In honor of Eric Matsumoto’s formal installation as the 16th bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, we present this article, which ran in the March 18 issue of the Herald, in today’s posting. More coverage of Matsumoto’s installation can be found in the next issue of the Herald.
PASSING THE TORCH
New Honpa Hongwanji Bishop Eric Matsumoto Brings a Fresh Perspective to the Mission
Eric Matsumoto reached the legal drinking age over 30 years ago, but he is still being counted on to lead a youth movement.
At 51, he is the first Sansei and the third-youngest minister (after Bishops Yemyo Imamura and Yoshiaki Fujitani) in the history of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii to assume the title of bishop. Considering that most of the organization’s bishops were well into their 60s at the time of their selection, Matsumoto was understandably surprised when he learned that he had made history of sorts.
“If you had asked me a year ago whether something like this was going to happen, I wouldn’t have thought that things would have resulted as they have,” he said.
But with the challenges brought on by the economic recession, the evolution of the organization’s membership and the ambitious nature of its community projects, Matsumoto’s age was a strong selling point, as he will be relied upon — perhaps more than his predecessors — to “give a sense of hope and energy to motivate people to move forward.”
Matsumoto’s selection as Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii’s 16th bishop — responsible for its 36 temples statewide and the Buddhist Study Center — was approved unanimously by delegates at the mission’s (Hawaii Kyodan) annual Giseikai (legislative assembly) last month. He will lead Hawai‘i’s Jodo Shinshu faithful for at least the next four years. Bishops are currently allowed to serve up to two consecutive four-year terms.
Matsumoto said his ultimate goal also happens to be “a very selfish wish” — to make Hongwanji a “household word.”
“I want the organization to be known for what it is doing, because I think it is doing a lot of positive things that helps the lives of so many people — not only its members, but the entire community here in Hawai‘i and even beyond,” said Matsumoto.
His vision is ambitious, he admits, but not unattainable.
“My thing is, I’m not doing this alone; we’re all in this together,” he said. “I really want this to be a collaborative effort, that we all look forward into the future. So my basic theme that I’ve been repeating is ‘harmony.’”
Matsumoto succeeds Bishop Thomas Okano, who retired last month after four years as bishop and over four decades as a Honpa Hongwanji minister. Matsumoto said that while the two share similar religious philosophies, there may be some subtle cultural contrasts due to their respective backgrounds.
“Perhaps [my] being third generation and he being second generation, maybe there’s a little difference there,” Matsumoto acknowledged. “The second generation, I think, is heavily impacted still by the first generation and their values, whereas someone like myself, a third-generation person, might emphasize a little more the Western part [of their upbringing].”
Another biographical detail that sets the new bishop apart from his forerunners is his Neighbor Island roots: Matsumoto was born and raised in the coffee-growing community of Honaunau on Hawai‘i island.
“I’m not from O‘ahu and so I think that a number of people see that I’m able to see things from a different light,” he said.
Prior to his most recent assignment, an eight-year tenure as resident minister of Moiliili Hongwanji, Matsumoto was based on the Big Island, where he served four Hongwanji temples — Paauilo, Honokaa, Kamuela and Kohala — and where his local perspective was an asset.
“If I remember the temples in the area correctly, I was the first English-speaking minister and, maybe because of that, I was able to really go out into the community and be able to communicate and take an active part in community affairs,” he said.
Matsumoto worked with a number of area nonprofits, including the Honokaa Coalition on Youth, North Hawaii Community Hospital’s Pastoral Care Advisory Group and North Hawaii Hospice, Inc.
Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani, who served as bishop from 1975 to 1987, noted in an e-mail interview that Matsumoto’s dual knowledge of both Japanese and English cultures will greatly benefit the organization.
“Eric brings to the job his knowledge of the Japanese language and culture, besides that of English,” he said. “Most important are his youth and energy and fresh ideas, which promise growth of the Hongwanji in Hawai‘i.”
Matsumoto’s selection followed a rigorous process: After a selection committee was formed, prospective nominees were brought up with help from state-level organizations such as the Young Buddhist Association, the Buddhist Women’s Association and the Ministerial Association. Interested nominees were then given several essay questions to answer, followed by a round of interviews before the selection committee.
Barry K. Taniguchi, Honpa Hongwanji Hilo Betsuin member and president and CEO of Hawai‘i island-based KTA Super Stores, was on the committee that selected Okano four years ago. He believes Matsumoto has the right temperament and reputation for the job.
“He understands the local customs; he understands how to bring local people together. And, he’s respected. He’s not boisterous or demanding; he tries to work through consensus. I think he’ll be a good leader,” Taniguchi told the Herald.
This year marked the second time that Matsumoto was in the running for the position of bishop. In 2007, he was asked to be a nominee, but declined.
Taniguchi was there for that decision and urged Matsumoto to start thinking about the future.
“When I talked to him, he still had young kids, and I remember telling him, ‘Eric, I understand why you declined, because you have a young family. But you’ve got to prepare yourself, because one day, you’re going to become bishop,’” he said.
Matsumoto took the advice to heart. But even four years later, his family — particularly his two young children, 11-year-old Chika and 5-year-old Caden — was just as big of a concern.
“I’d like to be there for my family, my children, and the ministry in itself does take away from family time, so it was something that I thought a lot about,” he said.
After much contemplation, Matsumoto “sensed a greater urgency” this time around and decided that the time to act was now.
“What initially convinced me about the possibility of becoming the bishop was the concern of some fellow ministers and many of the lay membership who really have a deep wish for the teachings to spread and for our organization to continue to grow,” he said.
In order to ensure that his children will not be negatively impacted by his new responsibilities, Matsumoto said he’ll have to rely heavily on his wife Tamayo (Sasaki), a native of Miyazaki, Japan, whose father headed the Anrakuji temple in Kyüshü. As such, Tamayo is familiar with the life of a minister’s wife.
“She’s going to be a very important part — as she has been up until now — in my new role,” Matsumoto said.
Interestingly enough, the more time Matsumoto spends with his family could actually be a blessing for the Hongwanji as a whole.
“Having young children, I can see things from their perspective, too, so perhaps there is an anticipation of me to really be involved with our youth movement,” he said.
When Rev. Eric Matsumoto delivered his acceptance speech at the Giseikai, he wondered out loud how a “rural country boy” could become the head of the largest Buddhist denomination in the state. But after revisiting the question a few weeks later, he seemed to have found the answer to his own rhetorical question.
“As I look back and reflect upon on my life, there have been so many different experiences and how my life has unfolded, which, as I look back now, it’s so many different things that all now seem to come together,” he said.
Born April 20, 1959, to Glenn and Ann Matsumoto, Eric spent his formative years on his family’s coffee farm in Kona. It was on that farm that young Eric quickly learned that he was not cut out for the family business.
“I realized I can’t make a living doing this; I’m too slow of a picker,” he joked.
With coffee farming clearly out of his career picture, Matsumoto poured himself into academics at Konawaena High School, where he was elected senior class president, earned a spot in the National Honor Society and graduated in 1977 in the top 10 percent of his class.
He then traveled across the island to the University of Hawai‘i’s Hilo campus, where he double-majored in history and liberal studies, focusing on Japanese language and culture.
Matsumoto acknowledged that he had no career aspirations upon entering college and gravitated towards Japanese largely because of his grandmother, Fuji Matsumoto, a devout Jodo Shinshu Buddhist who would take him to services with her as a child.
“She spoke only Japanese, so I wanted to be able to speak with her more,” he said.
Fuji Matsumoto, who Eric lovingly called “Baba-san,” passed away shortly after her grandson entered college. Her death, as well as the subsequent illnesses of his mother, left the young student with pressing life questions: “Why did she have to get ill? Why did she have to die? Why is my mom suffering through all these different illnesses?”
While Matsumoto said he was always intrigued with Buddhism growing up, it was not until he committed himself to the religion years later that he found a sense of solace.
“I see it now as part of the process,” he said. “If that didn’t happen, I may have not taken Japanese.”
It was through his language training that Matsumoto met a professor who changed his life profoundly — Tazuko Monane, a Nikkei who eventually became the director of the Japanese language program at Harvard University. Matsumoto credited Monane with fostering his interest in Japanese and with helping him pursue several prestigious scholarships.
In 1981, he won the Japan Foundation’s Study Tour Award for Outstanding Japanese (Language) Students Throughout the World. Two years later he received the Excellence in Language Study award from the board of directors of the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Language and garnered a stipend to attend Middlebury College’s prestigious summer intensive language program.
But Matsumoto’s biggest — and most career-altering — academic honor was being awarded a Crown Prince Akihito Scholarship, which allowed him to spend a year in the history department at Ryukoku University in Kyöto in 1984.
He had planned to study in Japan for a year and then resume his language studies at Ohio State University, where he had earned a teaching fellowship. In Kyöto, however, Matsumoto became close friends with a group of ministerial students from the Buddhist Churches of America who, by including him in group study sessions and social get-togethers, revived his interest in Buddhism.
“Because of them, I wanted to study more about the Buddhist Dharma (teachings) and I decided that I would forego my teaching fellowship,” he said.
Matsumoto returned to Hawai‘i knowing that he wanted to pursue his interest in the religion. Still, his newfound career interest did not make it any easier to break the news to Monane.
“She had done so much for me,” he said. “It was very difficult to let her know.”
Matsumoto followed his heart and, after talking to his professor, approached the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii about a scholarship to further his study. Most individuals who approach the organization in this regard are confident that the faith is their ultimate calling. Matsumoto, however, stopped short of making such a commitment and said that he simply had “a desire to study Buddhism.”
The Hawaii Kyodan saw enough drive in Matsumoto to take a “gamble” on him in the form of a scholarship in 1987. That brought the aspiring minister back to Ryukoku, where he earned a master’s degree in Shin Buddhist Studies in 1991.
Ministerial aspirants now have the option of completing their studies in the mainland United States — which was not an option during Matsumoto’s time.
By studying abroad, the bishop said he came to “understand firsthand what Buddhism is like in Japan,” which he believes will impact his new role in the organization.
“Right now, more than ever, I think we’re trying to expand or become more a part of the larger community, so I see my role in this time right now as being a bridge between two cultures as I try to establish Buddhism here in America,” he said. “I think that all my studies and experiences can help to do that — to be that bridge for the Dharma to flow into Western culture.”
Though Matsumoto represents a change of pace for the organization — at least in terms of age — he is looking to following in the footsteps of Bishop Okano, and before him, Bishop Chikai Yosemori.
Referring to the same-gender equal rights resolution passed by the Hawaii Kyodan in February 2010, Matsumoto said he wants the organization to “continue addressing the different issues that come up in our society.”
The resolution, which “affirms that same-gender couples should have access to equal rights and quality of life as conferred by legally recognized marriage,” added to the debates surrounding the civil unions bill, which Gov. Linda Lingle vetoed last year — and which newly elected Gov. Neil Abercrombie recently signed into law. It also marked a departure for the organization, which has historically remained silent on controversial social issues.
Prior to last year, the Hongwanji’s Committee on Social Concerns, which introduced the resolution, focused largely on allocating financial support for temples or Hongwanji members who had suffered misfortune. Additionally, the Hawaii Kyodan adopted a more international perspective in the form of a $10,000 donation to the American Red Cross’ Haiti earthquake relief effort.
Rev. Fujitani sees Matsumoto as an ideal candidate for applying such a forward-thinking approach on a large scale.
“He’s a liberal, I think, and is not afraid to tackle social issues with the help of young lay leaders, which will keep the organization abreast of the times,” Fujitani said. “His conscientiousness is quite noticeable, but that is to be expected.”
But adopting a progressive attitude towards social debates will require the organization to be proactive, especially as it educates its ministers on topical issues and addresses cultural conflicts that might come about.
“I believe we do need to nurture our leaders, too, in that area, especially those from Japan,” he said. “It’s not part of what they normally do.”
Current events aside, Matsumoto stressed that the Hongwanji must also adapt to important internal changes, such as the growing racial diversity of its membership, which is no longer defined by the Issei and Nisei.
“Up until now I think it was an extension of Japan — a kind of homogeneous culture and a certain way of looking at things, of doing things and so forth,” he said of the organization.
In order for the Hongwanji to undergo an “effective revitalization,” Matsumoto said the organization needs to properly evaluate its membership and “address their needs or concerns.”
While there will be inevitable “growing pains” as the organization takes on more of a multicultural makeup, the new bishop is confident that a “balance” will be found through the teachings of the religion.
“Hopefully, with the Dharma being central, that’s what’s going to keep us together or keep us focused,” Matsumoto said, arguing that the Hongwanji’s survival in Hawai‘i and America will depend largely on how well it adapts to this reality over the next 100 years.
To prepare for the next century, the Hawaii Kyodan has developed a strategic plan with goals and objectives. According to Matsumoto, the number one priority is for the ministers to make the Dharma more applicable to its membership.
That means that ministers might need to be “a little more direct” in their sermons instead of speaking abstractly and “hinting” at their message.
“What we share needs to be relevant to our daily life and in that respect, especially here in America, that’s what people are looking at religion for,” he said. “Unless the religion provides that, people will not see its value.”
With English speakers making up the majority of temple memberships these days, services are conducted in English. Some temples also schedule a Japanese-language service, either weekly or monthly. To further accommodate English speakers, the Hawaii Kyodan is producing service books with chants in English.
“It will help more people whose primary language is English to understand, firsthand, the religion and its teachings, and in this sense we’re on our way to making the teachings more accessible to a larger population,” Matsumoto said.
There is also a sense of urgency behind these changes, as the organization’s membership — although increasingly multiethnic — has been declining for decades.
“Many of the established religions are all experiencing declining membership and right now with the way our economy is, we’re feeling the impact,” he said, noting that Hongwanji currently has about 6,000 to 6,500 member-families, down dramatically from its plantation-era peak.
The drop-off in numbers is a source of concern for the organization, considering that many of its programs are funded by its constituents. Further complicating matters is the fact that Matsumoto wants to continue the initiatives established by his predecessors, such as Project Dana, the interfaith volunteer caregivers program; the Buddhist Study Center and the Living Treasures program.
Of particular interest to Matsumoto is the Pacific Buddhist Academy, the first Shin Buddhist high school in America, which opened its doors in the fall of 2003. PBA, he said, is “an ongoing project that we’d like to see succeed” and pledged to work with its board of trustees to “securely establish” the school in the educational community.
Barry Taniguchi is pleased with Matsumoto’s commitment to early education in the Buddhist faith, believing it is vital to the future of the Hongwanji.
“What I hope will happen is that the youth programs will pick up,” Taniguchi said. “In my case, I went to church until high school and then for a long time I didn’t go. Then, when I became older, I came back. So, even if in the middle years, like 20s through 40s, you go away, hopefully, you come back.
“But you’re only going to come back if you have a good base — if you have the basics in, the values are set early, which is what we hope to establish with the children.”
Mernie Miyasato-Crawford, a social worker by profession and a member of Jikoen Hongwanji Mission and Project Dana’s advisory council, has worked with Matsumoto in the past and is optimistic that he will find a way to succeed.
“He has not been one to sit back in a ceremonial way, but always shows active engagement in support of Project Dana’s mission and its linkage to the community at large,” Miyasato-Crawford said in an e-mail. “Based on what I’ve seen, I like his vision and his sense of priorities as he confronts new challenges as our Bishop.”
Despite the prominent financial role that the membership occupies, Matsumoto emphasized that his initiatives will not be motivated by money. Rather, he is exploring creative ways for the organization to generate income and work towards strengthening its existing core.
“More than quantity, I would say quality is what I aspire for,” he said, pointing out that he is willing to work hand-in-hand with other Buddhist denominations to gain visibility for the Hongwanji. “Perhaps from that quality, then quantity can be born as people see the value or the significance of the teachings.”
One of Matsumoto’s ideas is to produce a collection of “true-life stories” that will show how Buddhist Dharmas have affected the lives of the organization’s members. The ultimate goal is for non-members to understand “how the teachings can make a difference in all of our lives.”
Such an initiative is one that Matsumoto hopes will expand membership. But he is just as happy with moving others toward a more peaceful world.
“The teachings provide a constant reminder that you should embrace others, too,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing to do, especially when others are different from you, and in a world where there’s so much violence and hatred and discrimination that takes place, it’s the hardest thing to do. But I think it’s something that we have to try to do as people of the world, as imperfect as it is, as limited as it is, as impossible as it is. I think we all need to come together.”