Steveston Buddhist Church Celebrates 80th Anniversary
On February 21st, I had the pleasure of meeting with three members of the Steveston Buddhist Temple—Elmer Morishita, co-chair of the 80th Anniversary Committee; Alice Kokubo, member of the history committee; and Roy Akune, long-time member and former assistant minister of the temple. With their assistance I was able to gather considerable information about the 80 year history of the temple.
THE ORIGINS OF THE STEVESTON BUDDHIST Temple, celebrating its 80th Anniversary on Saturday, October 25, 2008, are rooted in the first wave of Japanese immigrants to BC. Following on the heels of Manzo Nagano arrival in 1877 and lured by dreams of riches, young men from small fishing villages in Japan began flocking to Steveston. For the first two decades a frontier mentality and atmosphere prevailed in Steveston as the almost-entirely male workforce worked hard to get a foothold in this new land, generally with the idea of returning home with their new-found wealth. Around 1908, though, men began to send for their wives to join them or arranged for brides through the picture bride system. As a stable community started to emerge and the Japanese began to form a sizeable portion of the population, priorities began to shift. Merchants opened stores to serve the growing population and families were able to look beyond mere survival to their spiritual needs.
While most of the fishermen had been Buddhists in Japan, they did not necessarily remain so upon arrival in Canada. According to the recently-translated memoirs of Konosuke Nishikihama, early Japanese immigrants, in order to obtain fishing licenses, required naturalization papers: “When obtaining their naturalization status, they were asked to state their religion by the officials. All Japanese immigrants of the time answered that they were Christians, concealing that they were actually Buddhists.”
According to Terry Watada, in his book Bukkyo Tozen, A History of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism in Canada, some of the new arrivals felt that the Japanese should assimilate into the mainstream culture as quickly as possible—learning English, adopting English customs, and converting to Christianity. Writes Watada, “Many Japanese immigrants became Christians as a result of a conversion to the faith. However, most were drawn to the religion because it represented Western civilization. To be Canadian was to be God-fearing and white. Of course, it was impossible to be white but to assimilate as Christian was considered a part of the ‘Canadianization’ or acceptance process.”
He also points out many Japanese felt an obligation to the missionaries who worked hard to gain their trust. The Christian church was the first Canadian institution to help the newcomers, providing interpreters, employment agents and legal aid. Given the strong sense of obligation that is part of the Japanese culture, it is not surprising that many found their way into the church this way.
Watada writes, though, that despite the best efforts of the Christian missionaries, 68% of the Japanese chose to remain Buddhists and the first Canadian Buddhist Temple opened in 1911 on Franklin Street in Vancouver.
OPPOSITION TO THE CONSTRUCTION of a similar temple in Steveston was surprisingly fierce. The Japanese Fishermen’s Association, who had spent years fighting against discriminatory measures, objected to the Buddhists, fearing that any overt practicing of their faith would fuel anti-Japanese sentiments and hinder attempts at assimilation.
Despite the obstacles placed in their way, devout Buddhists continued to practice, gathering in private residences. According to Nishikihama, in 1907 Sansuke Muto and Kasaburo Ichino bought a butsudan from a store in Kyoto that was installed in a rented room on the second floor of a drugstore at the corner of Moncton and 2nd Avenue. They called the room the Bukkyo Club (Buddhist Club). When funerals were held, the butsudan was carried piggy-back to the deceased person’s home, where the sutra would be chanted. People would also travel to Vancouver for services, and whenever possible, ministers would be brought in from Vancouver or elsewhere.
Despite their best efforts, the situation was not ideal, and many Buddhists continued to argue that Steveston needed its own temple. Serious discussions took place in 1924, but objections on the part of the fishermen continued as there was still a very real possibility they faced expulsion from the fishing grounds. Regulations were being brought in that would limit the ability of Japanese fishermen to earn a living and they didn’t want to do anything that would harm their cause. As it was, many fishermen were forced out of the profession and were forced to turn to agricultural work.
In 1928 a lawsuit against the British Columbia Fisheries Ministry was concluded in the fishermen’s favour and was upheld on appeal. With this lawsuit settled, the objections of the fishermen diminished and plans to build a Buddhist Temple in Steveston were accelerated.
A master carpenter, Seijiro Kiba from Ocean Falls, was hired to build the temple on land that had been purchased for $4000.00. With assistance from Tsunematsu Atagi, Kiba built the Temple at a cost of $8,000. The finished building consisted of a main hall and a youth hall. The temple, at 12191 1st Avenue, was officially opened in September 1928. The congregation numbered approximately 200 families and the first minister was Yosaku Yamashita.
With the completion of the temple, a number of sub-groups were formed, including the Oyorikai (women’s group – later changed to Fujinkai) and Bussei (Young Buddhist Men’s Society). Sixty men formed a fire brigade, volunteering with the local fire department.
Alice Kokubo recalled that a number of ministers were assigned to the Temple over the next 14 years until life was disrupted with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent expulsion from the coast of all Japanese Canadians. “During the internment, the building was sold and converted to a movie theatre named the Steva. The original site is now occupied by commercial establishments.”
THE BANISHMENT FROM THE COAST had the effect of changing the religious demographics of the Nikkei community. When plans were first made to send the Japanese Canadians to internment camps in the interior of BC, it was initially decided to group them according to religious affiliation, with United Church members being sent to Kaslo, Anglicans to Slocan, Catholics to Greenwood and Buddhists to the ghost town of Sandon. Alice, who lived in Lemon Creek during the early war years, said that the practice was eventually abandoned. “I think the government realized it might not be in their best interest to have these groups together. Anyway, the effect was that many Buddhists ended up together, first in Sandon, and eventually in Lemon Creek, Bay Farm, New Denver and Tashme.”
The only Buddhist temple with a resident minister that remained open during the war was the one in Raymond, Alberta
When the wartime restrictions were finally lifted in 1949, Japanese Canadians were granted full citizenship and allowed to relocate anywhere in the country. Many chose to remain in the prairies or in central Canada, where they had settled during or after the war. Gradually, though, some began returning to the coast, including Steveston. The first years after the removal of restrictions were difficult as families set about rebuilding their lives—buying boats, finding jobs, schools and places to live. According to Roy Akune, who was one of the Dharma School students (then referred to as Sunday School), “It wasn’t until 1952 that the community turned its thoughts to re-establishing the Steveston Buddhist Temple. Through the guidance and efforts of the first post-war minister, Rev. Shinjo Ikuta, the Young Buddhists Association and Sunday School began to meet at the Red Cross Hall on Third Avenue”. Soon afterward, Ho-onko Services resumed at the Hall and a Board was elected by the fifty-member congregation.
In 1954, the former Japanese Kindergarten School at Chatham Street and No. 1 Road was purchased with $8,500 that had been held in trust from the sale of the pre-war church, along with another $4,000 that was borrowed.
As both Roy and Alice recall very vividly, “The basement of the temple would flood on many occasions and despite the best efforts of the church members, the Chatham Street building proved to be less than ideal”. Although some members objected to another relocation, the decision was made to buy land where a brand new Temple could be constructed. Roy credits the conscientious efforts of many temple members who, despite opposition from some members who argued that the new site would be too far from the Steveston town site, undertook a massive fund-raising drive and in 1960 a five acre piece of land was purchased at 4360 Garry Street.
The three interviewees agreed that in hindsight this was one of the best moves undertaken by the temple members of that day. In fact, Roy Akune believes that the temple is one of the finest and has the largest parking lot of any Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple in North America.
A German-born architect Arnulf Petzold, who had lived and worked in Japan, was hired to design the new Temple, which was completed in 1964. Over the years, additions have been made, including the construction of a minister’s manse and a gymnasium.
TODAY, THE STEVESTON BUDDHIST Temple boasts 350 members and remains central to the Nikkei community in Steveston. Regular activities at the Temple include weddings, funerals, and memorial services. Programs include Buddhist services, Dharma school, guest lecturers, counselling, retreats, seniors’ gateball, a youth taiko group, a choir, community bingo nights, and many other activities.
Like many organizations an ongoing challenge is finding ways of reaching out to younger members. As the Temple celebrates its 80th Anniversary, it looks back at a rich and colourful history and prepares to move forward into a bright future.
As co-chair, Elmer Morishita is looking forward to the events planned for the 80th Anniversary celebration year, which include a lecture series and a banquet on Saturday, October 25 that will be followed by a service on Sunday the 26th to commemorate this major milestone of the Steveston Buddhist Temple. As he says, “this will be a significant celebration for our senior members and an acknowledgement of their hard work and contribution to the temple.”
For details about the lecture series, readers may refer to page 15 for the full schedule. One may also contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 604.277.2323 for more information or to become involved with the Steveston Buddhist Temple.