Office of Inclusive Excellence

Though I Be Crushed: The Wartime Experiences of a Buddhist Minister

June 2, 2022

By Jean Vengua

As a past co-chair and now co-programs manager of Asian Cultural Experience (ACE) in Salinas Chinatown, I’ve observed that some of our most treasured narratives are from family historians who collect photographs and write about their immigrant families. Usually spiral bound or paperback, the books are shared during exhibits, pop-up museums, and festivals; they are often self-published, or published with the help of local organizations. The narratives fill the gaps in our understanding of an Asian American neighborhood called “Chinatown” but which actually encompasses a multicultural community founded by Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino immigrants. These families contributed their labor and business experience to the region’s agricultural wealth, although their neighborhood, over the decades after World War II, had been rendered nearly “invisible” to the rest of the Salinas population. 

Despite these valuable contributions to Chinatown’s history, there are stories yet to be told— histories that provide unique perspectives. Rev. Bunyu Fujimura’s book, Though I Be Crushed: The Wartime Experiences of a Buddhist Minister, relates his experience and those of other Japanese individuals and families in the Salinas Valley, during what was likely the most difficult period of their lives. His story is often moving because his concern—informed by his training in Buddhist principles, or buddhadharma—was not limited to himself nor to his immediate family, but equally (if not more) to his Buddhist community, to Japanese Americans who suffered during WWII, and to all those who seek a greater good.

Published in 1985, Though I be Crushed was part of the local Salinas Buddhist Temple library collection. However, as an older and modestly sized paperback, it went mostly unnoticed, until brought to the attention of several board members by Jason Matsumoto, president of the Midwest Buddhist Temple (Chicago); thus, the book was “rediscovered” by temple members, in Salinas, many of whom were descended from parents who had experienced incarceration. 

Yet,  Fujimura’s story was  noticed earlier, in 2015; author Peter Manseau wrote an article entitled “The Barbed Wire Sutra,” about Fujimura’s experience, with special focus on how “freedom of religion” was threatened for those deemed outsiders or subversives. This inequity followed Japanese American soldiers even to the grave, where stars and crosses replaced the Buddhist dharmachakra (eight-spoked wheel signifying the cycle of life and death) on the headstones. Accordingly, metal ID tags belonging to Japanese Americans were marked “O” for “other,” while Catholics received a “C,” Jews received “H” (for Hebrew), and Protestants receive a “P.” After heated debate, in 1947, a directive was issued by the Secretary of Defense stating there would be “no discrimination in national cemeteries based on race, rank, creed, or religion”; thereafter, graves of Buddhist soldiers were marked with the appropriate symbol.

Fujimura’s father, Chijo Fujimura, inherited his position as minister of a “poor” Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple in Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Born in 1910, the younger Fujimura studied the Buddha-Dharma at Ryukoku University and prepared for a ministerial life. At the age of 25, on April 13th, 1935, he was posted (as a minister of the Buddhist Churches of America, or BCA) to the Salinas Buddhist Temple in California, established in 1924. By then, Japanese families had been living and working in the Salinas Valley since the late 19th century. The young minister spent a few years learning English and acculturating himself to Salinas. He attended night school, taught Japanese to the nisei youth, and helped the Temple during its early years of growth. Returning briefly to Japan while the Sino-Japanese conflict was at its height, he married a young woman named Shizuko. He writes that he had already “decided to spend the rest of my life in the United States.” Returning to Salinas, the couple continued to learn about their new homeland, and Fujimura became head minister of what was then called the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in 1940. Soon after, on December 7, 1941, Japanese armed forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Fujimura would become the first BCA minister to be arrested during WWII; like other Japanese Buddhist ministers in the U.S., he was immediately suspected of espionage.

Chapter 1 (“Outbreak of War”) is written like a diary; Fujimura recounts the utter disbelief and uncertainty among members of the Salinas Japanese community as begin to hear reports that Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japanese armed forces. The next day, the Salinas Chief of Police ordered the Reverend to take down the heavy temple bonshō bell. Fujimura notes, “He said the people of Salinas were frightened that if the Japanese Imperial Navy sailed into Monterey Bay, our gong could be used to signal them . . . how ridiculous to even think that its sound could be heard in Monterey, 19 miles away [on the coast]…And how much more ridiculous to think that sounding it would be any help to an invading navy.” To make things worse, relations between other Asian groups in Chinatown became tense, reflecting increasing international conflicts between Japan, China, and the Philippines. 

Executive Order 9066 was issued on February 19, 1942, ordering the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Fujimura recalls the terrible rumors and news that spread within the Japanese communities—of families uprooted, suicides and arrests, and Buddhist ministers of various denominations placed on the FBI’s blacklist. He began to make arrangements for his wife, who, as a new immigrant, was still unfamiliar with American culture. He approached a trusted family who immediately agreed to care for her. Sure enough, Fujimura was soon taken from his home by FBI agents and interrogated for several days. It’s clear that the line of questioning (some of which he transcribed for the book) led to barely suppressed indignation and anger in those being interrogated. But soon, Fujimura began to draw on his Buddhist training: 

“How I answer these questions may result in all ministers of the mission being placed in the situation I am in now. Now is the time for me to live up to the words of Shinran Shonin, the founder of my Jodo-Shinshu Buddhist tradition, who wrote,

My indebtedness

         To the Buddha Amida’s

         Great Compassion

Must be repaid

          Though I

          Be crushed . . .”

He had already been declared a “spy,” not only in the interrogation room, but even (according to a report he heard from a German internee) on the radio. Nevertheless, Fujimura became determined “to answer all the questions truthfully, but courageously.” Indeed, he expected that he might be executed.

Instead, he was deemed “exceptionally dangerous to the safety of the United States” and was sent by train to various carceral locations, all heavily guarded. In many photos made available to the American public during that time, one sees families being transported in orderly fashion. They are often depicted as well dressed, often smiling, or at worst, with neutral expressions. But Fujimura describes a scene of emotional chaos as families were separated: “Even after 40 years, the sound of their cries has not left my ears. I have no doubt that the Kyokan Hell, the hell of yelling and screaming, exists; I saw it with my own eyes.”

This was followed by “Hakkan Hell (hell of cold)” that he experienced at his first camp destination, Fort Lincoln in Bismarck, North Dakota, where the temperature sank to as low as 30 degrees below zero, and interrogations continued. Only spring and the first dandelions sprouting from icy soil offered some hope, and soon the prisoners began to make the best of their situation. As Fujimura endures life at various camps across the U.S., he describes scenes of hardship and labor, and all the range of emotions—some despairing, some hopeful—even moments of friendship, reunion, and humor—with a complexity not found in official wartime literature available for the general public. Eventually he was reunited with his wife in Poston, Arizona (where many Salinas Japanese families were sent), although they also endured family losses and grief before they were released to return home.

Yet, even their return to Salinas was fraught with uncertainty, perhaps best illustrated by a survey sent out to Salinas residents, asking if they wanted Japanese families and businesses to return to Salinas. In his article, “George Pollock for the Defense,” Joe Livernois observes that, of over 750 responses by Salinas residents, only one person answered in the affirmative. Carol Lynn McKibben reports, “only 25 of the over 300 original Salinas Japanese American families returned after incarceration when it officially ended in May 1945.” However, attitudes were more open in Monterey, where “440 residents . . . advocated for the return of Japanese Americans to the Monterey Peninsula in the name of ‘democratic values’” The Japanese Buddhist Temple still existed when Fujimura’s family returned, though it had been used as a hostel. While Fujimura had opportunities to relocate to other Japanese Buddhist communities, he recalled how well he had been treated by the Salinas members. Despite their small numbers, he decided to stay in Salinas, and help to rebuild his life there, along with the Salinas Buddhist congregation. The bonshō bell was returned to its place on the temple grounds, and is now rung loudly for Temple events and neighborhood festivals.  

Over the decades, the Japanese congregation slowly increased, even while the neighborhood itself endured an “urban renewal” that closed down neighborhood businesses and created a blight. Somehow, the Salinas Buddhist Temple endured and even thrived. Reverend Fujimura’s story did not end in Salinas; he remained at his ministerial duties there for over two decades, and eventually moved on. But he did not forget his friends in Salinas. Later, while living in Los Angeles, he noted the lack of narratives written about the Buddhist experience during World War II—especially Japanese Buddhists—which saddened him. He wrote it in Japanese, but  wanted his experiences to be recorded in English. He found support among members and friends of the Buddhist community in Los Angeles (where he was minister of the West Los Angeles Buddhist  Temple), who eventually helped him translate and publish Though I Be Crushed.

Early photographs of the Japanese community in ACE’s archives show families and individuals looking serious for family portraits, standing proud in front of businesses, relaxed and smiling at play or with sports teams. They had been building their farms and businesses in the Salinas Valley since the late 19th century; before the World War II, they felt that they were creating a future for themselves and their descendants in America. But images at onset of incarceration show faces that were uncertain—unsure of the future. To outsiders, the photographs “speak,” but with veiled expressions. 

In contrast, Rev. Fujimura’s narrative takes you behind the images and into the hearts of those who were separated from communities and families and dispersed to some of the harshest and loneliest environments in the United States. In the process, he reveals how fear and racist suspicion gripped the nation, as well as the Salinas community, which retaliated by shipping the Japanese families as far away from sight as possible, perhaps never to return. During World War II, it was difficult for Japanese communities to be resilient. While many lived through incarceration, lives were also lost to despair and depression; years of work towards family goals had been destroyed. How would their dreams be revived? In Though I Be Crushed, Rev. Fujimura conveys his belief that resilience can be borne from grief; courage and Amida Buddha’s Great Compassion are the key. 

Though I Be Crushed: The Wartime Experiences of a Buddhist Minister. By Bunyu Fujimura. Los Angeles: The Nembutsu Press, 1985. xii + 133 pp. Paper, $43.75. ISBN-0-912624-04-3