Trisha Nakamura
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist

During this celebration of Hanamatsuri, I take this opportunity to stop and reflect on how Buddhism has created inclusive spaces for our LGBTQ+ communities in Hawai‘i and beyond. Specifically former Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani and also the Social Concerns Committee of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii (Honpa Hongwanji). I reflect on how compassion has led to courageous efforts to lift up and open doors for LGBTQ+ people.

I am not a religious person, though I attended Christian schools growing up. I attended a very small Lutheran elementary school and Episcopalian high school. My paternal relatives were largely Christian. My maternal relatives, especially the generation of my grandparents, followed Buddhist traditions. My intersections with Buddhism existed mostly through familial and cultural traditions. The little I knew about Buddhism was gleaned from attendance at Buddhist funeral services at the Honpa Hongwanji on Pali Highway or at Hosoi Mortuary. My memories include the pungent incense burning my nose, the reverberations of the bell energizing my body and the room, and the stifled disrespectful giggles my cousins and I would struggle to suppress during the unfamiliar chanting that we were not accustomed to hearing. 

In high school and college, many of my local Japanese friends were Buddhist. They knew other people through the Young Buddhist Association. These folks had connections I did not have. They also seemed to know more about their culture than me. I conflated being Japanese with being Buddhist. 

What was true is that they had an identity and set of values. Their values were Buddhist, not Japanese. One of these values is compassion. It is compassion that drove courageous positions from within the Buddhist church here. This by no means captures every position taken by this community and individual Buddhists. Rather, it highlights key events that moved me and also advanced the work for inclusion of our LGBTQ+ community.

Infinite Compassion

Bishop Yoshiaki Fujitani very publicly expressed his support for the rights of same-sex couples to marry in 1998. He agreed to have his name listed alongside others in brochures of the group fighting against a constitutional amendment to allow the legislature to restrict the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. His name was one of the few Japanese names on the list (others included Jean Aoki, president of the League of Women Voters; Allicyn Hikida Tasaka, president of the Japanese American Citizens League Honolulu Chapter; and Al and Jane Nakatani, whose book “Honor Thy Children” shed light on the role homophobia played in the life of their son who had died due to HIV/AIDS related complications). Even before this more public expression of support, it is noted that as early as 1996, Bishop Fujitani had unequivocally stated that Shin Buddhism performs same-sex marriages because “Amida Buddha in his infinite compassion accepts all of us as we are.” Honpa Hongwanji Bishop Chikai Yosemori, who served in this leadership role from 1997 to 2007, would also note at a ministers’ meeting his support of Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii performing same-sex marriages.

Noted as a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i, Bishop Fujitani’s legacy includes the founding of Project Dana, which serves elders and their caregivers, the Hawaii Association of International Buddhists, and the creation of the Social Concerns Committee of the Honpa Hongwanji during his tenure as Bishop. He is also noted for his involvement with creating the Interfaith Alliance of Hawai‘i and the Samaritan Counseling Center of Hawaii, both of which bring together diverse perspectives for a common goal and purpose to serve.

Bishop Fujitani was a catalyst to allow for others in positions of influence to later take on hard positions. It is easy to think back almost 20 years ago and build a narrative that his role as a Buddhist minister and leader would have naturally driven him to take a position because compassion and principle would have demanded that. It is still worth noting that at the time, this was an extremely unpopular position. The 1993 Baehr vs. Miike case, involving three same-sex couples who had applied for licenses to marry with the Hawai‘i State Department of Health, was a hotly debated topic and faith-based organizations and churches were engaged in political warfare. His courage and individual compass led to large change — not in the immediate, but over time.

For me, Bishop Fujitani’s stance was personally meaningful. I was gobsmacked that someone closer to my grandparents’ generation would support an LGBTQ+ issue. His position made me feel included — and that being gay did not mean that I was by default cast out by my Japanese and Okinawan communities. I met Bishop Fujitani at the Buddhist Study Center around the time of the battles over same-sex marriage. A mentor and now lecturer at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa Kyle Kajihiro took me along for a meeting. All I could think about was how this local Japanese American man was on record supporting same-sex marriage — and also how it was possible that people in my own family would be compassionate and welcoming of me as someone who was gay.

Social Concerns Committee

The Honpa Hongwanji, through its Social Concerns Committee, took a clear position in February 2010 through unanimous passage of a resolution to support gay rights. The Committee then was chaired by a layperson, Rev. Blayne Higa. Rev. Higa, as the Chair, then noted, “We wanted to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, too.’ We had never taken a stance before.” Though ministers had referenced compassion and understanding as their basis for noting their individual belief that the Honpa Hongwanji would perform same-sex marriages, the organization had not publicly made their support clear.

I remember commending Rev. Higa at the time for this action and also thanking a friend’s father who had served on the committee. In 2010, three years before the marriage equality act was signed into law by Governor Abercrombie, the resolution mattered and signaled to people in the LGBTQ+ community that we belonged. In 2010, while marriage equality in Hawai‘i was not a guarantee; some individuals, businesses and religious groups still opposed. The very “out” and clear support for a group of people whose right to marry was not sanctioned by the government stood for a lot. Even now, people are not supportive of these rights and laws providing for marriage equality.

The president of the Honpa Hongwanji, Alton Miyamoto, noted, “We want to share our Buddhist values of universal compassion, equality and interdependence with the larger community. We believe this issue is a matter of civil rights. We affirm the human dignity and worth of all people and that everyone deserves equal treatment within our society.”

In a recent conversation with Rev. Higa, I realized how linked compassion and action are and how Rev. Fujitani and the Social Concern Committee’s work are so synchronously intertwined. Rev. Higa shared that the Social Concerns Committee formed during Bishop Yoshiaki’s tenure in 1982. While the formation was in response to providing relief to address the impacts of Hurricane ‘Iwa, the committee’s role expanded from aiding the community to address social issues and promote peace. Rev. Higa further noted that some of the committee’s role is to advise the bishop on social issues and also to advocate for the welfare of the disadvantaged, disabled or discriminated. The Honpa Hongwanji actively builds a team of “laypersons and ministers that research and study contemporary social issues relevant to the Shin Buddhist community in Hawai‘i and makes recommendations on social action by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii.”

The Chair of the Committee in 2010 once again is in the role of chair and is now a minister and serves as the Resident Minister of the Kona Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Kealakekua on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. The Social Concerns Committee has taken positions on the war in Ukraine, environmental harmony and the right to reproductive freedom. Like the statement issued in 2010, compassion drives the work to speak out for those who stand at the borders or who are voiceless. The work is far from done to create equity and inclusion of our LGBTQ+ communities and persons. The Honpa Hongwanji will be holding a LGBTQ+ 101 training online and in-person on Saturday, April 22. The session will feature my co-journalist on this column, Camaron Miyamoto, and will feature a panel of LGBTQ+ persons and their families, including Pieper Toyama who led the Pacific Buddhist Academy.

It is with a sense of deep gratitude for champions of compassion including Bishop Fujitani, Bishop Yosemori, Rev. Higa and the countless individuals who have taken positions to be inclusive and take positions that may not be easy or popular. During this Hanamatsuri, perhaps it is a time for all to reflect on compassion. In his April 2022 blog, Rev. Higa reflects on the birth of Buddha noting, “In these challenging times of conflict and war, we should reflect on this limitless life of equality and freedom that was promised by the Buddha and strive to walk the path of peace that he shared.” I will use this Hanamatsuri to contemplate and see what lessons I can take from Buddhist teachings to explore the ways I can let compassion guide my work and me.

Trisha Nakamura is the Interim Dean of Student Services at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa William S. Richardson School of Law, where she has served as the Director of Career Services. She is a volunteer board member of the Japanese American Citizens League — Honolulu Chapter, an organization advocating for civil and human rights. Prior to her work at the Law School, she worked as a Deputy Public Defender, defending the rights of those accused. As a Yonsei local Okinawan woman who was born and raised in Hawai‘i, she is committed to equity and social justice. Her respect for this place and people, and her appreciation of diversity, inform her desire to contribute to our community.


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