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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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The Waipahu Hongwanji leadership had the temple’s altar restored last year in Japan, which cost more than $150,000

Across the island at Waipahu Hongwanji, established in 1902, Rev. Jay Okamoto says a core of elderly members—there are 200 members total—regularly clean the temple’s altar, which was sent to Japan last year to be restored. (It cost more than $150,000 to do so.) “The active members are old,” says Okamoto. “Compared to our membership, I am very young,” says the 39-year-old.


Seniors such as Tanaka and Hamasu keep the temples running. But as the elderly get older, the task becomes more difficult. During one of the Mō‘ili‘ili temple’s recent services, a woman announced funeral services for three members who had passed away that week. The absence of younger members in many temples is glaring. 


That’s why, more than ever, longtime temple members are reaching out for new members; at Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji, there’s even a special announcement made during Sunday services for newcomers, and a potluck afterward. “One reason younger members leave is cultural barriers,” says Okamoto. Yet both he and Ikeda say that many older members prefer Buddhism’s old traditions, such as chanting in Japanese and performing the formal rituals. “They’ve had their routine for 20 years and it’s comfortable for them,” says Okamoto.


This scenario is clearest in rural communities, where the plantations have all closed, and younger people have moved to more urban areas, or left Hawai‘i altogether. Over the past two decades, dozens of temples have closed. The most recent casualty on O‘ahu is the Kahuku Hongwanji, which shuttered this past December. Before it closed, four members were attending regularly—eight on a good day—says Barbara Tatsuguchi, who attended the temple regularly with her husband, Isamu, for 17 years. 


“It was very sad when we had the last service,” she says, but, pausing, adds that it was also kind of a relief, because keeping it open was a lot of work, especially on the shoulders of a few elderly members and the minister. “The minister worked hard to keep it going, but it was a losing cause. It was doomed because of the location.” The Kahuku sugar mill closed in the 1970s, and, says Tatsuguchi, it was only a matter of time before the hongwanji closed, too. “The second generation moved into town, and no one commuted.” The Tatsuguchis and some former members of the Kahuku temple now go to the Wahiawā Hongwanji, when they’re able. 


George Tanabe, a retired UH professor of religion, thinks that eventually even urban temples will face this same predicament. “It takes a certain foresight to develop something for our kids,” he says, adding that many of the older members, and the local leadership, approach the situation with “a real fatalism.” “The people who are in power now, they have their values, they have their likes, they have their tastes, and they’re going to insist that that’s how it’s going to be, even though, for the next generation, it doesn’t speak to them.”


In addition to a shrinking membership, Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist temples are also facing a shortage of ministers. Take Okamoto. For the past six years, he’s not only been the minister of the Waipahu Hongwanji, but also the temples in ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae, neither of which have had their own resident ministers in 30 years. The ‘Ewa temple has 30 members and the Wai‘anae temple has around 50, he says.


All Japanese Buddhist ministers must be ordained in Japan before they can work in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. This often makes it difficult to attract local men and women in the first place, because they have to speak Japanese for their studies. Often, Japanese ministers end up serving in Hawai‘i’s temples, but, says Okamoto, they, too, face linguistic and cultural challenges. It’s a catch-22. 


The Apathetic Youth

Buddhists attend a youth retreat at the Buddhist study center. 


Jake Chang believes his generation will be the one to rekindle Buddhism locally. Chang, a semi-recent college graduate, is the children and youth activities specialist at the Buddhist Study Center. The center, located on University Avenue, has ties to both UH and the Honpa Hongwanji Mission, the Jodo Shinshu headquarters just off the Pali Highway. Its aim is to provide resources, education and fellowship to Buddhists and preliminary training to Buddhist ministers. 


Every August, Chang spearheads a young adults retreat at the center for those 20 to 35. “We do a lot of dialogue to develop their personal understanding of Buddhism,” he says. “The people we tend to lose to other religions or entirely, is because it’s not relevant, it has no meaning to them.” Chang would know: He grew up in a Buddhist family, but lost interest in the religion in high school. He attended one of the center’s first retreats, though, and says it helped regain his passion and maintain it throughout college and beyond. 


Chang says one stumbling block for new members is the misconceptions people have about Buddhism. “People think it’s just a Japanese religion,” he says. “We’re trying to get away from strictly funeral [rituals] and traditions. A lot of that worked for the Issei and Nisei, but that doesn’t work for the current generation.” He acknowledges that this shift in the temples is gradual, however.


Ikeda, who has been a minister for more than a decade, agrees. He says that, while history and tradition serve their purpose, it’s important to embrace change, particularly for future generations. For Buddhism in today’s society, that means separating the religion from its Japanese roots. “Buddhism should be considered a universal religion, not a cultural religion,” he says. 


While temples aren’t overhauling how they operate, small adjustments are being made. 


Each year, more gathas (hymns) are translated, and chanted in English. Today, services are primarily in English, although ministers still hold services in Japanese. In the meantime, Chang and other Buddhists his age socialize at the study center’s fellowship club, where they can talk about issues that matter to them, in a casual setting. “I think we’re going to see more growth, 10, 15 years down the road,” he says, of those in their 20s and 30s being engaged in Buddhism.


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