"B" for Buddhist - a message from Duncan Ryūken Williams

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Dear Friends,

It’s now okay to be a Buddhist in the US — but it hasn’t always been so. Duncan Ryūken Williams will be at Houston Zen Center in the Fall to present his work on the story of the treatment of Buddhist Japanese Americans in the US during WWII. It is fascinating work, and I thought you might be interested. With palms together, Abbot Gaelyn

Dear Friends:

Memorial Day is observed on May 27th, for remembering and honoring people who have died while serving the United States Armed Forces. All U.S. military personnel wear a dog tag, or a metal identification tag used to identify dead or wounded soldiers, that includes medical information such as their blood type, and personal information, such as religious preference, but during World War II, Buddhism wasn't acknowledged by the Army as an American religious choice. The Japanese Americans serving in the 442nd/100th/MIS could choose "C" for Catholic, "P" for Protestant, "H" for Hebrew (or Jewish,) a blank for no religious affiliation, but no "B" for Buddhist. During the wartime incarceration and the immediate post-war years, Buddhist groups advocated steadily for a "B for Buddhism" campaign, urging the US military to recognize Buddhists who served their country.

When one young Buddhist asked that his dog tag be marked “Buddhist,” a “scornful Caucasian officer [said] ‘Let me tell you that we don’t have the Buddhist religion in the American army. Pick another one.’ [I] then chose Protestant, and when the officer asked [me] why I selected Protestant, [I] said, ‘Because I protest!’ and was promptly assigned latrine duty by the angry officer.

It also wasn't until post-war that the military symbolically recognized Buddhism as part of American culture and history at the national cemeteries. In 1948, the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu (commonly known as the Punchbowl) was established as the final resting place of some 15,000 military members killed in during World War II. It took numerous years and heated debate in Congress, but eventually, Buddhist veterans were honored for their service by having a Dharma Wheel, symbolizing the Eightfold Noble Path, engraved on their headstones. Additionally, eight Bodhi trees — representing the Eightfold Path with a species of tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment — were planted in a special section of the cemetery.

The U.S. government’s recognition of the sacrifices of the Japanese American Buddhist soldiers who served their country during WWII came only after sustained community activism and the solidarity of non-Japanese American military and political leaders who stood up for the idea of honoring veterans of all backgrounds. In addition to Memorial Day, we might also note the efforts of those who saw the value of recognizing Asian Americans more broadly as constitutive of the building of America as a nation. Back in 1977, House Representatives Norman Y. Mineta and Frank Horton introduced a resolution to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843 and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, which was largely built by Chinese immigrants. President Jimmy Carter authorized this in 1978, and in 1990, Congress passed a bill extending the commemorative week to a month, which is why we now celebrate May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

These stories are reminders of the sacrifices made to achieve the place we have in history, and how the work of advocates, activists, and even politicians have helped Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to be part of the larger American story.

Kindest regards,
Duncan