Jikoen Temple, a symbol of anti-discrimination in Hawaii, faces threat of closure

Travis Quezon

KALIHI—Over 70 years ago in Kalihi, five individuals decided to create a place where people could worship without being discriminated against, explained minister Shindo Nishiyama to a crowded Jikoen Hongwanji temple. Families, temple users, and members of various Hawaii Okinawan organizations had gathered Tuesday night to discuss ways to save the temple from closure due to a lack of funds.

“We have to continue this tradition to show the community that Buddhism fights against discrimination,” Nishiyama said to a round of applause.

The Jikoen Hongwanji ohana had gone from talking about cutting costs earlier in the night to re-identifying the temple’s original mission and current purpose in Hawaii, which has the largest Okinawan population outside of Okinawa itself.

The Jikoen Hongwanji Temple in Honolulu was built in 1938 as a center for Okinawan immigrants who came to Hawaii in the 1920s and 30s and were facing discrimination by Japanese immigrants who had arrived 15 years earlier. Historians note that while discrimination against Okinawans was often covert and indirect, the prospect of intermarriage was publicly shunned.

The temple had remained popular among Okinawan families for several generations; it currently serves as the meeting place for a variety of community organizations and is a staple during Hawaii’s Bon Dance season. However, a lack of attendance at weekly prayer services and a decrease in interest by younger generations have compounded the temple’s latest financial troubles.

“A lot of temples share the same struggle,” said Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii treasurer John Toguchi. “It’s not just the small temples, it’s the large temples as well.” Toguchi said the mission saw a $60,000 shortfall last year.

Temple volunteers estimated that they had to raise $75,000, with $32,000 of that amount going to the mission’s headquarters, in order to stay open. Costs are also needed for the temple’s basic maintenance and repairs—furniture, bathrooms, roof leaks, and repainting.

Community members asked if it was possible to separate from the Hongwanji Mission and run independently in order to save on costs. Temple staff explained that the international mission that Jikoen Hongwanji Temple falls under provides a large number of services and assets, including the temple’s minister. The Hongwanji Mission, based in Kyoto Japan, also operates in Canada, Brazil, Peru, China, and Africa.

“I look at it this way,” said mission lay member Lily Horio, “it’s like paying your taxes. We do get a lot of benefits from headquarters. We will lose more by being independent.”

From the audience, Judy Muromoto asked if headquarters would give the temple a break on payment due to the difficult circumstances. Toguchi said “there may be opportunities to ask for relief.”

Audience members also suggested ways to further cut costs, such as reaching out to other members of the mission for things like repairs and maintenance, eliminating the cost of postage for the temple’s newsletters by publishing online, having a furlough day to save on utilities, using Skype instead of making long distance phone calls, and pursuing accreditation for the temple’s preschool in order to attract more students.

Ultimately, volunteers said they should focus on reaching out to the broader community, forming partnerships with other organizations to fundraise, and reaching out to younger members in order to meet their fundraising goal.

“Buddhism is one of the fastest growing religions in the West, particularly the U.S.,” said Pete Shimazaki Doktor, a board member of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and teacher at Farrington High School. Doktor suggested that the temple diversify its services in the community. “When any agency addresses the needs of the community, people will go to it.”

Doktor said the temple, which is rooted in the Okinawan community, needs to reach out to its “new neighbors”—Micronesians, Filipinos, and Samoans in the Kalihi area. “Buddhism is all embracing,” Doktor said. “I think there is a lot we can do to broaden our membership.”

Volunteers at Jikoen Hongwanji Temple have formed various committees directed at fundraising, planning, and community outreach.

At the end of the meeting that was filled with stories of personal struggles in faith and growing up in Hawaii, one audience member said: “If people spoke about Buddhism from their heart the way people have spoken with enthusiasm tonight, I see us attracting new people. ... One of the great things about Jikoen is its history.”