Amid century of change, Oakland’s Buddhist Church serves as point of continuity for Japanese-Americans
on December 14, 2009
The Buddhist Church of Oakland (BCO) is one of the last remaining physical reminders of the Japanese-American community that thrived in Oakland’s Chinatown before World War II. Located at the corner of Jackson and 9th Streets, the church is part of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA), a community that formed in the United States in the late 19th century.
A woman and two children bow at the front of the hondo, the room of worship at the Buddhist Church of Oakland (BCO) before walking inside. Heat streams out of the room and into the hallway, a striking contrast from the autumn chill that fills the rest of the century-old building. A warm light exudes from lamps on the walls.
The onaijin (altar) stretches across the front of the room, engraved with intricate wooden carvings of birds and flowers, and plated by gold leaves. A tall red candle stands in a bronze holder on one of the altar’s tables, its flame stretching nearly half a foot high while small candles are encased by lamps hanging from the ceiling. Orange and yellow flowers fill a vase on the left side of the table. Behind them perfectly round tangerines and bright red apples are grouped on two golden shelves, offered in gratitude for the Buddha’s benevolence.
A light scent of incense travels through the room.
Sachiko Matsui, 88, walks in and bows. She’s just under five feet tall and has short grey hair. Dressed in a grey coat and pants, she makes her way to the front of the room. She places incense in a deep round burner so that its lingering fragrance can clear her mind for the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings). She places her palms together and bows before the naijin, finds a seat on one of the cushioned wooden pews and greets other church members as they come into the room.
The gong-like sound of a bell called a Kansho reverberates throughout the hondo. The conversations in the room begin to trail off. After a few more strikes and silent pauses, the bell is hit rapidly. The chatter fades to a silence and the only sound left in the room is the lingering ring.
The bell stops.
Three ministers, all men, are dressed in long black robes. Around their necks, they each have a kesa, tightly folded cloth made from the robes that Buddhist monks traditionally wear. They sit in chairs on the sides of the altar and begin to chant. Their voices together create a drone that engulfs the room.
Matsui sits among the congregation and looks ahead at the altar. Born in Acampo, California, in San Joaquin County, she is one of the oldest members at the church and has attended it since she was 6 years old. Her life in the Bay Area tells the story of many members who have walked through the church’s doors for more than a hundred years in Oakland.
The church is presently located on the east end of Oakland’s Chinatown on Jackson and 9th Streets. The predominantly Japanese-American sangha (congregation) has experienced a history of relocation over the last century. In 1942, as World War II raged on, Japanese members were moved into internment camps. In 1950, the building of the Nimitz 880 Freeway necessitated picking up the entire church and moving it three blocks away. Today, the church sits on a block within the half-mile radius around what the city calls the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan. In 2006, BART and a consulting team unveiled their planning efforts around the Lake Merritt BART station, which are intended to improve neighborhood commerce, and increase station access for the large institutions in the area, including Laney College and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission building, as well as local residents and employees.
Although the plan is still only in its beginning stages, and will not impact the church’s physical property, it may significantly change the future landscape of the neighborhood, and church members want to be sure they have a voice in the planning stages. “I want to make sure that whatever happens, we’re an important player in the process,” BCO president Steve Terusaki said.
Matsui stands with the sangha and opens one of the three books on the back of the pew in front of her. Along with the other members of the church, she sings a hymn about Shinran Shonin, a monk who lived at the turn of the 13th century, who valued gratitude, humility and self-reflection.
‘Soyo kaze wa taru asa no mado
Hataraku te nohira awasetsu tsu Namuamidabutsu to naereba
Shinransama wa niko ya kani watashi no tonari ni irashsharu.’
‘As the gentle morning breezes waft through the window,
And I press my hands together to recite Namu-Amida-butsu,
Shinran-sama, with a smile, is present by my side.’
Founded in 1901 by a group of young first-generation immigrants who had moved from San Francisco to the East Bay, BCO is one of the first Japanese-American Buddhist temples in the country. Its overarching religious organization — Buddhist Churches of America, or BCA — was then called the Buddhist Mission of North America. This group is the American branch of the Jodo Shinshu Nishi Hongwanji faith based out of Kyoto, Japan. Nishi Hongwanji is a branch of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism which is one of the largest faith groups in Japan. They follow the teaching of Amida Buddha and trust in his promise to save all beings. They also recite his name in Japanese, Namu Amida butsu, in gratitude for his compassion.
The first BCA temple in the United States was founded in 1889 in San Francisco. At the time, Buddhism was a foreign religion in the predominantly Christian United States. Half a century later, World War II brought heightened fear and skepticism toward people of Japanese descent.
There are cultural echoes of a Protestant church service at the Buddhist Church of Oakland, including the long wooden pews and the organ, having a service on Sunday, and the use of the word “church” rather than the typical reference to a “temple.” The architecture of the church itself, a two-story tan building across from the spacious Madison Square Park, combines a traditional red-tiled Japanese rooftop with sixteen Western-style white paneled windows that stretch across its front.
“Eighty some odd years I’ve been coming to this church,” Matsui said while sitting on a folding chair in front of the social hall after Dharma Family School (the Sunday service). Her family was part of the larger Japanese-American community who lived in Chinatown before World War II. Today, the church building is one of the last physical reminders of the Japanese-American community that thrived there. Prior to the war, what is now known as Chinatown was inhabited by a mix of Asian immigrants, including Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos.
During the church’s early days, the minister of the BCA San Francisco temple commuted by ferry to Oakland for services. When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, many Japanese left the city and settled in Oakland and brought more members to the church. The Japan Town Atlas created in 2007 by historian Ben Pease, maps out Japanese-owned businesses in downtown Oakland in the 1940s that by then included bath houses, grocery stores, cafes and barber shops.
“There were many Japanese living throughout the area so we felt very relaxed and at home,” Matsui said. “There was a Japanese market down the street from this church on 6th Street, so we used to go there all the time.”
Matsui said she would often venture out to downtown Oakland when she was young, and that every Sunday after church, she and her friends enjoyed going to the movies. “There was the Roxy, there was the Orpheum, there was the Fox Oakland and the Paramount. We were teenagers — yeah, a group of us used to travel places together,” she said. “My parents were always at the afternoon service here, so us kids, we were free,” she said, her voice trailing off to a subtle laugh.
But soon after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Matsui’s family were forced to leave the neighborhood under President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. They had been living in what became known as a “war zone,” or an area where the U.S. military forbade access to people of Japanese ancestry, as well as to other “enemy aliens” including German- or Italian-Americans. According to Matsui, the “war zone” near Oakland’s Chinatown ran from 7th Street down to the waterfront.
Matsui’s family lived in West Oakland for a month until they moved to California’s Central Valley to stay with her father’s friend. They lived there for half a year until 1942. When Matsui was 20 years old, she and her family were evacuated with more than 100,000 other Japanese-Americans to internment camps under the heightened phase of the executive order. Across the West Coast, people of Japanese descent were forced to leave their homes, jobs, schools, farms and businesses and relocate to detention centers. Matsui’s family went to Camp Three, of one of the largest centers in Poston, Arizona.
During internment, the Buddhist Church of Oakland was boarded up and served as a storage place for members’ belongings. Most of the sangha’s members were sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno before moving to the internment camp in Topaz, Utah.
According to the BCA 75th anniversary book, church leaders in the camps officially changed their organization’s name from Buddhist Mission of North America to Buddhist Churches of America to avoid further discrimination.
John Minamoto is a 65-year-old sansei (third-generation Japanese-American) and longtime church member who was born at the internment camp in Topaz. Retired from working at the Chapel of the Chimes on Piedmont Avenue, throughout his career he was able to serve the Japanese and Chinese community in Oakland by performing traditional funeral and memorial services. He now spends a lot of his time helping out around the church. He has broad shoulders, graying black hair, and wears a silver ring embedded with natural cut blue stones on each of his hands. Although he was still an infant when his family left the camps, he was raised in its aftermath by a Nisei (second-generation) community that avoided talking about internment experiences.
“Niseis never talked about ‘the camp,’” Minamoto said, sitting in the small library of the church he’s known his whole life. “But their introductions were interesting because it would be, ‘You’re Yamamoto from where? What camp were you in? Oh, we were over in Manzanar. Oh, you were over in the L.A. area, the Fresno area.’ That was the extent of the conversation,” said Minamoto.
The internment camps not only had a significant impact on the Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated, but also on the communities that they had left behind. Many did not move back to their neighborhoods because they no longer had a home or a business to return to. Most did not return to Oakland’s Chinatown.
“When we returned from the war,” Matsui said, “There was no place to go.” She said that after the war she and her husband, whom she met in the camp, had to apply for a federal housing program for internees, by which they found an apartment near the naval air station in Alameda.
Now nearly all the members of BCO live outside of Oakland in other East Bay cities. But many return for Sunday services at the church they grew up in, a space where they can share Japanese and Buddhist traditions with their children. It’s also the place where their ancestors’ urns are kept.
“Well when I come to church I feel relaxed, but the area I don’t know,” Matsui said. “I just don’t know the area anymore. I think it’s changed a lot.”
BCO’s sangha was not only uprooted by the war, but also by infrastructure development in the area. When the Nimitz Freeway was built in 1950, the church was condemned by the State of California on the grounds of eminent domain and had to move to a new location. Ultimately, they purchased a lot between 8th and 9th Streets. But instead of constructing an entirely new church, the members decided to cut the original building in half and move it in increments to the new space.
“I don’t know how they did that,” Matsui said, with a look of amazement on her face, “They just rose it.” She explained that nearly every room in the church is in the same place as before. She then looked around and pointed out the few changes that had been made in the hallway she was sitting in, like the bathroom installed in front of her and the office down the hall that had once before been the minister’s parlor.
Today, the church is just one block away from the Lake Merritt BART Station that was built in 1972. It stands in the middle of what may become the Lake Merritt BART Area Plan that — if it proceeds — will directly affect the three blocks closest to it that run between Fallon and Jackson Streets.
The 2006 Lake Merritt BART report suggested the project might add new buildings, parking lots and businesses to the area. But BART has not confirmed it will move forward on the project. BART Chief Spokesperson Linton Johnson says they do not have further details except that they are at the preliminary stages of the planning process.
Although it won’t directly affect the BCO’s property that takes up most of the 800 block of Jackson Street, the church has a 108-year history in the community and BCO President Steve Terusaki said his congregation wants to have a say in decisions made in the neighborhood.
“We’re interested in knowing and helping to influence what may happen to Madison Square Park,” Terusaki said on behalf of the church. The park that sits directly across the street was dedicated by the church’s former minister Zuikei Taniguchi in 1973. It was intended to be used for BCO’s annual Obon Festival that honors ancestral spirits and celebrates the Japanese-American community, one of the largest public events that they host each year. But the church stopped using it for their festival just a few years after it was developed because the plaza was too small for their participants, and because of increasing trash and homelessness in the park.
The surrounding community also stopped actively using the park, although that has begun to change in recent years. Since BART began tearing down their headquarters on Madison Street, tai chi groups that used to meet on the former BART plaza have begun to gather every morning at Madison Square Park. On a given morning, around 100 people can be found doing tai chi and other exercises to music emanating from a sound system.
According to The Lake Merritt BART Station Final Summary Report from 2006, Madison Square Park “was initially celebrated for its unique design features.” It has benches, stretches of green grass on the park’s rim, a basketball hoop and a dragon-shaped play structure for children. The Chinatown Coalition–made up of Chinatown community advocacy groups, residents, businesses, and commerce supporters–is addressing the potential project’s impact on their neighborhood. Its members agree that the park needs work.
“We consider that area [around Lake Merritt BART Station] a suburban part of Chinatown because most of it right now is pretty much residential. There’s a park over there and the last few years small businesses have been going toward that direction,” said Jenny Ong, executive director of the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Chinatown Coalition. “I think [Madison Square Park] could use a lot more improvement,” she said.
BCO has existed throughout the last century as a spiritual place for worship, but also an important Japanese cultural and community center during a time when Japanese-Americans faced great discrimination. The Issei (first generation) intended for it to be a place to pass Japanese traditions down to new generations.
Matsui and her husband had two children and made sure they attended services and the Japanese language classes that were once offered at BCO on Saturdays. John Minamoto was from one of the few Japanese-American families that lived in Chinatown in the 1950s; he also attended Japanese language classes and watched samurai movies on a big screen in the church’s social hall. His two daughters, now in their twenties, spent weekends throughout their youth playing on the church’s thriving basketball team that competes in a Bay Area league. “There’s this element of community and an element of spiritual practice. The athletic practices, that’s all part of it. All part of the deal,” said Minamoto, adding that the church has acted as a safe haven for Japanese-Americans, a place to socialize, and a space for marriages and funeral services.
Today, BCO has a relatively young minister, Reverend Harry Bridge, 39, who began working at the church last year. He has a responsibility to serve a church with a wide-ranging age spectrum — from the elderly community, many of whom were the first children of the church, to the emerging youth. A biracial Japanese and Caucasian minister who speaks English and Japanese, Bridge is using his background and ministerial experience to address the congregation’s changing demographics, including the increasing number of interracial families and an emerging fifth-generation of Japanese-Americans.
“The old model was passing [church practices] on to the next generation. Niseis pass it on to the Sansei,” said Bridge. “The question for not only Oakland, but for the Buddhist Churches of America in general, is what’s the next generation going to be like? Just Japanese or a shift to a more diverse membership?”
Bridge said that there are more interracial families attending BCA churches in the East Bay because one parent maintains family or ethnic ties, but that there are not many members who come who are not linked in some way by family or Japanese heritage. “How much is it going to remain family-oriented Buddhism, meaning families that have been there for generations?” Bridge asked. “We are trying to make it available for everyone.”
Bridge and his colleagues want to reach out to the next generation of Buddhists who no longer depend so strongly on the church’s physical community as the issei once did. He has started a podcast on Buddhism with Dr. Scott Mitchell of the Institute for Buddhist Studies. The podcast is called the DharmaRealm and gets over 500 hits per episode, a number that initially amazed Bridge since on any given Sunday at church his talks reach around 100 people. The BCA is also extending beyond individual church communities via social networking sites frequented by the church’s younger members, and through the building of the Jodo Shinshu Center that opened in 2006 and offers both on-campus programs and Web-based correspondence classes.
Back in the hondo, BCO continues with many of the same rituals they’ve practiced for more than a century. The candlelight on the altar flickers and reflects off the nearby white post. The door to the small room where ancestral urns are kept in niches, enclosed shelves, is open. There are small bouquets of flowers that sit upright in front of each memorial niche. A gatha (song) called “Farewell” is sung about saying goodbye to loved ones and wishing them well until they see them again.
At the end of the song, a few elderly women gently place their prayer books to their foreheads as a sign of respect. Teenagers fill the first two pews in the room. They’re part of the BCA high school program called the Junior Youth Buddhist Association and make up the future of the church. They walk to the center of the room in their fashionable and brightly colorful attire, and form a line down the front of the aisle as other members stand behind them. One by one, they pinch the ground incense from a small box and sprinkle it into the incense holder, bowing one last time before leaving the service.
Archival photos courtesy of Buddhist Church of Oakland
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