Tacoma Buddhist Temple

  • By Tamiko Nimura and Justin Wadland
  • Posted 11/16/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20668
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For more than one hundred years the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, located since 1931 at 1717 S Fawcett Avenue in downtown Tacoma, has carried important ties to the city's historic Japantown both as a physical building and as an institution. Known until 1983 as the Tacoma Buddhist Church, it has long functioned as a crucial center of religious community, social life, cultural heritage, and history for Japanese Americans in Pierce County and the South Puget Sound region.

Founding and Early History

From 1910 through 1915, the Japanese American sangha (religious community) of what would become the Tacoma Buddhist Church worshipped in the Pierce County community of Fife just east of downtown Tacoma. Worship took place first in the house of Soroku Kuramoto (1857-1929) and then his general store. Kuramoto invited Reverend Hoshin Fujii of Seattle's Betsuin Buddhist Church to conduct the services at his store. The congregation grew so quickly that it was clear that a new minister and new facilities were required.

In 1915, the sangha rented a second-floor room of the Hiroshimaya Hotel in Tacoma for worship. That proved to be too small once the group reached 50 members. By 1918, under the leadership of Hyogo Nakashima and others, the sangha had raised enough funds ($2,500) to rent a 1,000-square-foot meeting hall in the street-level corner of the Columbus Hotel at 1556 Market Street in downtown Tacoma. The sangha continued to worship at the Columbus Hotel for a few years. High attendance at the May 1918 funeral of four Tacoma Japanese fire victims emphasized the need for a larger facility. Reverend Yudo Komatsu, the presiding minister at the time, urged the congregation to seek funding for a permanent building.

On April 8, 1919, the church was officially registered with the Buddhist Mission of North America with Reverend Danryo Motodani as the first resident minister. In a 1992 interview, Reverend Kosho Yukawa (son of Reverend Jokatsu Yukawa who led the congregation when the church building on Fawcett Avenue opened in 1931) explained that the temple was at first named a "church," rather than a temple, because the Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) wanted to emphasize that they were part of American society. The temple's official name was the Tacoma Hongwanji Buddhist Church until 1983. A Sunday school was organized in 1926, with enrollment growing to nearly 150 a decade later.

In 1929 fundraising for a permanent home got underway. In just three months, from August through October, 679 members of the sangha raised the required $40,000 to purchase four lots of land on Fawcett Avenue. Half the $40,000 was used for the construction of the building, while the other half was used for the elaborate altar ordered from Japan. Noted architect G. W. Bullard (1855-1935) was hired to design the building. Groundbreaking took place in January 1930, and a year later the new Tacoma Buddhist Church building was celebrated in dedication ceremonies that ran from February 28 through March 2, 1931.

Contributions of Early Ministers

Reverend Komatsu is known for having rediscovered the names and forgotten graves of 40 to 50 pioneer Japanese men, women, and children who lived in Tacoma during the early 1900s. These names have continued to be included in the temple's three major annual memorial services -- Obon, Memorial Day, and Muen Hoyo ("Perpetual Memorial").

Temple history credits Reverend Jokatsu Yukawa with several important contributions. He is remembered for leading the sangha to raise funds for a permanent building, and was able to remain and participate in its 1931 dedication parade. He established several church institutions: the Young Buddhists' Association (which continues to this day) and a church-sponsored Japanese-language school for the Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans). Temple history also recounts that he spoke out against and ended "discriminatory seating practices" at the Roxy Theatre in downtown Tacoma ("Tacoma Buddhist Church," 263). And he is one of several Japanese immigrants credited with bringing the Japanese martial art of kendo to the Pacific Northwest and making Tacoma one of the four core host locations for Northwest kendo tournaments until 1987. A colorful personality, Yukawa also staged a performance of the classical Japanese drama Chushingura (also known as "47 Ronin") at the church; soon afterward the entire cast walked in a July 4 parade wearing traditional costumes, prompting a Tacoma lumber magnate to invite them to perform the play at a lawn party.

Ordination of Reverend Sunya Pratt

On the evening of April 23, 1936, the church held the ordination ceremony for Reverend Sunya Pratt (1898-1986), a British-born woman who would become an important presence in the community over the next five decades. More than 200 people attended, more than half of them nonmembers of the congregation from the wider Tacoma community. Quite a few were journalists, as the event attracted considerable attention from the national and regional press, with write-ups appearing in Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and local newspapers. Many articles called Pratt "the first white Buddhist priestess," but the scholar Michihiro Ama has observed that she was not the first European American woman to be ordained, although she was the first to receive widespread press coverage.

Bishop Kenju Masuyama presided over the ceremony in bright red robes, assisted by three Buddhist priests: Reverend Jokatsu Yukawa, who had earlier been the Tacoma church's minister; Reverend Shoshu Sakow; and Reverend Julius Goldwater from Los Angeles. Following a procession of 10 Japanese American girls, Pratt presented herself in a bright yellow robe that she would not wear again until her death and repeated three times that she sought refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and sangha. After the ceremony, she answered journalists' questions, recounting her path to Buddhism. When she reached the age of 14, her father presented to her books of several religions, telling her she was free to select one. She chose Buddhism because of "its philosophy of compassion, calmness, emancipation from ignorance and prejudice, its justice" (Time).

Pratt, who had moved to Tacoma with her husband, a businessman also from England, told The Seattle Times that "the Japanese here in the church have welcomed me cordially from the first" ("Buddhists Ordain Tacoma Woman"). After Bishop Masuyama and Robert Clifton read an article Pratt had written in a Buddhist publication, they referred her to the Tacoma Buddhist Church and encouraged her to participate. She began teaching children in the church's Sunday school, offering Dharma lessons in English for two years before her 1936 ordination. Most of the church's priests delivered sermons in Japanese, and Pratt's English-language lessons were in high demand. Sunday school began to grow beyond expectation, requiring classes to be held in "the kitchen, minister's office, balcony, basement, stage and alcove" ("Tacoma Buddhist Church," 264). On a voluntary basis Pratt also traveled to give talks, hold weekly Dharma classes, and participate in youth groups at Buddhist temples in Auburn and Seattle.

In the decades that followed, Pratt raised two children in Tacoma, participated in the family business, the Tacoma Button Company, and remained committed to service at the church. She served under nine of the ministers assigned to the church and became an important leader and teacher, not just in Tacoma but throughout the Puget Sound region. When the Japanese American community was incarcerated during World War II, she obtained permission to hold classes for young people at "Camp Harmony" (officially the Puyallup Assembly Center), where many members of the local community were temporarily held. During the incarceration she watched over the church building, which held many of the members' belongings. The temple's holdings include an album that testifies to the powerful influence Pratt had on the community, gathering many thank-you notes and letters presented to her on the 50th anniversary of her ordination in 1986.

Sunday Service, Music, and Holidays

The Tacoma Buddhist Church was part of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Buddhism and, like other Jodo Shinshu sanghas in the mid twentieth century, the church developed a regular schedule of Sunday services once it had moved into a permanent location and had an assigned minister. As a spiritual center for a hard-working immigrant community, the church served essential social and cultural functions that shaped the structure of the worship and gatherings. The service, as well as the architecture of the church and the music used in the early years, often appear deliberately modeled on forms found in Protestant churches of the day, but many of these choices reflect both pragmatism and the process of acculturation. Kosho Yukawa noted in 1992:

"[T]o be more accepted in the American society was a very important thing for earlier Japanese immigrants and younger generation in those days. Not accepted -- to be part of this society. So they used a term like 'church' and many other things we have adopted" (Yukawa interview, 1992, p. 15, original emphasis).

The Sunday service has had a relatively consistent format since the beginning. A worshiper typically enters the Hondo (main sanctuary area) and makes an offering of incense at the brazier before the altar, then sits in a pew waiting for the service to begin. Then, from a lectern in front, a sangha member leads the sangha through through the primary elements of service: chanting sutras (Buddhist scriptures), singing of gathas (much like hymns in Christian churches), and a dharma talk from the minister. For many decades, the service was offered primarily in Japanese, but the first two decades of the twenty-first century saw a shift to English, except in sutras. Recitation of "Namu Amida Butsu" (or Nembutsu) is a central practice of Jodo Shinshu, and worshipers repeat this phrase at different points throughout the service. According to Shinran Shonen, the founder of the Jodo Shinshu sect, Nembutsu as a practice expresses gratitude to Amida Buddha, an embodiment of compassion distinct from the historical Shakyamuni Buddha.

The music used during the service (the gathas) demonstrates the complex interplay between Japanese and American cultures over the generations. Early on the the sangha began accompanying the singing with piano or organ music and, like many other Jodo Shinshu sanghas, the Tacoma Buddhist Church used a compilation titled Standard Buddhist Gathas and Services: Japanese and English. Drawing from an earlier anthology compiled by Ernest Hunt, the songs often relied heavily on Protestant hymns, inserting Buddhist lyrics into them. Efforts in subsequent years to develop new gathas reflected a desire to emphasize Buddhist teachings and keep them relevant to the contemporary lives of sangha members. For instance, Donna Sasaki, a member of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple, contributed more than 20 songs to the Shin Buddhist Service Book, published in 2013. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, songs at the temple were primarily in English with original Japanese compositions behind them.

Major holidays celebrated at the church included Hoonko, the memorial for Shinran Shonen, founder of Jodo Shinshu, in mid-January; Hanamatsuri, commemorating the Buddha's birth on April 8; Higan, held on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes; and Obon, a large public festival to celebrate and remember deceased relatives. The church first began holding large public Obon festivals in the 1930s, when Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga, a minister from California, introduced duyo buyo (children's dancing) and bon odori (obon dancing) to sanghas on the West Coast. The temple still hosts a lively Obon festival that attracts many members of the wider community. On a late afternoon in August, normally quiet Fawcett Avenue becomes filled with dancing and taiko drumming performances and as the sun goes down the event concludes with lighting of memorials in the temple garden.


In 1942, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, members of the Tacoma Buddhist Church congregation were among those forcibly relocated to a detention center in Pinedale, California. The church's Reverend Gikan Nishinaga was among the first Issei leaders in the Tacoma Japanese community to be rounded up in an FBI raid, and was taken along with 32 other Issei Tacoma Japanese community leaders to a Department of Justice internment camp in Fort Missoula, Montana.

Although Buddhists were generally allowed less access to spiritual leadership than Christians in the camps, Reverend Pratt was able to minister to Buddhists at Camp Harmony in nearby Puyallup and conduct a Sunday school program there. During the war the sangha members formed Buddhist groups at camps including Heart Mountain, Tule Lake, Rohwer, Poston, and Minidoka.

Many members of the sangha stored their belongings in the church basement and the building doors were closed for the duration of the war. Their belongings were unfortunately looted and vandalized during that time. In 1945, as the war came to an end, the church was reopened by a few returning Japanese Americans and served as a temporary hostel for a small number of those returning. The first postwar religious service was held in the home of Reverend Sunya Pratt: a funeral for Sergeant Edwin Fukui. The following year, Reverend Nishinaga returned to Tacoma and was able to resume services at the church. He brought back the Young Buddhists Association (YBA) and formed a Sonenkai (adult members association) in 1947.

Postwar Recovery, New Traditions, and Expansion

Though attendance at the church did not reach prewar numbers, members of the sangha worked together over the years to maintain, sustain, and expand its community.

The 1950s brought several milestones. In 1952 the church hosted a Japanese dignitary, Lord Abbot Ohtani, and was the first in the United States to receive him and his wife. The Tacoma minister, Reverend Hitoshi Futaba, helped to reopen the White River Buddhist Church in Auburn, north of Tacoma in south King County. In 1959, the Tacoma Buddhist Church held a dedication ceremony for a new residence for the minister. Built to match the architecture of the church building, the minister's residence still stood in 2018. From 1959 through 1971, the church had a Boy Scout troop that won many awards.

The 1960s saw an era of new traditions and expanded structures. In 1962 the church began an annual fall sukiyaki dinner fundraiser, a tradition that continued as of 2018. Though it was difficult to buy specialty Japanese cookware in the United States in the early 1960s, Reverend Sadamaro Ouchi traveled to Japan and returned with a large number of thin aluminum pans made for cooking individual portions of sukiyaki. More than half a century later, these remained in use for the popular annual dinners. The sangha's Japanese Language School restarted in 1963 and continued for about 10 years. In 1965, the church celebrated its 50th anniversary with the publication of a history booklet and days of celebration and worship. And through much of the 1960s, church members under the leadership of Yosh Mayeda worked to install a Japanese garden behind the parsonage.

A meeting room was constructed and dedicated in 1971; in 1984 it was renamed the Reverend Pratt Room in honor of Sunya Pratt. In 1976 cherry trees donated by the sangha were planted in front of the church in support of the Tacoma-Pierce County celebration of the United States bicentennial.

When former students of the Tacoma Japanese Language School (Nihongo gakko) held reunions in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s -- which also served as reunions of Tacoma's Japanese American community -- the church was an important worship and gathering space.

Tacoma Buddhist Temple

In 1983, in consultation with the sangha, the name Tacoma Buddhist Church was changed to Tacoma Buddhist Temple.

In 1990, stained glass windows for the Hondo were donated by three sisters, Yoshiko Sugiyama (1919-2017), Tadaye Kawasaki (1921-2010), and Kimi Tanbara (1924-2017), daughters of one of the first temple board presidents, Masataka Fujimoto. The windows depict the lotus (essence of Buddhism) and wisteria (symbol of Jodo Shinshu teachings).

The temple board applied for and received historical landmark status for the building from the Tacoma City Council in 1995. Its corner lot on 17th Street and Fawcett Avenue, purchased in 1985, remained largely vacant as the temple worked with University of Washington Tacoma on development of the new UW Tacoma campus, which opened in 1997 and included the Tacoma Buddhist Temple within its boundaries.

A resident taiko group, Tacoma Fuji Taiko, formed at the temple in 2009 and as of 2018 continued playing at select venues and events, including the temple's annual Bon Odori summer celebration and observance.

In 2013 the City of Tacoma Murals Program allowed a mural to be painted on the back of the temple building by Tacoma artist Chelsea O'Sullivan. The temple celebrated its centennial from in 2014 and 2015 with a wide variety of celebrations, including special services, luncheons, a golf tournament, and a group tour to Japan.

The Tacoma Buddhist Temple's sole paid staff member as of 2018 was its minister, supported by a volunteer Board of Directors and members of the sangha. Important groups have included the Buddhist Women's Association (BWA, formerly known as the "Fujinkai"), the Sonenkai (adult members association), and the Young Buddhist's Association. The BWA coordinates and performs much of the "behind-the-scenes" work of the temple, including its festivals, bazaars, and fundraisers, which include many community volunteers. Toban (assignment) groups help to set up and clean up events. Members of the sangha rotate through these duties.

The ethnic makeup of the Tacoma Buddhist Temple's sangha has changed over the years, with approximately 75 to 80 percent being Japanese American in 2018. The sangha continues to grow, reflecting its openness to change and vitality while honoring its roots as part of one of the major historic Japanese American communities in Washington.


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