On December 13, six days after the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I joined several Dharma friends from the San Mateo Buddhist Temple for a one-time screening of actor and civil rights activist George Takei’s Broadway musical Allegiance at the Century Cinema in the Tanforan shopping center near San Francisco International Airport. The cinema sits on the former site of the Tanforan Racetrack in San Bruno, which was the assembly center where Japanese immigrants and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry living in the San Francisco Bay Area, including San Mateo, were housed in horse stables prior to being loaded onto trains with covered windows and transported to hastily constructed camps hundreds of miles to the east. In the end, 120,000 people were uprooted from their homes and communities following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066, which authorized the forced evacuation of all persons of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Inspired by George Takei’s childhood experience of being interned at the Santa Anita Racetrack outside Los Angeles before being sent with his family to the Rowher Relocation Center in Arkansas, Allegiance tells the story of the Kimura family, who were farmers in Salinas before the outbreak of the Second World War.
The play details the turmoil experienced by the Kimura family as they are forced to sell their farm for a fraction of its value and relocate to the internment camp at Heart Mountain, Wyoming. Much of the story revolves around the relationship between two American-born Nisei siblings, Keiko and her younger brother Sam, and their Japanese-born Issei father Tatsuo. The play powerfully evokes the tremendous strain that the internment placed on families. In the Kimura family, we see conflicts erupting due to differing values across generations, as well as divisions among people of the same generation, coming to a head with the notorious loyalty questionnaire that asked internees to declare whether or not they were willing to declare loyalty to the United States, renounce allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, and serve the U.S. military in combat duty wherever ordered.
In an opening address to the audience watching Allegiance in theaters, George Takei reminded us that the racism and discrimination that led to the grave injustice of the internment camps are alarmingly visible in our society today. He also expressed the hope that by shedding light on this dark chapter in American history, we will be able to prevent such injustice from reoccurring in our country. Over the past month, several Sangha members have approached me expressing concern about recent hate crimes in our area, proposals for a national registry of Muslims and immigration policies that could disrupt the lives of countless families in our community. They have asked me, “What can we do as Buddhists to make a difference in these turbulent times?”
I share their concern, and found myself pondering this question as I reflected on the story told in Allegiance–a story that echoes the lived experiences of so many of my friends and teachers in the Nembutsu. The character of Ojii-chan, Keiko and Sam’s grandfather played by George Takei, was a beacon of calm, humor and wisdom in the midst of the injustice of internment camp life and the tensions triggered by the loyalty questionnaire. I came away with the strong impression that the character of Ojii-chan was Mr. Takei’s tribute to the Issei elders who sustained the Japanese-American community with their strength and dignity during those troubled years. Ojii-chan does not show anger or resentment, but he is not passive. At key moments in the story, he shines the light of wisdom on difficult decisions faced by Keiko and Sam, helping them to see the clear path forward. After thoughtful conversations with Ojii-chan, both Keiko and Sam are inspired to take courageous action to oppose injustice.
My own life in the Nembutsu is deeply inspired by the families of our Sangha who lived through the events depicted in Allegiance. Each day I spend at the San Mateo Buddhist Temple I am humbled to be a recipient of the legacy of their lives that shine with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha here in America. The elders of the San Mateo Buddhist Temple are my true Dharma teachers. I believe that their lives show us that when, in the midst of adversity, one maintains a clear and calm mind illuminated by the Buddha’s wisdom, simple conversations and everyday activities like tending a garden can inspire change and transform the world we live in. With palms joined in gassho, I bow my head in gratitude to those whose lives shined with the light of the Buddha’s wisdom during those dark years of war. Through their strength and dignity they embodied the truth that we find in the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life:
Even if the whole world were filled with fire,
Resolutely pass through it in your quest to hear the Dharma.
You will unfailingly attain the enlightenment of Buddha
And bring beings everywhere across the stream of birth-and‐death.
(The Three Pure Land Sutras, Volume II: The Larger Sutra, Part II)
Namo Amida Butsu