American Sutra

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the military legal authority to designate areas, “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” It’s a sweeping power—“any or all persons…in his discretion”—allowing the military to select who was free and who was not, with none of the due process guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The power was used to target Japanese Americans, to force them from their homes and into concentration camps—camps surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by the military, in desolate locations, where they were forced into hastily built barracks. Most of the 110,000 thus incarcerated were American citizens. Many of those who were not, were long-time US residents who had been legally denied the right to apply for citizenship due to their race/national heritage. It is a great stain on the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For the Japanese American community, today, February 19, is the Day of Remembrance, the annual recognition of the anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

For the rest of the American community, it is a bit of history that would be well to learn, lest we repeat it, or perhaps because we are currently repeating it.  In 1942, the Axis military forces presented a real emergency, but targeting innocent people was no worthy use of resources in that war.  Today, the president has declared that there is a national emergency (when there is none), and is using that emergency to put people in concentration camps (the recent spending deal, to which Democrats agreed, included money for 50,000+ ICE detention beds), as well as to build a wall whose only real use is symbolic.

Over the last several years, the history of the Japanese American community has been brought to life for me by the work of Duncan Ryūken Williams, whose book American Sutra, is officially released today.  The book is based on historical research started almost 20 years ago, when Professor Williams, a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, and a Buddhist priest, discovered an original manuscript journal written by a Buddhist priest during his incarceration at Manzanar, including extensive notes for sermons.  Those notes led to his hearing the oral history of a girl, then age 10, who returned to her home from school one afternoon in December, 1941, to find her father being beaten by the FBI, while her mother sat watching with a gun held to her head by another FBI agent. And these stories led to others. Professor Williams interviewed those who had lived through the camps; he gathered journals written by camp residents; he examined the extensive literature already published on the Japanese American incarceration; and he studied governmental and military records. Professor Williams, given his background, was naturally concerned with the religious aspect, and it happens that in all the extensive literature on the Japanese American incarceration, little was interested in Buddhism and the role Buddhism played in this history.  Williams’s history tells the story of how the US government and US public  discriminated against Buddhists on the basis of religion, the story of how Buddhist organizations and traditions were shaped in these events, and the story of the many who found strength in their Buddhist faith.  The book gives a sense of the broad scope of events, and, through the many first-hand accounts that it includes, a feel for the experiences of those who were there.

In 2011, I began working as an editor for Professor Williams, starting with reviewing a chapter on the experiences of early Japanese immigrants to the Americas, then intended as a short preliminary chapter to the book on Buddhism in the Japanese incarceration.  That chapter has since been entirely eliminated, with its material now planned for a separate book.  Over the years, I have seen all sorts of excellent material that made up Williams’s research but that had to be excluded simply because there was too much good material if the book was going to get published. The book that Harvard published is an excellent book—the best work I’ve ever helped create—but I’m not sure that it couldn’t have been better to have been about 50% longer. As an editor and writer, my general tendency is to think that the best way to improve writing is to make it shorter.  American Sutra is a happy exception to that rule; the material on which it was built was so strong that it could have been better for being longer.