by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In one of the many stirring stories of persistence in the face of repression and racism prevalent in early 20th century greater Los Angeles, the small, but growing and vibrant community of Japanese immigrants in downtown’s LIttle Tokyo achieved a milestone when a Buddhist temple was established in 1905.
Eventually known as the Nishi Hongwanji temple, it was located on a portion of Jackson Street (named for an early lumber dealer in the city) that no longer survives. A pillar of the community at a time when anti-Japanese sentiment was rising to a fever pitch among whites who warned of a “yellow peril” that would wreak havoc on the dominant society, the temple operated in its original location for twenty years.
As Little Tokyo and the larger Japanese community grew and during a major boom period in the 1920s, it was decided to build a larger, more impressive temple at a cost of some $250,000 on Central Avenue just north of 1st Street. The new structure was completed and dedicated in November 1925 and it was a sign of progress and growth for local Japanese that Japan’s highest ranking abbot (and brother-in-law of the emperor) came to Los Angeles from Kyoto, the home of the Hongwanji sect, to preside over the ceremony.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the visit of Sonyu Ohtani featured another milestone, an address given by him over the radio on station KHJ, which went on the air in 1922 at AM 930 and is still there today, now running Roman Catholic programming. The paper noted that Ohtani “addressed himself first to his countrymen in Southern California, as he speaks only Japanese,” but that “a full interpretation of his brief remarks immediately followed.”
Among the abbot’s statements was “I appreciate the opportunity granted to me whereby I am able to enjoy the privilege to address through radio citizens of the great city of Los Angeles.” He explained the inseparability of Mahayana Buddhism with the history of Japan and its people through “the customs of deference, love and industriousness.”
Referring to the sect as progressive compared to the conservatism of the other major strain of Buddhism, Hinayana, Ohtani turned to the relations between Japan and the United States, the abbot called for citizens of both nations to “look upon the other with [a] broad-minded and sympathetic view, willing to learn and understand the history, ideals and morals of each other.” A focus on commercial issues, without attention to “ideal and moral phases” could lead to “regrettable consequences.” Within twenty years, those consequences would be manifested in the horrors of World War II.
Ohtani went on to call for a relationship built on “love, trust, justice, humanity and brotherhood” and asked those Americans interested in learning about Japan to give attention to the “intellectual and spiritual side of her civilization.” As to the dedication of the new temple, the Times reported:
Between 3000 and 4000 Japanese and several hundred Americans turned out to witness the impressive procession, the second of its kind ever to be conducted in Los Angeles. The Japanese swarmed the streets as the procession made its way from the temple, north on Central to Jackson street, thence west to San Pedro street, and down First Street to the temple.
There were 150 chigo (Buddhist angels), composed of children from three to fourteen years, sent from Japan in a rare appearance for a special event, a tradition dating back some six centuries and representative of “angels [devas] to protect the gospel of Buddha.”
Following this was “a weird but impressive religious ceremony” in the new temple, including hymns sung in Japanese and an address by Rev. Chosui Ike “during which he traced the history of the local temple” and thanked congregants for the donations that allowed for the construction of the building. Afterward, “for twenty minutes, the priests chanted weird prayers,” followed by a sermon that concluded the roughly two-hour ceremony and service.
Notably, Abbot Ohtani’s visit included trips to Hollywood and tours of the Pickford-Fairbanks and Famous Players-Lasky studios, as well as the Japanese gardens of the Bernheimer brothers (covered here in a previous post and now the site of Yamashiro Japanese restaurant, named for the estate). The festivities at the temple were to continue the following day with an afternoon memorial service and evening music, dancing, opera and drama.
The Central Avenue temple continued to be the center of the religious life of local Japanese Buddhists through the dire years of the Great Depression. But, as Japan’s militaristic leadership ramped up imperialist activity in Asia, concerns grew in the United States about this aggression, coupled with that of the Nazi regime in Germany.
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the United States declared war, launching America’s entry in World War II, Executive Order 9066, signed by President Roosevelt, led to the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps in several western states. The Nishi Hongwanji Temple, renamed Hompa Hongwanji in 1940, was shuttered and used for storage of personal property during those dark years, though reopened after the war was over and Japanese-Americans returned to the area.
As Los Angeles underwent enormous urban renewal programs in the postwar period, it was decided to build a new temple and, in 1969, the current structure was opened at 815 E. First Street, several blocks east of the previous facility. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the temple at its current location. As for the 1925 temple it was acquired by the City of Los Angeles and eventually became part of the campus of the Japanese-American National Museum, which opened in the early 1990s. I well remember taking a tour of the temple not long after that as part of a visit to the museum.
Today’s highlighted artifact is a press photo, date stamped 15 July 1927 from the Newspaper Enterprise Association, a news-reporting service, later a broader syndicate, formed in Cleveland a quarter century prior to provide material for papers owned by the Scripps conglomerate. N.E.A. grew to providing content for 400 newspapers in 1920 to 700 by the decade’s end. It became part of United Media in the late 1970s, which was, in turn, sold and went defunct in 2011.
The information on the back of photo merely identifies the subject as “Gateway to the temple of the Shinshu Buddhists in Los Angeles Calif.” and indications that the photo was kept in a general file labeled “Churches.” The image shows a man entering through a door under the massive gateway at the entrance of the imposing brick structure.
It is not known if the photo was ever used for news articles or remained unused in the reference file at N.E.A., but it is an interesting and notable photograph reflecting religious lfe in Los Angeles generally and that of the resilient Japanese-American community in Little Tokyo specifically.