In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’re showcasing titles that document the Asian American experience. This week we have an excerpt from Duncan Ryūken Williams’s Los Angeles Times bestseller, American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War. George Takei called it “A must-read for anyone interested in the implacable quest for civil liberties, social and racial justice, religious freedom, and American belonging.”
Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, FBI agents showed up at the Kimura family’s farmhouse to question her father. Nobuichi Kimura, Masumi’s father, was carrying a shotgun when he answered the door and, seeing the gun, the agents wrestled him to the floor. Minutes later, Masumi arrived home from school, only to find her father pinned down by one agent and another pointing a gun at her mother’s head. Her parents, who had immigrated from Wakayama Prefecture in Japan some years earlier, were trying in their broken English to explain the gun to the agents. Though terrified, Masumi’s English was better than that of her parents. She translated the agent’s questions to her father, who explained he had been preparing to shoot rabbits in the garden when they had arrived. Temporarily satisfied, the agents left. But in subsequent weeks they returned to the Kimura home to conduct further interrogations concerning Mr. Kimura’s leadership at the Buddhist association, which was seen as aligned too closely with Japan and potentially a threat to national security.
It was in this climate of growing suspicion and hostility that Masumi’s father decided to take steps to prove the family’s loyalty to America. One day shortly after that first FBI visit, Masumi was performing her daily chore of lighting the furnace next to their Japanese-style bathtub when her father entered the room. He was carrying items he had found throughout the house that had Japanese language inscriptions or “Made in Japan” written on them. Among them were Masumi’s precious Hinamatsuri dolls, which had been given to her on Girl’s Day. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she watched him throw the dolls and all the other Japanese artifacts into the fire.
Her father did not burn everything, however. He could not bring him- self to destroy the bound edition of Buddhist sutras that had been handed down through generations of the family. Instead, he asked his wife to find boxes and some Japanese kimono cloth while he went out- side and dug a hole behind their garage with a backhoe. After wrapping the Buddhist scriptures and the minutes of board meetings from the Madera Buddhist Association in the kimono cloth, he placed them in tin rice-cracker boxes, carefully lowered them into the hole, and covered them with dirt. By burying them next to the garage, he hoped to be able to find and recover them at some later date.
Shortly thereafter, in April 1942, the Kimuras were ordered to report to the Fresno Assembly Center, which had been set up at the local county fairgrounds. They ended up having to sell their farm to their neighbors for less than one-twentieth of its market value, and, after depositing a single suitcase of their most valued remaining possessions at the Fresno Buddhist Temple for safekeeping, they arrived at the center, where they were quartered in a horse stable designated Barrack E-17–2. They were however more fortunate than the majority of Japanese Americans. Instead of being transferred to one of the more permanent WRA incarceration camps, the Kimuras were among the handful of families approved to join work programs east of the military zone, so they ended up in Utah, where they worked as cheap farm labor for the duration of the war.
After the war ended, the Kimura family returned to Madera in the hopes that they would be able to buy their farm back and recover their home. But the new owners demanded a sum ten times greater than what the Kimuras had accepted for the farm three years earlier. They had also torn down the garage, making it impossible for the Kimuras to find the precious belongings they had buried near it. Their single suitcase of valuables, which had been stored away for safekeeping, had been lost as well when vandals ransacked the Fresno Buddhist Temple during the war. Unable to raise the money to buy back the farm, the Kimuras went to live with relatives in Los Angeles.
This story, told to me in the gardens of my advisor’s widow, has stayed with me over the years. Though just one among tens of thousands of stories of Japanese American Buddhist families during World War II, it encapsulates both the loss and the hope that made possible the birth of an American form of Buddhism. Though the Kimuras were willing to let go of their Japanese national identity by burning objects symbolically linked to Japan, the one thing they refused to erase was their Buddhist faith. Indeed, they ended up quite literally placing Buddhism into the soil of America for safekeeping. Like Senzaki and many others, their actions demonstrated their firm conviction that their adopted homeland would one day be a place where their faith could grow and flourish.