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American Sutra

A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

Duncan Ryuken Williams

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Harvard Uni.Press Academi
01 January 2020
This groundbreaking history tells the little-known story of how, in one of our country's darkest hours, Japanese Americans fought to defend their faith and preserve religious freedom.

The mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II is not only a tale of injustice; it is a moving story of faith. In this pathbreaking account, Duncan Ry??ken Williams reveals how, even as they were stripped of their homes and imprisoned in camps, Japanese American Buddhists launched one of the most inspiring defenses of religious freedom in our nation's history, insisting that they could be both Buddhist and American.

Nearly all Americans of Japanese descent were subject to bigotry and accusations of disloyalty, but Buddhists aroused particular suspicion. Government officials, from the White House to small-town mayors, believed that Buddhism was incompatible with American values. Intelligence agencies targeted the Buddhist community for surveillance, and Buddhist priests were deemed a threat to national security. On December 7, 1941, as the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Attorney General Francis Biddle issued a warrant to ?take into custody all Japanese? classified as potential national security threats. The first person detained was Bishop Giky?? Kuchiba, leader of the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist sect in Hawai???i.

In the face of discrimination, dislocation, dispossession, and confinement, Japanese Americans turned to their faith to sustain them, whether they were behind barbed wire in camps or serving in one of the most decorated combat units in the European theater. Using newly translated sources and extensive interviews with survivors of the camps and veterans of the war, American Sutra reveals how the Japanese American community broadened our country's conception of religious freedom and forged a new American Buddhism.
By:   Duncan Ryuken Williams
Imprint:   Harvard Uni.Press Academi
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 235mm,  Width: 156mm, 
ISBN:   9780674244856
ISBN 10:   0674244850
Pages:   400
Publication Date:   01 January 2020
Audience:   Professional and scholarly ,  Undergraduate
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

An ordained Buddhist priest in the Soto Zen tradition, Duncan Ryuken Williams has spent years piecing together the story of the Japanese American community during World War II. A renowned scholar of Buddhism, he has taught at the University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Irvine, and Trinity College, and is now the Director of the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California. He has published five other books, including The Other Side of Zen.

Reviews for American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War

There's much to praise about this book, but one thing that I find especially powerful is Williams' impressive archival work-in particular, the research that indicates how much the U.S. government saw Buddhism as a national security threat, even in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, and how differently Japanese American Buddhists were treated compared to their Christian counterparts. * Anxious Bench * By recounting the struggle of those interned to maintain their faith and traditions in the face of an unforgivable assault on both, American Sutra tells a larger tale of how America's storied commitment to religious freedom so often clashes with its history of white, Christian exceptionalism. Reading this book, one cannot help but think of the current racial and religious tensions that have gripped this nation-and shudder. -- Reza Aslan, author of <i>Zealot</i> and <i>God: A Human History</i> American Sutra movingly and insightfully tells the long-buried true history of the ordeals suffered and triumphs achieved by Japanese American Buddhist individuals unjustly dispossessed and interned during WWII who drew on their Buddhist faith to remain loyal to the nation. I cannot recommend this compelling work highly enough for anyone who faces clearly the present-day conflicts of identities and yet aspires to a twenty-first-century vision of America's still-possible promise for the world. -- Robert A. F. Thurman, Columbia University Duncan Williams's book is deep, detailed, and timely, especially at a time when the meaning of 'citizenship' in America is still unsettled. -- Gary Snyder, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning <i>Turtle Island</i> A pioneering work on the history of Japanese Americans during WWII-an instant classic. -- Tetsuden Kashima, author of <i>Judgment without Trial</i> American Sutra is a critically important, carefully researched, and deeply moving work of scholarship and storytelling that brings to light-from a dark and shameful period in our nation's past-a forgotten part of our religious and cultural history. This book raises timely and important questions about what religious freedom in America truly means. -- Ruth Ozeki, author of <i>A Tale for the Time Being</i> Magisterial and engaging...Provid[es] a comprehensive overview of the wartime experience of Japanese American Buddhists-a majority in the camps, U.S. military service, and the community as a whole. He shows how racism and religious intolerance fed on and intensified each other, long before the war. -- Vince Schleitwiler * International Examiner * Williams delivers a pioneering reinterpretation and retelling of the internment through the lens of religion... A pleasure to read. * Choice * Williams' account of Japanese American Buddhists in internment-tales of suffering borne with dignity, and thereby transformed into great compassion-is the fruit of painstaking labor to unearth the buried stories and lives upon which American Sutra has been inscribed. -- Mark Unno * Buddhadharma * Explores for the first time the significance of religion, particularly Buddhism, among Japanese-Americans incarcerated at Heart Mountain and the nine other camps overseen by the War Relocation Authority...A searingly instructive story about America from which all Americans might learn. -- Peter Manseau * Smithsonian * In his revealing new history of Japanese American internment, Williams foregrounds the Buddhist dimension of the Japanese American experience. His moving account shows how Japanese Americans transformed Buddhism into an American religion, and, through that struggle, changed the United States for the better. -- Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning <i>The Sympathizer</i> American Sutra tells the story of how Japanese American Buddhist families like mine survived the wartime incarceration. Their loyalty was questioned, their freedom taken away, but their spirit could never be broken. A must-read for anyone interested in the implacable quest for civil liberties, social and racial justice, religious freedom, and American belonging. -- George Takei, actor, director, and activist


  • Winner of Religion News Association Book Award 2020 (United States)

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