American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War
by Duncan Ryūken Williams.
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $30.

Reviewed by Jason Morgan

The Pacific War is generally understood as a political and military contest. From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, Midway to Hiroshima, the back-and-forth of naval and jungle and desert island combat is often portrayed, in films and popular history books, as part of a struggle for domination of the western Pacific and, for the Rooseveltian true believer, as a quest to liberate China and Southeast Asia from Japanese overlords. In Japan, too, the standard histories focus on battles, treaties, lines on the map. Agreements were broken, embargoes were imposed, attacks were launched, counterattacks ensued. It was a war between generals and admirals on both sides, between a president and an emperor, between an empire and a democracy. So the standard narrative goes.

In the 1970s and 80s scholars in Japan and the United States began to rethink the broad contours of the received interpretation. Akira Iriye emphasized the racial and cultural components of the war, while John Dower published War without Mercy in 1987, a careful interpolation of the theme of race into the military and political context of World War II in the Pacific. Dower showed, convincingly, that racial animus—much uglier from the American side than from the Japanese—was one of the defining elements of the war, shaping how politicians and average citizens (again, especially in the U.S.) viewed the fighting, how governments sold the necessity of the conflict, and how soldiers and sailors did the business of fighting out the differences at sea and in the field. Dower even says that the Pacific War was a race war. Even scholars who do not go that far, though, now generally accept that race must be added to military and political factors when discussing the war.

All of this is rather curious, however. Yes, the above is true, but it is not complete. In Faking Liberties, an important book from 2019, Joylon Baraka Thomas has argued that “religious freedom,” both the thing and the concept, was central to the American justification for war with Japan. Thomas’s interpretation is that the real battle over “religious freedom” began after the military phase of the fighting had ended in 1945. Religion, in other words, was ultimately tangential to the real conflict at hand, and even then became relevant only retroactively.

But shouldn’t we expect things to have been different? The United States may not be a Christian nation any longer, at least judging by metrics indicating that church attendance and religious affiliation have been plummeting in recent years. But in the 1940s the tenor of America was definitely Protestant, and public figures regularly invoked God in speeches and pronouncements. Japan, by contrast, was overwhelmingly Buddhist and Shintō, as it remains today.

To be sure, there has been a withering of religious faith in Japan, too, as secularism has eaten away at the fundaments of social order just as relentlessly as it has in the West. Temples and shrines fall into disrepair even as churches in the U.S. are converted into offices and art museums. And yet, at the height of American religiosity, another country, utterly different in creed, rose up to challenge the Americans over the watery third of the planet. Surely there would have been a hard religious edge to the acrimony engendered by such a situation. But to hear the standard retelling of the Pacific War, religion is barely in the background, or else ignored altogether. Race, perhaps, and politics definitely, but religion? No, it was not the pantheon that was engaged in the war, just the respective armies, navies, and marines.

American Sutra, by University of Southern California religion and East Asian languages and cultures professor—and Buddhist (Soto Zen) priest—Duncan Ryūken Williams, is this generation’s Dower-esque rethinking of World War II with Japan. In this groundbreaking volume, Williams shows that religion was very much part of Americans’ animosity toward Japan and the Japanese, especially on the home front before, during, and after the war. Religion, in particular Buddhism, was also a deeply held, and highly contested, aspect of Japanese Americans’ participation in the war on the side of the United States government. The otherness of the Japanese was stage-lit by the Buddhism of these immigrants from distant lands. Much of the distrust that white Americans felt for Japanese and Japanese Americans in North America stemmed from the religious differences between the Protestant population and the sangha (or Buddhist communities) transplanted from Japan to the United States. Religious hatred may not have been a key feature of the battlefield, but it was certainly central to how American soldiers and sailors formed their opinions of their enemy before shipping off to the Pacific front. After Williams’s book it will be as difficult to ignore religion in the Pacific War as it now is to ignore race.

Divided into a prologue, epilogue, and ten main chapters, American Sutra is a fair, warmly written narrative about the United States, Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans, and the interplay of secular pieties—such as “religious freedom”—and real religious and cultural difference during wartime. The book overall is about Buddhism in America, the narrative arc curling into a question mark: Can Buddhists be Americans, and can Americans be Buddhists?

Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, many in the United States and in the U.S. government would have answered with an emphatic “Hell, no.” As Williams relates in Chapter One, “America: A Nation of Religious Freedom?”, federal authorities had long been planning to inter Japanese Americans in the event of hostilities breaking out between Japan and the U.S. The FBI had prepared lists of people to be detained in case of war, and “hundreds of Buddhist priests and lay leaders in Hawai’i and the continental U.S.” were on it. These people were among the first to be rounded up, some of them as early as the afternoon of December 7. The very first person arrested by the authorities was Gikyō Kuchiba, a Buddhist bishop in Hawai’i.

The deliberate targeting of people, many of them U.S. citizens, due to their religion would seem a cruel mockery of the Bill of Rights. But things quickly got worse. Chapter Two, “Martial Law,” describes the early crackdown by the federal authorities and local and state law enforcement officials on Japanese Americans, and in particular on Buddhists, in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Habeas corpus was immediately suspended in Hawai’i, meaning that “any civilian, including American citizens, could be confined indefinitely without charge as long as they resided on the islands.” Chapter Three, “Japanese America under Siege,” describes how the early forays into stripping civilians of their constitutional rights, a process predicated in part on religious difference, cohered into a unified federal policy with Roosevelt’s proclamation of Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. There is irony in the fact that the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution broke down as fundamental freedoms were taken away. California Attorney General Earl Warren, who would go on to be the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, testified before Congress that he expected “fifth column activities” to be carried out by the Japanese and Japanese Americans in the U.S. There was simply no way to know whether they could be trusted. “We believe that when we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them,” Warren told a Congressional committee, “but when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field.” The mayor of Tacoma, Washington, and many other politicians besides, suggested that Christianity be the litmus test for Americanness.

Chapters Four, Five, and Six of American Sutra—“Camp Dharma,” “Sangha behind Barbed Wire,” and “Reinventing American Buddhism,” respectively—focus on how Buddhists made it through the ensuing internment in Roosevelt’s concentration camps, and how Buddhism was transformed by the years of incarceration. Chapter Six is pivotal, because it is here that we see an increasing dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, and among Buddhists of various sects who had been forced into the same space by the vagaries of war. Christian Japanese and Japanese Americans had enjoyed relatively benign treatment when the war began, and there had been a hardening of positions among a handful of radical Buddhist youths inside the camps, but Chapter Six also shows how many Buddhists began to redouble their efforts to “Americanize” the practice of their faith, to strive to become as relatively easily accepted by mainstream American society as their Christian counterparts had been. Organizational structures were democratized, especially by the Nishi Hongwanji sect, and leadership roles were transferred from issei to nisei in an attempt to allay fears that Buddhist priests were secretly agents of Tokyo.

Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine—“Onward Buddhist Soldiers,” “Loyalty and the Draft,” and “Combat in Europe”—carry the story of Japanese Americans in World War II far beyond the usual mention of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most highly decorated unit in the war. One of the most compelling sections of the book is in Chapter Seven, “Onward Buddhist Soldiers,” about a spy named Richard Sakakida who overcame a torrent of prejudice at home and a maelstrom of contempt among the Japanese military to achieve stunning feats under some of the worst imaginable conditions for a fighting man. Internees in the camps were made to answer questionnaires in which they had to affirm their loyalty to the United States—something that many internees understandably refused to do on principle, as Caucasian and Christian Americans did not, of course, have to make any such superfluous declarations. Sakakida proved his loyalty in a different way, as did so many other Japanese Americans who fought in Europe and the Pacific. Sakakida, for his part, is an American hero, but I learned of his name for the first time in American Sutra.

In Chapter Ten, “The Resettlement,” Williams tells the story of internees who finally gained release to their homes, or what was left of them, in the waning months of the war or after hostilities had ceased. Vandalism at Buddhist temples left abandoned during the FBI roundups of 1941 and 1942 was rampant. Much of the vandalism was what we would today prosecute as hate crimes: slurs against the Japanese and against Buddhism were often scrawled on temple walls, and the accoutrements of the Buddhist faith, including the ornate altars and smaller family shrines (butsudan) used for various services, were smashed. Faced with such heartbreaking bigotry, some Buddhists chose not to go back to where they had been living before the war, instead choosing to settle deep in the American heartland—where they faced an entirely new set of challenges.

By the end of World War II, many Buddhists, either despite or because of their ordeal in the camps (or perhaps both), had forged a new kind of Americanism, a Buddhist Americanism, a way of being an American that was radically different from how many had understood the thing before Pearl Harbor. In 1945, Zen priest Nyogen Senzaki, who had been in the camps along with thousands of other Buddhists, wrote a remarkable poem, which Williams reproduces in full:

Land of Liberty!
People of Independence!
The Constitution is beautiful.
It blooms like the spring flower.
It is the scripture by itself.
No foreign book can surpass it.
Like the baby Buddha,
Each of the people
Should point to heaven and earth, and say,
“America is the country of righteousness.”

“The constitution,” Williams concludes, “became a new scripture for Buddhists in America, one that would protect their freedom to practice the Dharma in the land of liberty they called home.”

American Sutra is a work of professional scholarship by a seasoned historian and student of religion and culture. But it is also a highly readable account of a chapter in American history with which most Americans will surely be unfamiliar. World War II was not fought only in Asia and on the high seas far west of Oahu. Much of the fighting, it turns out, was in the hearts and minds of people on both sides of internment camp barbed wire over whether a Buddhist could really be an American. 

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Chiba, Japan.