and those who did complained of a chilly reception from the locals. Many of his former congregants, however, had settled in nearby Monterey, and he soon followed them.

At his new temple in Monterey, he found himself providing services not only for those who had endured internment, but for young men in uniform.

The Military Intelligence Service had moved its language school to the Presidio, which at the time was a satellite of nearby Fort Ord. There were seven different chapels for various religions to use on the base, but not one for Buddhists, and so once a week, a bus full of soldiers appeared in their dress uniforms to hear Reverend Fujimura speak on the teachings of the Buddha.

At first most of these soldiers were of Japanese descent, either those who had been too young to serve during the war or the next generation, for whom the Japanese homeland was but a grandparent’s memory. As the weeks passed, however, when Fujimura looked out over his military congregation, he saw that they were no longer all Japanese. There were soldiers with English and Norwegian names, as well as African Americans and Filipinos. Some were there to practice the language they were learning in order to serve in the U.S. occupation force in Japan. Others had genuine interest in learning about Buddhism. Many came for the food. Sushi, udon noodles, and other traditional fare were regularly offered after the service.

When news began to spread of how popular Fujimura’s sermons had become with the soldiers of Fort Ord, the head chaplain of the base grew concerned that non­-Buddhist soldiers were sneaking away from other commitments to hear talk of the dharma.

“You seem to have altogether too many soldiers here for your Buddhist service,” he said to Reverend Fujimura. “There must be some Christians among them. Could you ask the non­-Buddhists not to attend?”

Given that he had spent many of the preceding years under armed guard, taking orders from soldiers, it was perhaps with both trepidation and delight that Reverend Fujimura told the chaplain that he would like to help but that his temple was open to all.

“Our custom is to welcome everyone who comes,” he said. “How can I tell anyone not to attend?”

This post has been adapted from Peter Manseau's recent book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History.