An Advocate for Interfaith Cooperation
Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada
Courtesy: Japanese Cultural
Center of Hawai‘i
Editor’s note: This bimonthly series, “Honoring the Legacy,” is a partnership between The Hawai‘i Herald and the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. It celebrates the achievements of Japanese American men and women who live the values of earlier generations, continuing their proud legacy. The authors are retired physician Melvin Inamasu and Violet Harada, professor emeritus of library science at UH Mänoa, both volunteers with the JCCH. The complete interview with Yoshiaki Fujitani, the subject of this month’s profile, is available at the JCCH Tokioka Heritage Resource Center and also at jcch.soutronglobal.net/Portal/Default/en-US/RecordView/Index/7260.
“A man before his time.” That is how Donna Higashi, a family friend, describes Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani in a Honolulu Magazine article by Jayna Omaye in December 2019. As the bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, Fujitani was a groundbreaking leader. He was also the second-youngest minister, and the second nisei, to become bishop in the history of the church. During his tenure as bishop, Fujitani supported the creation of two programs that defined his beliefs in interfaith cooperation: Project Dana and the Living Treasures of Hawai‘i.
Fujitani’s grandfather and father were both ordained ministers. His grandfather served at the Gekkoji Temple in Shimane Prefecture, Honshü; however, his father, Kodo, was the second son and did not take over the temple. Instead, Kodo studied for the ministry on his own, serving in Okinawa before being assigned to Hawai‘i. Kodo ministered at churches in Pa‘uwela and Wailuku, Maui, then at Mö‘ili‘ili Hongwanji on O‘ahu.
The first son in a family of eight children, Yoshiaki Fujitani was born in 1923 in Pa‘uwela on Maui. He was 12 when the family moved to Honolulu where he attended Washington Intermediate School and McKinley High School. Early on, Fujitani showed his compassionate nature when a bully at Washington Intermediate accosted him and took his lunch money. He had to report the incident to his teacher but when the bully returned his money, Fujitani said, “I felt that that student needed the money more than I did so I gave him back the money.” He never bothered Fujitani again.
Fujitani was a sophomore at the University of Hawai‘i when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941. As one of the cadets in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he was asked to report to UH immediately. At first he thought that the military was simply engaging in maneuvers and “I showed up barefoot and in corduroy trousers.” He soon discovered the gravity of the situation. Like the other cadets, he became part of the Hawaii Territorial Guard when it was activated in 1941. He honestly admitted that he lacked the experience to lead the group, being only eighteen years old when a corporal in Company B. As he laughingly divulged, “I depended on an older guy who was a cab driver and a professional gambler to help me lead the squad. I was the nominal head.”
The HTG itself was short lived. Since most of the members were Nikkei, the growing anti-Japanese sentiment led to the HTG’s de-activation. Wanting to prove their loyalty, many of the discharged guardsmen, including Fujitani, joined the labor battalion attached to the 34th Engineers Auxiliary, the Varsity Victory Volunteers. At Schofield Barracks, VVV volunteers quarried rock, strung barbed wire and built dumps, military installations, roads, and warehouses. In 1942, when authorities incarcerated his father at Fort Sam Houston in Texas and then at Santa Fe in New Mexico, Fujitani was angered by the government’s actions and left the VVV to help his family. He admitted his outrage, saying, “Here I was, volunteering as a true American and my father was being treated so roughly. I lost my patriotism.”
Military Intelligence Service
A year later, Fujitani had a change of heart. He was influenced by slightly older mentors like Ted Tsukiyama, who looked at the war and what was happening from a more measured perspective. When Sgt. Edwin Kawahara, a teacher at the MIS Language School, invited Fujitani to join the group, he accepted. After training at Camp Savage and Fort Snelling in Minnesota, he spent the war years translating military documents for the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section. The GI Bill, which made it possible for so many veterans to further their education after the war, also enabled Fujitani to pursue degrees in the history of religions and the history of cultures at the University of Chicago. It was also in Chicago that he met and married his wife, Tomi, a California native whose family had been incarcerated during the war.
Continuing the Family Legacy
Following Fujitani’s graduate work in Chicago, he decided to deepen his understanding of Buddhism by studying at Ötani University, Kyöto University and Ryukoku University. In 1955, he was ordained as a Jodo Shinshü priest. He began his ministerial career as associate to his father at Wailuku Hongwanji Mission on Maui. His aim was to continue the family tradition and to “be a good Buddhist as an example.”
An important goal for him was to reach the Nisei population in Hawai‘i. To do this, Fujitani recognized the great need for ministers who could speak English. In 1960, he was appointed head of the statewide Honpa Hongwanji’s English Department. Then in 1975, Fujitani was elected bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii. His vision embraced a freer expression of religious faith. In his 12 years leading the church, he supported the creation of several landmark programs that redefined the scope and breadth of Buddhism in Hawai‘i.
In 1976, under Fujitani’s leadership, the church initiated the Living Treasures Program at the suggestion of insurance executive Paul Yamanaka. The Living Treasures award ceremony honors individuals who have demonstrated excellence and high standards of achievement in their particular fields of endeavor.
Since its inception, Living Treasures has honored almost 200 individuals who have made significant contributions to our society. These people represent a diverse spectrum of faiths and ethnicities, with their lives imbued with a spirit of aloha and demonstrating the interdependence of people who have shared in their skills and talents.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the February 2021 Living Treasures event has been tentatively postponed to 2022.
Project Dana and Beyond
While serving as bishop, Fujitani provided support and guidance for the development of Project Dana which started its service in the community in 1989. He credits Shimeji Kanazawa and Rose Nakamura for starting this project that crosses generations and cultures. “Dana” in Sanskrit means selfless giving, an apt name for this program that cares for seniors through interfaith programs. Trained volunteers provide a variety of services to the elderly and disabled to ensure their wellbeing, independence, and dignity in an environment of their choice. The volunteers do this without a desire for recognition or reward.
In retirement, Fujitani has continued to spread the Buddhist tenets of compassion and inclusivity. For a time, he was director of the Buddhist Study Center near the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. According to Densho Encyclopedia (encyclopedia.densho.org/Yoshiaki_Fujitani/), he also served as president of BDK Sudatta Hawai‘i from 1998 to 2008, during which his mission was to disseminate the book, “The Teachings of the Buddha,” worldwide.
Importance of Interfaith Cooperation
Fujitani’s overriding desire remains the promotion of religious tolerance and interfaith participation among different groups. He believes that Buddhism is a faith that encourages a freedom “to be who we are” and to improve the quality of living in our society. “I think the only way is to get out into the community and to work with other faiths,” he said.
For this reason, he has served on the advisory council of The Interfaith Alliance Hawai‘i, an outgrowth of the Bridges for Justice and Compassion, the legislative and human needs committee of the Hawai‘i Council of Churches. TIAH brings together concerned people of different faiths committed to involvement in the life of our community. In recent years, TIAH has lent its support to a range of social issues including marriage equality, assisted dying and juvenile-justice and youth-prison reform.
Looking back on his life’s work, Fujitani noted, “Whatever I have done, I felt that somebody was helping me along. For any idea to take shape, you have to have three elements: a good idea, the ability to do something about it and the opportunity to do it. I was fortunate to have those three things.” His legacy bears witness to his action-oriented approach to improving lives. Working together with all faiths is central to his philosophy. Fittingly, he says, “We’re not alone; we are dependent beings.”