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Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist Temples Are Struggling to Keep Ancient Traditions Alive

In summer, Japanese Buddhist temples across the Islands come alive with lanterns and bon dancers. But temple membership has dwindled. When the most active participants are elderly, is Hawai‘i about to lose something unique?


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Bishop Eric Matsumoto stands in front of the altar inside the Honpa Hongwanji Mission, located just off the Pali Highway.


Can everyone please close their eyes as we have a moment of silence?” asks Rev. Earl Ikeda. It’s a warm Sunday morning. Inside the Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission temple, near UH Mānoa, 40 members, most of them elderly, close their eyes. In a clear voice, Ikeda begins singing “Amazing Grace.” After singing the first verse, he stops. 


It’s strange to hear a Christian hymn in a Japanese Buddhist temple, being led by the minister, no less. But Ikeda had a reason. “I was invited to do a funeral service recently,” he explains. “I talked with the family and mentioned that it didn’t have to be a strict service done in the Buddhist tradition.” He explained to the family that they could choose a gatha, or song they felt would best honor their loved one. They chose “Amazing Grace.” In fact, adds Ikeda, when it came time to sing, the Buddhist minister himself led the mourners in the Christian hymn. 


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i Bon Dance 101


Speaking to us earlier in his modest office upstairs, Ikeda, sporting his usual attire of T-shirts and shorts, says, “I like that song, and the meaning really fits what Buddhism is about. In Buddhism, the idea is to live the moment. We can’t be attached to certain ways of thinking, that’s exactly what Buddhism isn’t.” It was a story he wanted to share with his membership.


Ikeda’s message about being unconventional is apropos. Japanese Buddhism—of which there are seven sects; Jodo Shinshu, the one he ministers, is the largest in the Islands—is going through a transition in Hawai‘i. The once thriving religion is fading, as did the plantations where its original followers propagated the teachings of Buddha. Today, when most kama‘āina think of Buddhism, they probably picture colorful bon dances. Visit the temples during the summer festivals, and you might think they are flourishing. In truth, temple memberships are declining, and have been for years. Some temples have closed altogether. Buddhism in Hawai‘i is at a crossroads; its older members intent on keeping tradition and their children and grandchildren noticeably absent, while the religion’s leadership tries to bridge the gap. It’s been more than a century since Japanese immigrants brought Buddhism to the Islands; can it survive another 100 years? Who will rejuvenate the religion?


The Traditional Elders




Satsuye Tanaka was born and raised on the Big Island, the daughter of immigrant coffee farmers. “I remember going to church in the evening, which was good for the coffee farmers,” she says. Tanaka says the temple fostered a closeness in her small plantation community. Today, Tanaka, in her 70s, is active at the urban Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji, which was established in 1906 and is part of the Jodo Shinshu sect.


The person most credited with establishing Buddhism in the Islands is Bishop Emyō Imamura. He came from Japan in 1899 to examine life at the plantations, and he was instrumental in building temples in plantation towns. Plantation workers converted plantation homes to create the first temples. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 170 temples in Hawai‘i. They were the lifeblood of the plantation towns, where they served not only as the place of worship, but as a community center and as the nucleus for political and labor discussions as the Japanese fought for a place in the Islands. 


SEE ALSO: Bondancersizing the Night Away


There are 33 temples still open on O‘ahu. Visit one of them today and you’ll find a small number of devoted members, all of whom pay annual dues to keep the temples open. It is not uncommon for ministers to speak in front of memberships comprising a dozen members, sometimes fewer. It’s also likely that a temple’s most active members are in their 70s, 80s, sometimes even 90s. 


These seniors are the backbones of the temples. Every Monday morning, Tanaka, along with a handful of other elderly ladies, meet in Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji’s annex for their weekly quilting session. For the temple’s centennial celebration in 2006, the women made special altar cloths, sewn in Hawaiian quilt patterns. It took them 1,000 hours. They also diligently craft quilts to donate, often to the disabled or immobile elderly who participate in the temple’s Project Dana program. Project Dana was started at the Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji, and provides home visits and transportation to 1,000 frail seniors or disabled people statewide.


In fact, several of the women are Project Dana volunteers themselves. “I just joined Project Dana and then underwent surgery,” says Tanaka, taking a break from quilting to help prepare lunch—chicken and squash stew with rice. “I tell you what, these ladies can cook. They fed me every day for a month and a half.”


“We’re a senior group of ladies that grew up with the Buddhism background,” adds Helen Hamasu, who is also part of the Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Buddhist Women’s Association. “Most of us have altars at home where we present rice.”


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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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