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Title: Ryo Imamura Interview
Narrator: Ryo Imamura
Interviewers: Stephen Fugita (primary), Erin Kimura (secondary)
Location: Olympia, Washington
Date: August 3, 1999
Densho ID: denshovh-iryo-01-0004

<Begin Segment 4>

SF: This is probably getting ahead of ourselves, but you mentioned this coming together. So, how would you contrast the Buddhist church and the ministers, or the priests' role, say in the '20s or '30s compared to, say in a contemporary Japanese American Buddhist temple today?

RI: Ah, yeah, that's a good question. There's been many changes, and of course the -- well most of the ministers now who are American born are not from temple families. There might just be maybe two of us out of the whole, whole group. And so this whole kind of conditioning over generations and the allegiances that are built, and all that aren't there. But, I think back when you talk about the '20s and '30s, there weren't a whole lot of options for the Issei and the young Nisei as far as a social outlet. And when you listen to -- I guess they're not around any more -- but the old Issei ministers, they really, they were identified as leaders, and they felt like leaders, everybody looked up to them, and so they conducted themselves with a great deal of confidence. And they would have people sitting there for hours on Sundays listening to their stories and, not only about experiences here, but back in Japan. And so this whole... brought tears to peoples' eyes, just hearing, you know, the familiar themes and stories. And so it was a very much a bonding experience back then. People always made meals at the temple. They lived right around the temple because, of course all these communities were in areas that no one else wanted to live in back then. And so because of the opposition and the racism and all that, they were pushed to be together and to look to each other for comfort and support. And so it happened very naturally.

Today the needs are quite different, and intermarriage, language barriers now because the, many of the ministers are still coming from Japan. And of course you're talking 'bout fourth and fifth generation Japanese Americans who are Caucasians now. And I think the role of the ministers changed quite a bit. Before the minister -- there was no board of directors before, so the minister was identified with the temple. They were synonymous. Today the ministers kind of rotate through. I think the average is six years per stay per temple. And so they're like replaceable cogs in a machine. And the board members stay the same. You find board members who've been on for forty years, right? [Laughs] And so they're the permanent part and they're identified with the temple. And the minister -- they always say, "Well who's your minister now?" This is a common question, right. "How long's he been there? Is he on his way out?" And the minister's told, "Just take care of the services, and let the board know if any light bulbs need to be replaced." You know, it gets down to that. The ministers are told to -- encouraged to do, I guess Buddhist education. But because there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of interest in the Japanese American lay people in the Buddhist teachings, they're more interested, it seems, in the organizational aspects: having preschool for the little ones, bazaars, basketball leagues, and all that. The minister's role has become quite, I don't want to say minor, but there are temples now who exist without ministers. And I can't say they're completely unhappy. Many of the lay people are highly educated, they can read a lot of the Buddhist literature in English now. So they're, they're used to public speaking also, so they're very likely to go up -- they give -- they don't call it a sermon in the old sense. At least it's a dharma talk you know which is the more commonly used term now. So if you ask the lay people if they'd rather hear professor so and so, or this attorney, whatever, give his views on Buddhism and legal issues or something like that, or, something in perhaps less than perfect English about some unfamiliar complicated Buddhist teaching, often the choice will be, if not stated directly, will be a leaning towards this. Of course we don't have to then pay somebody and make sure they have a home and all that. So I think there's a shortage of ministers, which is in a way corresponding to temples closing down and consolidating. In a way there's -- a sadness if you're tied to that kind of tradition. You say, well, there were the glory days before, and there's a decline now. But if you look at the situation, it's perfectly understandable. The writing's on the wall. And I guess I'm not really sad about it in terms of -- my interest has always been with the Buddhist teaching tradition, and I see it being adopted in many other ways, not, not only in Asia, but in the West. So that won't disappear, it will just be the forms. I know we have an obon here in Olympia. Before it used to be seen as a Buddhist ceremony, and it is, you know. It's kind of a memorial ceremony for all our departed ancestors. But now it's run by the JACL and I don't know if there are any Buddhists in our local JACL. I think they're either Christian or not religious. And so they made it into a, a just a cultural event without any religious significance. Just like the ikebana display there and the teriyaki chicken. It's all kind of in the same ballpark. And so maybe this is where a lot of the Buddhist temples are headed, more cultural centers. I don't know if it's good or bad. It's served its purpose. This is just a steady transformation that addresses needs. Just as the, the exciting stories of my grandparents, and what they did back then came out of need of their time, at that time. There's a very different need now. So they can't be -- we can't maintain the same forms.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 1999 Densho. All Rights Reserved.