American Sutra

A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

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Duncan Ryüken Williams
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , February
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


American Sutra is the harrowing history of systematic surveillance, prejudice, and discrimination against Japanese American Buddhists by the United States government during the first half of the 20th century. It is a history of civil exclusion, a fight for human rights, and a history of how Buddhists and Buddhism were transformed as a result of wartime incarceration. It is, as the author notes, not solely a story of Americans, but also “a story of America” (4).

Expertly researched and written by Duncan Ryüken Williams, this book is a must read for people of various backgrounds, interests, or relationship to the academy. Williams’ volume adds to a number of important historiographic trends in American religious history, including the growing literature on Buddhism in America, surveillance studies, religious freedom and religious (in)tolerance, and the experience of non-dominant religious communities in the United States.

The largest and most sweeping of the book’s historiographical interventions is centering the experiences of Japanese Buddhists during World War II. Buddhism has yet to be at the center of the many histories of Japanese American incarceration and experiences of World War II, an omission that Williams corrects. Fundamentally, conceptions of Buddhism played a major role in why Japanese Americans were surveilled and incarcerated during World War II in a way that German Americans or Italian Americans were not. For Williams, “religious difference acted as a multiplier of suspiciousness, making it even more difficult for Japanese Americans to be perceived as anything other than perpetually foreign and potentially dangerous”(3). It would therefore be doubly difficult for them to prove their humanity, their citizenship, and the value of their religious traditions and experiences to white, Christian America.

The first half of the book is a history of the mass surveillance of Japanese immigrants and Japanese American Buddhists throughout the US territory of Hawaii and western states. More than that, it is an intricate tapestry woven by the stories of those who experienced these events in real time. Williams details how Japanese Buddhists were surveilled and subjected to systematic prejudice and discrimination based upon their ethnicity and religion. Within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of Japanese Buddhists living in Hawaii were systematically rounded up and interned in makeshift prison camps (47). The incarceration of thousands more would follow in the coming months. As Williams notes, “As early as 1922, intelligence agencies began compiling registries of potentially subversive Japanese” (35). By 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved a plan to create a “secret list of Japanese to be detained” in the event of war (36). This was done regardless of one’s status as a US citizen.

The second half of the book deals with the process of “Americanizing” Buddhism, a process that began in internment camps by Buddhist themselves. Because Japanese Americans were seen as doubly foreign to Americans due to their ethnicity and religion, Buddhist leaders and lay people alike would spend their time during internment having conversations, forming new religious organizations, putting aside doctrinal debates, writing new religious documents, and creating new religious rituals that were adaptive and made the practice and the legal paperwork of Buddhism more legible to a majority Protestant America. As Williams writes, “Reformatting Buddhism to align with Anglo-Protestant standards was one strategy to present Buddhism as ‘nothing to fear and suspect’” (130). Yet, incorporating Buddhist traditions under the banner of the Buddhists Churches of America (BCA), forming and participating in interfaith councils and adapting Buddhist services and ritual activity to look like a Protestant service would not be enough to erase racial and religious prejudice and discrimination. As Williams notes, the most important factor in Japanese American Buddhists gaining some recognition of their faith, their patriotism, and inherent worth as human beings came from the honorable service and, quite often, death of Japanese American citizens fighting in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II (148).

Despite making some inroads in the military, Japanese American Buddhists who fell in combat were given Christian grave markers and chaplains, as Buddhism was not recognized by the military as an official religion. Even when wartime incarceration ended, families still faced an uphill battle of rebuilding, since they were beset by open racism and discriminatory practices in housing, banking, and employment. Yet, Williams never lets the reader forget that this history is not only one of oppression and despair but also one of hope and determination. The Buddhist faith that was remade in internment camps was not hollow but provided solace, strength, and perseverance to those who endured internment and its aftermath. These wartime experiences of surveillance, incarceration, and combat on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific forged a new Buddhism that was “both fully Buddhist and fully American” (258).

What makes Williams’s narrative so compelling is that it is not centered on the state or its subsidiaries but rather on the lived experiences of Japanese and Japanese American Buddhists. American Sutra encapsulates the very best of what “lived religion” scholarship can and should be. Williams is able to craft a narrative with a revolving cast of characters to show a collective experience of oppression, imprisonment, and death, while simultaneously revealing hope within tragedy, determination and perseverance despite oppression, and the transformative power of religious communities. The rich detail of individual experience builds the entire narrative and allows Williams to balance all of the historiographic interventions and insight by foregrounding the experiences of these individuals.

American Sutra will be a welcomed addition to syllabi ranging from introductory level undergraduate and graduate courses in American religious history, to seminars dedicated to the craft of historical research and writing. This book will be at the center of many discussions about American history for years to come.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor W. Dean is a doctoral candidate at Florida State University.  

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Duncan Ryükenn Williams is Director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions at the University of Southern California.


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