The Issei Buddhism Conference
University of California at Irvine
September 3-5, 2004

The Issei and the Jodo Denomination in Hawaii during the 1920’s:

Research from the “Propagation Records”[i]

Rev. Joshin Washimi

ABSTRACT: Jodo Shu in Hawaii started as Buddhism for Japanese. This Japanese Buddhism was a syncretization of folk beliefs and ancestor veneration or what we might call Folk Buddhism (minzoku bukkyo). The teachings of Folk Buddhism are belief in ancestor veneration and hotoke (literally meaning Buddha but used to refer to deceased family members). Ancestor veneration forms the core of the rituals of the Japanese Buddhist temple. For example, in the temple the most important activities are memorial services for the deceased until the 33rd year after their passing and the yearly religious events such as New Year’s. The congregation consisted of those who lived in the local community. This Folk Buddhism was transmitted to Hawaii principally by immigrants. The role of the priests was to provide leadership in maintaining the culture and customs of the community. This was not so much a systematic plan of propagation but rather the natural evolution of attending to the needs of the immigrant community. I believe this is the nature of Japanese Buddhism overseas, especially in Hawaii. Although various studies have shown that this form of Buddhism is dying, my research has shown that the present third generation is returning to the temple in order to deal with the deaths of family members. While ancestor veneration has remained a constant through the years, the nature of the present generation’s involvement is more on a personal or familial level than the more communal and cultural level of the first generation. This paper is based on my research of Japanese religion in Hawaii conducted through Jodo Shu in 1980 and 1994-95 and further personal research since that time.

Jodo Shu has been able to develop “the Buddhism of the Japanese” in Hawaii. This can be said to be a religion of ancestor veneration brought together from folk customs and beliefs. The issue of the renewal of traditional Japanese propagating methods due to the increase in second-generation native children (jidai doho) has become increasingly important since the 1920s. This is part of the so-called rebirth of American religion. However, within the limits of examining this development up to the present day, the attempt within Jodo Shu to confront this new Buddhism has not been successful and so the issue lingers on as before. Due to this, it has been thought that Buddhism among the first and especially second generations is dying out slowly. In reality, according to the majority view of the elders in the community, the third generation (now in their 40s and 50s) goes to the Buddhist temple for veneration and funerals for parents/ancestors, while they have joined other religions for their own personal needs. However, in 2004 I collected questionnaires from a survey of 200 3rd generation Jodo Shu members (I received 400 total but half had quit Jodo Shu). Among these 200, it could be seen that they joined Jodo Shu due to the funeral of a parent, brother or sister. To sum up, ancestor veneration (i.e. family memorial service, senzokuyo) appears to hold only little appeal for third generation Japanese.

For Japanese Buddhism in Hawaii in the 1920s, one can see an interest in ancestor veneration, specifically a desire for the services of mediums and prayers for worldly benefits. In the second edition of “Propagation Records”, schools and other such services were the core of Nishi Honganji, Higashi Hongani and Jodo Shu’s propagation activities. However, prayer for this-worldly benefit was the core of Shingon, Soto Zen and Nichiren Shu’s activities.[ii]

If we also take into account a study by the Jodo Shu Research Institute in 1995, we see that all Japanese religious groups are showing a tendency towards decline. The reason for this is the small number of third generation members who participate. It would be good to examine some common approaches to this third generation. In general, groups with mediums and secret ceremonies have experienced an increase in non-Japanese descendent believers.[iii]

In general, ancestor veneration and this-worldly benefits are connected together in creating the form of Japanese Buddhism. In Hawaii as well, this tradition has been continued. In this paper, in the case of Jodo Shu, we would first like to clarify what is continuing and what is changing by comparing the present situation with the role of the temple as expected by the first generation.

What can we expect is the role of Jodo Shu for Hawaiian immigrants? We can see that propagation is the purpose. First of all, I would like to confirm why propagation went forward in Hawaii. Then, I’d like to look at the concrete conditions of the principal activities of Jodo Shu temples in Hawaii around the time of 1920.

The Purpose of Propagation in Hawaii

In 1894 (Meiji Era 27) Okabe Gakuo in March and Matsuo Taijo in May arrived in Honolulu. This propagation was taken on voluntarily for Jodo Shu to support the organization called the Hawaii Mission (senkyo-kai). (Jodo Shu propagation organizations began in 1898 but the funding for them was not regular. Thus, the characteristic which was strongest was “propagation by individual missionaries”).

According to Jodo Shu Kyo-ho #160
entitled “The Aim of the Hawaii Mission” (senkyo-kai no sushi) [October, Meiji 26][iv], the principal purpose was to obstruct the conversion to Christianity of Japanese immigrants who were seen as “religious vagrants”, a people without their own religion. Furthermore, there was a deep distress at the retreat of morality: “When they change their religion, they will successively lose their character as ethnic Japanese (Yamato minzoku)”; and “when the culture of our morality dies then we invite the shame of Japan through harming our own bodies on the outside and indulging in wine, women and gambling on the inside” (Jodo kyo-ho 154). Consequently, the voyage to Hawaii was made to propagate the “Pursuit Teaching” [追教], and from that time onwards the direction was decided. (Until today, the way that propagation can correspond to American sensibilities remains an important issue). According to Yojo no hikari, “over more than two hundred made the journey to immigrate to Hawaii at this time along with the members of Sairen-ji and its abbot from Oshima in Yamaguchi prefecture”. At this time, many of the Hawaiian Japanese immigrants belonged to Jodo Shinshu, while the core of Jodo Shu followers came from Oshima.[v]

The abbot of Sairen-ji in Oshima was non-other than Okabe Gakuo who had been chosen for the fulltime propagation of the Hawaiian Mission. He engaged in propagation by making regular rounds of the Sairen-ji followers who had made the journey as well as calling for the development of land for a temple. Although the details of his propagation made in the process of making these rounds are not clear, the core activities were veneration for the dead, sermonizing, and visiting the graves of Japanese.

If we look at Okabe’s propagation rounds (Jodo kyo-ho
#197), we see that on July 18, 1894 he landed at Kahului Bay on the island of Maui and based himself at the residence of a Mr. Yamane, making propagation visits to each camp. On August 5th, after landing at Hilo Bay on the big island of Hawaii, he began his propagation work from the home of a Mr. Yokoyama, the clerk at a store in the Hakalau camp. Both Mr. Yamane and Mr. Yokoyama were followers of Sairen-ji temple. After this he moved to Kalappa in the Hamakua district and established regular propagation activities working in the camps. As a result, in the following year in 1895 he was able to gain use of land for the building of a temple. In 1896 he noted,“regardless of denomination, a temple has been built for the resident Japanese of the five plantations in Hamakua. According to these conditions a Buddhist association has been established.” According to Jodo Shu Kaigai Kaikyo no Ayumi (Steps of the Jodo Shu Overseas Mission), travelling from Honolulu to Maui to Hawaii in January 1896, Okabe then established the Hamakua Buddhist Association in Pauhau. At the same time, according to a fundraising guide for the building of the Hamakua Buddhist Association’s hall, he developed a plan to build a common cemetery.

From this time up to 1917, 3 temples on Oahu, 2 temples on Kauai, 3 temples on Maui, and 9 other temples and associations were established so that the present placement of Jodo Shu temples was set. As well as establishing temples, by the 1920s Japanese language schools (Japanese schools and native language schools) were for the larger part created. [vi]

If we look at the first activities of such missionary work, we see that propagation activities played a central role in providing religious service and maintaining and strengthening the morality and ethics of Japanese immigrants. In this way, a basic propagation policy was achieved.

I would now like to talk about the development of propagation from these three basic standpoints:

(A)    Religious activities

(B)    Education activities

(C)    Social activities  


(A)Religious Activities: Propagation of Nembutsu Followers

Looking at these details and the contents of propagation to the Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii, it becomes clear what is “Pursuit Teaching” [追教]. That is, priests from a particular sect, such as Jodo Shu, would follow or “pursue” and propagate to the lay followers who belonged the same sect in Japan, for example Sairen-ji. Consequently, the core religious activities of Japanese Buddhism arrived in Hawaii in tact. The principal role of the Japanese Buddhist temple was funerals, one year memorial services and venerating the ancestors who secure the safety of the dead – all of which are part of the deeply rooted character of Japanese folk Buddhism. If we change the name it would be Buddhist ancestor veneration. At the same time, sermons gave an explanation of daily ethics. The record of the census of the association of the Honolulu Mission temple reads, “The types and methods of transmission adapted for this area are: 1) concerning English language preaching, to show the actual results of propagation for second and third generation [immigrants] in writing and propagation; 2) concerning propagation visits, to proceed with regular monthly assemblies of nembutsu association believers; 3) concerning propagation to the associations, to attend association gatherings on Sunday and during memorial services; and 4) to sermonize in a simple way during the assembling of large numbers of believers during funerals and normal propagation times. In looking at the yearly practices from Jodo Shu’s census, we see that the principal gatherings were: Gyoki [Honen’s birthday], Shakyamuni’s birthday, Obon, New Year’s Joya-no-kane; Spring and Fall Higan; Sunday school and nembutsu association sermons.

At the beginning of the mission work, activities were largely carried out in the camps. Then there was the development out of the first crude buildings used. The Japanese laborers from each camp were scattered through the region. Missionaries conducted memorial services and propagation through extended visits on their rounds through the camps.

For example, amongst the Buddhist association of Laupahoehoe in 1900, 14 camps were visited for propagation.[vii] Following this experience of propagation in the camps, a proposal was made to use a propagation method of door to door visits to private houses. Further, concerning the establishment of temples, the white plantation owners also recognized their role in assuring the stability of the immigrant community. Thus they made an almost free offer for a temple site rented at $1/year, leased for 99 years.

(B) The Education of Immigrant Children

Jodo Shu propagation began in Hawaii in 1894. However, by this time the second generation of Japanese immigrants was already increasing. By 1900, they were 1,552 in number and made up 10% of all children in Hawaii. Consequently, there were demands for children’s education in addition to ancestor veneration and propagation activities. The first Jodo Shu Japanese language school was established in 1899 with the Laupahoehoe Japanese Language School. From then until 1917, 40 Japanese language schools (or simply primary schools) were created. “Five and six year old children have been accepted to the primary schools, and today day nursery work has begun”[viii]. Further, mothers took up positions and dormitories were established. Borders numbered 60-70 students. In brief, the children scattered about in each of the camps were given accommodation at this dormitory, and their care as well as their education was provided for.[ix]

Moreover, as the numbers increased, the human connection among these children of the first generation greatly strengthened. The Ichikawa School in Honolulu was established. Mrs. Sae Tachikawa, the wife of the super intendent Mr. Shinkyo Ichikawa, transferred from the Okala Japanese Language School to the Hakalau Association as well as all of the students. In this way, religious activities and children’s education activities developed together as the two wheels of the Hawaii Jodo Shu community until 1945.

However, in 1941 there was the unavoidable evacuation of Japanese. After the reopening in 1947 the student numbers decreased by 1/3 from the levels of the previous 41 years.


(C) Social Activities

Propagation work was centered in the camps. The mission that came to life was to cooperate and aid the problems of the immigrants on an individual basis without losing the religious connection. There was also the broader goal of doing compassionate, welfare activities.

To pick up an example, engaging in education was a service. Immigrant children needed boarding at the temple, which was attached to the Japanese language school. The temple also had to “deal with various documents on the behalf of the immigrants, provide personal advice and write letters to home” for those who were illiterate among the first Japanese. However, the second and third generations were independent in not only daily affairs but also social, economic and cultural ones. Thus the welfare activities of the temple done for the first immigrants were cut back. However, on the other side there was a birth of new welfare activities.

In the camps as well as the temples, associations based around different generations were created, such as the young person’s, single women’s, middle aged, and wife’s associations, and so work and planning took place. Cultural activities flourished such as etiquette lessons, flower and tea ceremony, sewing as well as athletic competitions in kendo, sumo and others sports. For example, the Meisho Young Women’s Association “met promptly at 1:00 p.m. every Sunday. First they held a veneration service in front of the Buddha, then they listened to a sermon from the priest, and then studied various self-help activities like sewing and handicrafts, or cultural activities like etiquette, calligraphy or flower arrangement, etc.”[x]

These were the activities of the temple. It is also well known that the temples played a major role in forming the Japanese language schools. For the first generation which had established their life and security in Hawaii, it became popular for their children to receive this education for becoming adults and returning to Japan. Second generation chief overseas priest Rev. Ito Enjo supported this trend, because he thought that it was a mistake to become naturalized and for the families to become scattered. Thus in 1910 he planned the establishment of a women’s school (Hawaii Women’s School) which was realized in 1911. Rev Ito confronted the Catholic missions by appointing monks and nuns as teachers, such as the nuns Rev. Nagai Renyu and Igarashi Kyozan. Through such a process, Japanese could reinforce their own self-awareness. However, today these young person’s and wife’s associations have become aged and the usual meaning of young person’s association cannot be realized. To speak of the actual condition, the association of believers is an assembly of elderly believers (excluding the Hilo Meisho-in on the big island of Hawaii).

In the above, I have shown the integration of a Japanese society from the inside through the creation of various activities. However, the construction of their position within Hawaiian society entailed developing their social position, engaging in trade and learning the language. Thus we can also say that Japanese immigrant (nikkei
) society spread. Amidst this situation, the temple played an integrating role for these nikkei, but it has grown weaker and its integrating role for the house and the family has contracted.

For the present third generation, the temple and Buddhism are an individual belief of one’s parents and grandparent’s generation. One can see that it is distant from the self. The temple’s role of preserving Japanese identity by imprinting it through a process of individual development is being lost. However, on the side of improvement, the death of parents and siblings is a chance for the choosing of religion and its present establishment. This can result in the divergent paths of inheriting one’s parents or siblings’ religion, the parents passing on their religion, or coming to a different religion by oneself. In religious terms this means the need to revive a distinct foundation for the individual to deal with the pressing decision of choosing Christianity or Buddhism, for example. This can be said to be a period of new decisions. In the midst of this, the problem that is arising is that the ancestor veneration of the generations up to the third generation is not being transmitted. Right now at the Hawaii Jodo Shu Betsuin, visiting graves at Christmas is increasing as well as visiting graves on the birthday of the deceased. It seems that traditional Japanese ancestor veneration is changing in form. Yet I would like to note that while seeing the change in customs of enshrining the dead, there is also a transmission of custom going on.


“Propagation Records” (hereafter abbreviated as “Records”)

In the Hawaii Jodo Shu Bestuin’s library, the “Propagation Records” are divided into two volumes. “Propagation Records” Vol.1 has 295 issues from August 1, 1927 (Showa 2) to April 1931 (Showa 6). “Propagation Records” Vol.2 has 312 issues from July 1931 to January 1946. The contents of these records are mainly the data from communications from the Jodo Shu main office in Japan and receipts from applications by each temple in Hawaii. Especially from the 1927 “Sect Investigation” (shumu chosa) and the 1930 “Sect Investigation Report” (shumu chosa hokoku), we can get a sense of the situation of the Hawaiian Jodo Shu temples at that time. We can also get a sense of the situation of Jodo Shu in Hawaii in the 1920s. By 1920, the structure of propagation had pretty much consolidated. Jodo Shu had finished establishing temples on each island. The sixth Hawaiian Bishop (kaikyo-cho) at that time, superintendent general Rev. Fukuda Sensho, had taken office (1927-37) and the denominational association had been created and elevated.

The number of member households was 5,279 with 15,593 members. However, according to the details of the “Hawaii Sect Investigation Report”, official members listed as “grave holders” (dan-to
) were 2,364 households with 5,673 members. Members recorded as “believers” (shin-to) were 2,915 households with 9,920 members. In brief, there was a high instance of membership to both categories. Furthermore, I believe “grave holders” were elevated to “believer” status. It seems that this dual membership has a religious sense that also should be seen as a Japanese tradition. However, we shouldn’t overlook the chance that this reality is from the way the Japanese language schools were managed. It surely can be said that the work of the people was mostly as laborers on the plantations. From the period of 1927 to 1929, the population of Japanese immigrants rose from 133,000 to 137,000 which is a little more than a 10% increase.

[ii] Report on the Research on the Situation Overseas Temple (Kyosei chosa hokoku) (Hawaii Jodo Shu Betsuin)

a) Propagation Method of Each School - Concerning Buddhism, the strategy was to carry out propagation through making rounds of the camps, funerals, and school PTAs.

b) The tendency of each Buddhist sect - Shinshu (Nishi) and Jodo Shu were dominant, because the majority of immigrants in Hawaii were from the Chugoku and Kyushu regions. Shingon Shu had a latent popularity since it gave prayers for worldly benefits. Soto Shu and Nichiren Shu also offered these prayers.

c) Core associations of each Buddhist sect - Nishi Honganji: school, youth association, propagation; Higashi Honganji: propagation, youth association; Jodo Shu: school (especially girls), wife’s association, propagation; Shingon Shu: Kobo Daishi cult for worldly benefits; Soto Shu: propagation, prayers for worldly benefits; Nichiren Shu: school, propagation, prayers for worldly benefits

[iii] “Edification Studies” #11, 2000 by the Jodo Shu Research Institute - Puunene Nichiren Church, Honolulu Christian Church, and Shinnyo-en Hawaii were increasing in members because of strong leadership. The target of Japanese immigrants was very clear, and the propagation emphasized mediums.

[iv] The description follows: “The immigrants do not have any means to conduct annual ceremonies for ancestors. They also have no means to celebrate Shinto and Buddhist rites. They are really ‘religious vagrants’. We can see they are depressed and have little hope. Look at their circumstances. They are depending on alcohol and other temptations. They tend to commit crimes since they do not depend on any religion. They have become mindless. They degrade their status as foreigners in Hawaii by this behavior. What a pity it is. I would like to contribute to this community as a Buddhist priest. I would like to propagate the teachings. Of course some of these immigrants have become Christian, but I don’t think it is suitable to them.”


[v] Fukuda Sensho, Yojo no Hikari (The Light on the Ocean), Hawaii Jodo Shu Headquarters, February 1934.

[vi] Jodo Shu Associations and Japanese Language Schools

1895 (Meiji 28) Hamakua Buddhist Association (1898 Pauhau Japanese Language School)

1899 (Meiji 32) Raupahoeihoei Buddhist Association (1899 Raupahoeihoei Japanese Language School)

1901 (Meiji 34) Ooraa Buddhist Association [Kachistan] (1903 Kachistan Japanese Language School)

1902 (Meiji 35) Kapaao Buddhist Association [Kohara Jodo-in] (1902 Honomakau Japanese Language School)

1904 (Meiji 37) Hakalau Buddhist Association (1904 Hakalau Japanese Language School)

1905 (Meiji 38) Hapii Buddhist Association (1905 Hapii Japanese Language School)

1905 (Meiji 38) Wainaku Buddhist Association (1905 Wainaku Japanese Language School)

1907 (Meiji 40) Honolulu Jodo Shu Overseas Temple, Oahu Island (1911 Hawaii Women’s School)

1910 (Meiji 43) Koloa Buddhist Association, Kauai Island

1910 (Meiji 43) Puunene Buddhist Association [now Kapulei Jodo-in], Maui Island

(1916 Maui Vocational Women’s School)

1911 (Meiji 44) Hilo Meisho-in, Hawaii Island (1903 Hilo Practical School)

1912 (Meiji 45) Kapaa Buddhist Association, Kauai Island (Kapaa Nisshin Primary School)

1912 (Meiji 45) Haleiwa Buddhist Association, Oahu Island (1913 Taisho School)

1912 (Meiji 45) Lahaina Buddhist Association, Maui Island

1914 (Taisho 3) Wailuku Buddhist Association, Maui Island

1917 (Taisho 6) Ewa Buddhist Association [Kachistan] (1917 New Ewa Japanese Language School)

1907 (Meiji 40) Ookala Japanese Language School

[vii] Papalua plantation (84 believers), Katsupetsu (75), Kitagawa konpa (48), Okamura konpa (24), Okaala plantation (142), Pulapula (48), Kaikia (71), Laupaehoe harbor (19), Sakato konpa (27), Waipulena (28), Makao (54), New house (76). Jodo Kyoho

[viii] Midori – the collected essays of Senri Soma, the founder of the Hakalau Church

[ix] Midori – the collected essays of Senri Soma, the founder of the Hakalau Church

[x] Fukuda Sensho, Yojo no Hikari (The Light on the Ocean), Hawaii Jodo Shu Headquarters, February 1934.