Japanese Buddhist Temples in Hawaiʻi Preserve Their History by Embracing Change
The massive statues of two Japanese deities—Fūjin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder—look as old as the 106-year-old Honolulu temple they’re guarding, but they are younger than the McDonald’s next door. They were hewn from a single Japanese cedar tree and installed only 15 years ago to mark a new beginning for the Shingon Mission of Hawaii after it gave up its direct relationship with its headquarters in Japan. (The gods look so aged because recent intense heat has burned the persimmon oil used to treat them.)
Some doubted the temple, one of the oldest Japanese Buddhist temples in Hawaiʻi, would survive without official ties to Japan. In a moment of uncertainty, the Rev. Reyn Yorio Tsuru sought advice from an elder. “Am I doing the right thing?” he asked. She told him, “Do it, because if you don’t, there won’t be a temple. There won’t be anything left. So change.”
The change was radical, yet simple. It allowed Tsuru to introduce English-language services and train and ordain ministers locally. “These days young people don’t know Japanese; they’d rather learn Korean so they can order at their yakiniku restaurant,” he says. And the priests from Japan had a hard time understanding Hawaiʻi, which has its own distinctive culture and colloquialisms. The shift meant he could better serve the community. In doing so, he was repeating an age-old cycle of rebirth, much like the introduction of Japanese Buddhism in Hawaiʻi. This cycle marks the very history of Buddhism itself, as it moved from India to East Asia and beyond.
Right now, many other Japanese Buddhist temples across the Hawaiian Islands are in a period of decline. Rebirth is uncertain. At one time they were social hubs, “but that changed,” Tsuru says. “While Hawaiʻi progressed forward, Japanese Buddhism [there] stayed in a post–World War II frame of mind.” Though there are many other Buddhist traditions represented in Hawaiʻi, Japanese Buddhism is a dominant form. The number of active temples has dwindled from almost 200 to about 50, as the congregations age and shrink. “A lot of temples are going to have to make the decision to continue,” Tsuru says. “Do we even want to continue?”
Though much is told of the Christian missionaries’ influence in Hawaiʻi, in the early 20th century, Japanese Buddhism was one of the majority religions in the Islands. By 1930, Hawaiʻi contained more than 170 temples representing various Japanese Buddhist missions. But Japanese Buddhism in Hawaiʻi didn’t look exactly like Buddhism in Japan—instead, it was unique to Hawaiʻi, a multicultural mashup reflected in its temples, from their Christian-style pews to their architecture of varied international influences.
In the late 1800s, contract laborers from Japan came to Hawaiʻi to work on the sugar plantations, and the Buddhist priests followed soon after. In Japan, though many still practice Buddhism regularly, it is sometimes called a religion of death, or even “funeral Buddhism,” turned to only when somebody dies. But the progressive minister Yemyo Imamura, who in 1900 became the bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji mission in Hawaiʻi, had different ideas. To better serve the living, he reshaped the religion: When he discovered that Christian plantation workers could take Sunday off for church, while Japanese employees worked seven days a week, he began Sunday Buddhist services at the temples, installed pews, and even adapted Christian hymns. To help the first generation assimilate, he brought in English-language schools, and, for their children, Japanese-language classes.
When Imamura commissioned the headquarters for his mission in Honolulu, he went so far as to hire architects who had no experience in Asian architecture. He didn’t want a traditional Japanese temple, but one that expressed a religion adaptable to diverse cultures—hence the Indian-style dome and spire (a nod to Buddhism’s roots) melded with Tuscan pillars, Mughal-style arches, and a Japanese central altar. Completed in 1918, it would influence many temples in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere, and is one of the oldest and largest in the state.
Hawaiʻi’s Japanese Buddhist temples were mostly built over a span of 80 years, “and if you look at the changes in the architectural style, you’ll see that it represents the mind of the immigrants as they start to change,” says preservation architect Lorraine Minatoishi, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the buildings. The earliest structures were simply plantation houses repurposed for Buddhist services. When the plantation companies began supporting the construction of temples—hoping in part to placate Japanese laborers, who were subjected to harsh conditions and paid much lower wages than other workers—the first-generation immigrants built structures that reminded them of home.
The Hāmākua Jodo Mission on Hawaiʻi Island, built in 1918 by Umekichi Tanaka, a Japan-trained carpenter of shrines and temples, is one of the finest examples of this style. Tanaka and the community worked on it in their off hours, employing traditional Japanese systems of proportion and wood joinery. An imposing, steep irimoya (hip-and-gable roof), slightly more than half the overall temple’s height, crowns the building. Many of the interior features, including the pillars, altar, and transom depicting a dragon in ocean waves, were carved out of Hawaiian koa wood harvested in the forest behind the temple.
By 1920, Japanese immigrants numbered an estimated 109,000, making up 43 percent of Hawaiʻi’s population, and the majority were Buddhist. From the 1920s to ’30s, the temples “start to look much more like an eclectic hybrid,” partly because of Imamura’s impact, Minatoishi says. “They start to have their own personality; they’re bringing in Western thoughts.” The structures were built to include social halls, and they became community centers, hosting everything from sumo matches and baseball games to movie nights and flower-arranging classes. They were also the site of labor discussions when Japanese workers went on strike for better wages, and a place of refuge when the plantations evicted them and their families from plantation housing in retaliation.
Then came World War II. The Buddhist temples were shut down, and priests were sent to incarceration camps. Many Japanese people in Hawaiʻi felt pressure to assimilate and turned to Christianity. The priests were allowed to return to Hawaiʻi after the war, but for many new temples built in the next few decades, “you see all kinds of different styles because people are searching, they’re not sure what to do anymore because of the huge disruption,” Minatoishi says. “The mind of the Japanese person is all over the place, and some of the temples are extremely modern.” In addition, with statehood in 1959 came an influx of outside influences to Hawaiʻi. But if the buildings modernized, the religion did not, and after a brief revival, Japanese Buddhism began a steady decline in the ’60s. Hawaiʻi’s rural communities felt it most keenly—all the sugar plantations have now closed, and the dwindling populations of small towns have contributed to congregations in the single digits. But even urban Honolulu’s temples are not immune.
At the Honpa Hongwanji Hawaii Betsuin in Honolulu—the 1918 temple commissioned by Imamura (shown at the top)—a recent service begins with an oli, or Hawaiian chant. It is a special service commemorating Mary Mikahala Foster, who provided the land for the temple and is thought to be the first Native Hawaiian Buddhist. Over the next hour, the congregation joins in the Sanbujo (a Buddhist chant), learns about Foster’s life from a Hawaiian Chinese Buddhist, and hears a performance by a Philadelphia Orchestra cellist who is dedicated to uniting people of conflicting cultures. Like the temple, the service is utterly unique to Hawaiʻi.
It reflects the change Jon Matsuoka hopes to see at the Betsuin. He joined as executive director in March of 2022 “because I was very familiar with the state of the Honpa Hongwanji [mission] in Hawaiʻi, and it’s just a declining institution,” he says. “It’s been integral in shaping Hawaiʻi as a culture. But it’s vanishing before our very eyes.” From 2007 to 2021, the Betsuin membership had declined by 52 percent to 615 people, which he attributes to the Honpa Hongwanji mission staying stagnant as Hawaiʻi’s demographics change and society becomes increasingly secular.
“It hasn’t morphed and adapted in a way that would draw people in, but it has the potential to do so,” he says. “People aren’t going to join a church. But what they will do is come to a meditation session, or come to a talk, or come to a conversation. Survival is so important for so many different reasons.” He sees Buddhist concepts related to nature, harmony, and coexistence as a way “to address the issues of the day,” from environmental crises to the social and political climate. His vision merges the strains of what’s sometimes called “immigrant Buddhism” with American Buddhism, “to extend ourselves into a broader, more diverse community.”
The building is both a temple and a community center, situated near Papakōlea Native Hawaiian Homestead and at the foot of the Pali Highway, which connects the windward side of Oʻahu to downtown Honolulu. A grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places—a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation—will be used to modernize the Betsuin’s community space and create accessible restrooms. The temple currently hosts youth groups and programs for vulnerable populations, but Matsuoka hopes to make it even more available to the public, whether for lectures or parties or yoga, once the facilities are updated.
“When I get frustrated, I have to think about the history, and it helps ground me again,” Matsuoka says. “That rich history, which is really a symbol of local Japanese resilience through the plantation era, has a lot of meaning to this community. More than probably anyplace else in Hawaiʻi, this is the symbol of the Japanese American experience in Hawaiʻi.” But in addition to serving as a cultural touchstone, it also provides a blueprint for the future. “[The] architectural design of the temple, which is a blend of several cultural genres, symbolizes the mindset of [its] founders,” Matsuoka says. “I believe they envisioned a type of Buddhism that would evolve commensurate with Hawaiʻi society.”
"Buddhism is on the decline in Japan,” Tsuru says, seated inside the Shingon Mission of Hawaii, built in 1917. But in North America, interest remains strong: Witness the popularity of the Dalai Lama and American Zen centers. Which tells Tsuru that there is still a place for the Shingon Mission of Hawaii, one of the few temples left in the traditional Japanese style. It is also one of the most urban, located in a dense Honolulu district where Walmart is the main landmark. When Tsuru became president in 1995, the median age of the congregation members was 74 years old. Now it’s 42. In 2009, he started offering services in English, “and like that,” he snaps his fingers, “the age just went down with our congregation getting bigger. Very simple. And isn’t that what religion is, representative of who we are at a particular time at a particular place? And therefore, religion changes. Its basic tenets, of course, do not change, but in how it deals with its congregation, it adapts, it’s flexible.”
While Tsuru considers the congregation relatively robust, it’s the more than a century-old temple in Hawaiʻi’s “very, very weird climate” that sometimes feels fragile. “I relate it to Downton Abbey—always showing the aristocrats running around their large homes with leaks all over the place, and they can’t fix everything. That’s basically what this is. It’s beyond challenging. It’s absorbing. If you want to talk about faith, I have a lot of faith that the Buddha will guide us.”
The irimoya roof is one of the most striking elements of the temple and one of the hardest to maintain. A Shingon crest tops the upper roof, and in the curved lower roof, a carving of a phoenix represents the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Above a horizontal beam, a dragon rests in the clouds, symbolizing wisdom, good fortune, and power. The joining of the original wood roof to concrete additions, such as a minister’s residence, has caused parts of the building to settle at different rates and created structural problems. Tsuru is planning to kick off a fundraising campaign soon to help address the temple’s preservation needs.
“On one hand, you try to keep a structure going,” he says. “On the other hand, the basis of Buddhism is that everything just disappears, everything is transitory. … But in any religion, it’s very difficult for people to worship the intangible. This is our tangible connection. This building is essential to keep going because it represents a tangible manifestation of our faith. A Buddhist feels life is something that’s always transitioning. But it doesn’t mean that we forget the now. We live in the moment. And for us, this is the moment. So we must keep the temple going.”
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