Take It On Faith: The Reverend Junin Ono of the Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, Los Angeles, July 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Two years ago, a post on this blog featured a press photo, date stamped 15 July 1927, from the museum’s holdings of the Hompa (referred to also Nishi) Hongwanji Temple, a Japanese Mahayana Buddhist temple on Central Avenue just north of First Street.  The post noted some of the history of the house of worship, dating back to its founding nearby on Jackson Street in 1905 and which served a growing Japanese and Japanese-American community in what became Little Tokyo.

In November 1925, a large brick $250,000 edifice was built on Central (it is now part of the Japanese American National Museum) and there was some press coverage noted in the post, including a visit from Sonyu Ohtani, brother-in-law of Japan’s emperor and the highest ranking abbot of the Hongwanji sect, based in Kyoto, to preside over the opening of the new temple.  Moreover, Ohtani gave a well-received address on KHJ, one of the radio stations in Los Angeles, with his remarks in Japanese translated immediately following the oration. Ohtani discussed the centrality of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan as well as the necessity of cordial relations between that country and the United States.

On that dedication day, there was a procession through the neighborhood with somewhere near 4,000 persons in attendance, while the Los Angeles Times reported on the “weird but impressive ceremony” marking the occasion.  The following day featured more programming including a memorial service, music, dance, drama and what was referred to as “opera.”

Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1923.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is another press photograph from the same time, this one date stamped 13 July 1927, and showing the Reverend Junin Ono (spelled “Ohno”) posed on the lower step of the temple.  Born about 1893, Ono came to the United States when he was in his mid-twenties and the Nishi Hongwanji Temple website states that he was a minister in the temple from 1920 to 1922, so perhaps he was sent from Japan specifically to serve at the house of worship.

Yet, in the November 1925 coverage of the opening of the Central Avenue temple, the Times ran a photo, among a few of the festivities, an image of Ono’s daughter, four-year old Hiroko, and the caption noted that she was the “daughter of Rev. J. Ohno, supreme minister of the Hongwanji Temple.”  Moreover, the 1924 Los Angeles City Directory lists Ono as “pastor” at the “Hongwanji Buddhist Church.”

Not quite two years later, in July 1927, came the two press photos mentioned here, one of the Temple used for the 2018 post and the one shown here of Ono on the building’s steps.  Incidentally, the earlier post stated that it was not known if that image was used in media coverage, but it turns out that it was.  The occasion was an article that was carried by other papers in the country and given the headline of “Wild Youth Finds 10,000 Champions in Ranks of American Buddhist Believers.”

The far right photo shows Hiroko Ono, the four-year old daughter of Reverend Junin Ono, leading a procession of children at the dedication of the new Nishi (Hompa) Hongwanji Temple on Central Avenue.  Times, 14 November 1925.

The somewhat sensationalized article concerned comments Ono made that were obviously sincere expressions about the Buddhist belief that anyone could go to “heaven” no matter what their style of life might be on earth.  In a country where anti-Asian sentiment was strong and where, outside of the west coast and larger American cities, there were few Japanese or Buddhists to be found, his views were, at least by lights of this article, taken in a very different way.

The press photo of the temple entrance was utilized along with an inset closeup of Ono, while the photo shown here was not used.  In any case, the piece began with the rhetorical question, “where is our youth of 1927 drifting?”  Of course, the Roaring Twenties did, in many places, include massive social changes in behavior, whether it was dress, smoking in public, dancing to fast-paced music, and in many other ways.  Conservative areas, especially in rural America, were highly unlikely to understand much of what was going on (then again, when have middle aged and older people ever really comprehended what youth were up to?)

The article continued that

In Los Angeles, within the shadow of Hollywood’s hills where youth flames just a little bit wilder, perhaps, than almost any place else on that well-known and widely discussed imaginary line running between Maine and California, there is one group, at least which answers:

“Youth, today, is headed straight for heaven—the same heaven the saint will enjoy with the sinner.”

At this point, the piece decided it was better to let Ono speak for himself and his community of Buddhists, with the statement that he based his views on the instruction of the Buddha some 1,500 years ago.  Some thousand texts attributed to the Buddha produced a purported 48,000 doctrines that, Ono was quoted as saying, were observed by nearly a half billion people on the planet.

Santa Ana Register, 8 August 1927, and its coverage of a “Jap boy” and his visit to Japan on a trip led by Shizuye Ono, wife of the Hongwanji Temple minister.  She also took her daughter Kiyoko on the excursion.

Of these, only about 10,000 lived in the United States, most on the Pacific coast and what was known as the Shinshu sect was the only of a dozen that allowed priests to marry.   One was obviously married and he and his wife Shiyuze, who was four years younger, had their daughter as their only child.

Ono was further quoted as suggesting that Buddhists readily recognized the gods of other religions: “We are the only religion which so agrees with our fellows in religious belief.  Buddhism requires no baptism.  Babies born of Buddhist parents are by that right Buddhists.”

This article ran in several newspapers, including the 23 July 1927 edition of the [Hurley Wisconsin] Iron County News.  Hurley is a small town in the northern part of the state on the border with the northern Michigan peninsula—a world away from metropolitan Los Angeles (whose denizens presumably included plenty of “wild youth”!)
With this in mind, the article associated those 10,000 adherents in America with the statement attributed to Ono about those profligate young people who so worried their elders in 1927.  His statement was:

Modern youth, so much discussed in public print, is, we Buddhists know, going straight to heaven.  The so-called “wild life” of modern boys and girls will not keep them from going, when they die, from joining their Buddha.

This attitude obviously did not comport with that of most American Christians, although this was not specifically mentioned and, perhaps, did not need to be.  The idea of sin to be absolved through admission of wrongdoing, repentance, prayer, good works and the like was counter, apparently, to Ono’s characterization, though was left for the reader to note.

Junyn Ohno 1924 directory
“Junyn Ohno” listed as “pastor Hongwanji Buddhist Church” in the 1924 Los Angeles City Directory.

That headline certainly seems to be one of mild ironic mockery, suggesting that, whatever the feelings of the majority in the country, the profligate and prodigal “wild youth” did not need to atone for their sins because there were 10,000 Buddhists who were willing to give them a free spiritual pass.  It’s hard to read this than anything other than a critique of the lack of moral fiber in Buddhism.

As for Ono, he soon left the Nishi (Hompa was added officially in 1940) Hongwanji temple and, in 1928, formed the Senshin Gakuin, a Japanese language and Sunday school which was also led by Shiyuze, and which later became the Senshin Buddhist Temple.  The 1930 census shows the Onos living just west of the University of Southern California campus, just a block from the temple.

Rev Ohno 1930 census
The Ono, shown here as “Ohno”, family living in the 1930 census in a rental just west of U.S.C. and a block from the Senshin Gakuin Japanese language and Sunday school the couple established two years before and which soon became a temple, which is still on the site today.

A couple of years later, Ono was replaced by another head priest and he appears to have returned to Japan.  In February 1934, he was among several speakers at a conference in Tokyo on the situation with the nisei, or those born in the United States or Canada of parents originally from Japan.  The attitude of those natives of Japan, a 2014 book called Japanese Americans and Cultural Continuity by Toyotomi Morimoto put it, was that the nisei “stereotype was of a young man chewing gum on the street, speaking a mixture of Japanese and English loudly, uttering poor Japanese, having no sense of propriety, and pushing his hat back on his head.”

In other words, those nisei, said by one of them who taught at Meiji University to be “stray sheep wandering around the streets of Ginza” because they were sent home by parents who did not have “a definite purpose in mind” for their being there, sounded an awful lot like the “wild youth” in the article quoting Ono and the acceptance of Buddhism of such wayward souls.

A Newspaper Enterprise Association (N.E.A.) press photo, date stamped 13 July 1927 and from the museum’s collection, of Ono on the steps of the Hompa (Nishi) Hongwanji Temple.

After all, that article paraphrased him as saying, every good Buddhist “believes that it is right to live a good straightforward life, but none worries about the hereafter.”  Why, Ono is quoted as suggesting, is because:

Each Buddhist knows that when he dies he shall be carried to his own Biuddha—heaven.

This photo is a rare early example of the public recognition and acknowledgement of Japanese Buddhists in Los Angeles and of one of its chief religious figures during much of the 1920s and early 1930s.  The Reverend Junin Ono’s reflections of America’s “wild youth,” especially given his participation in the nisei conference in Japan in 1934, just as that nation was moving further towards its far right-wing militarism that led to a catastrophic war with the United States, is especially notable.


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