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?
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. 


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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. 


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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.”



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.


Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji temple minister, Earl Ikeda.
Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji temple minister, Earl Ikeda. 

The Established Leadership

The Obon season may be the most visible activity of the Buddhist temples across the Islands, but the hongwanji headquarters have been active in the community socially, and even politically, for a number years. Before Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed civil unions into law in 2011, the headquarters committee on social concerns publicly supported the rights of same-sex couples, and even distributed pamphlets with a written resolution. Next year, Project Dana, which has 850 volunteers, will celebrate its 25th anniversary. More than $5 million has been raised to build new facilities for Pacific Buddhist Academy, a private co-ed high school focused on peace education. 


“We’re looking at improving society,” says the soft-spoken Rev. Eric Matsumoto, who for the past two years has been bishop of the headquarters, an esteemed position. “Whereas, in the past, we may have focused more on our own community.”


But that’s the goal, improving society, not recruiting new converts. “My personal understanding is that, as we carry out these programs and projects, people will begin to see the beauty and the value of the Buddhist teachings and the organization,” he says, which, he adds, may indirectly lead to new members.  “We do not do these projects and programs to increase our membership or convert people to Buddhism.”


A Buddha in the Waipahu Hongwanji. 


While Tanabe applauds the outreach efforts, he says large-scale growth won’t happen unless there’s a significant change in the way the temples operate internally. He says to attract a younger membership, temples should embrace a more current style of music.  “Where’s the Buddhist hip-hop, the Buddhist jazz, the Buddhist rock and roll?” he asks, adding that many Christian churches have embraced playing contemporary music. “Ritual Japanese is still used for chanting … You can mouth the sounds, but you have no idea what you’re saying. You’re not going to get younger people coming, at least in terms of the music, if these hymns are going to do be done in the same old somber style.”  


Another of Tanabe’s suggestions, which he says local Buddhists tell him is radical, is cutting all ties with Japan. This means that, instead of having all Japanese Buddhist ministers be ordained in Japan, Bishop Matsumoto would do the honors and they would receive all ministerial training at facilities such as the Buddhist Study Center. (The study center does provide some training, but the official ordination ceremony still takes place in Japan.) 


“It’s a lack of leadership, a lack of courage, a lack of guts to do what the founders did, which is break away from the past and start something new,” says Tanabe, referring to Hawai‘i’s unique temple architecture and pews in the temples. “The vested interests are too strong and it’s partly a consequence of institutionalization. These are big institutions and part of it is money.” 


While Matsumoto doesn’t see it as a lack of leadership, he does think that someday Hawai‘i’s Buddhist temples will ordain its own ministers, “just has [Japanese ministers] no longer go to China, and the Chinese do not go back to India,” he says. “However, before it can happen we need fully qualified teachers and mentors who are able to train people here in the West … Learning Buddhism is not an academic exercise that takes place in a sterile classroom from only books, but must be lived and experienced.”


These changes may happen, someday. In the meantime, Buddhism in Hawai‘i will still be around for the next several decades, even if all of its temples will not. Members like Tanaka might encourage their younger family members to take over their temple duties when the time comes. Chang might encourage 20-somethings to become proactive about the future of the religion. Matsumoto might effectively engage headquarter leadership to enact a bold reorganization. 


“At one point people will wake up,” says Ikeda. “I don’t know whether I’ll be here to see it, [but there will be] a resurgence of the Buddhist teachings.” He then gathers his papers to prepare for another Sunday service.