|Born||August 15 1923|
|Birth Location||Pauwela, Maui|
Yoshiaki Fujitani is a Nisei Military Intelligence Service veteran, Honpa Hongwanji Bishop, and promoter of interfaith outreach efforts.
Yoshiaki Fujitani was born on August 15, 1923, in Pauwela, Maui, the second of eight children and the eldest of two sons. His parents had arrived in the Islands years earlier as Rev. Kodo Fujitani had previously served as a minister in Okinawa and his mother Aiko Furukawa's family had immigrated from Toyama prefecture when she was four years old. In 1935, when Fujitani was twelve, the family moved to Honolulu as his father had been assigned to the Mō'ili'ili Hongwanji Mission. Fujitani, who had attended Haiku School, transferred to Washington Intermediate. He would eventually graduate from McKinley High School where he was greatly influenced by the principal, Miles E. Cary, and was attending the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa when war broke out.
World War II and Military Service
Fujitani was a college sophomore when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), Fujitani was ordered to campus and shortly after, the ROTC unit was activated as the Hawai'i Territorial Guard (HTG). Members were assigned to guard important civilian locations including the governor's residence at Washington Place, pumping station, the territorial archives, bridges, water tanks, wells, and high schools as Farrington High School and Punahou School which were used as emergency hospitals. Guardsmen were also stationed at the FBI office, courthouses, electric substations, and telephone exchanges. Some patrolled Kāne'ohe Hospital, Fort Armstrong Post Exchange, and even the headquarters of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company. However, as most of the members of the HTG were Japanese, there was growing community fear of their work in proximity to valuable civilian and military facilities. Thus, on January 21, 1942, Colonel Thomas H. Green, aide to General Delos Emmons inactivated the Territorial Guard. Subsequently, the discharged guardsmen petitioned the military governor for a chance to prove their loyalty and 169 men, including Fujitani, were accepted into a labor battalion attached to the 34th Combat Engineers Regiment. Although officially known as the Corps of Engineers Auxiliary these Varsity Victory Volunteers, or VVV's as they called themselves, lived for eleven months at Schofield. During that time they labored on O'ahu, quarrying rock, stringing barbed wire, and building dumps, military installations, roads, and warehouses.
However, Fujitani stopped his activities when authorities arrested and incarcerated his father and Fujitani left the VVV to help his mother support his siblings. Fujitani obtained a job at American Optical Company and worked there from May 1942 to the end of 1943. In November of that year, Sgt. Edwin Kawahara, a teacher at the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage, Minnesota, approached Fujitani to join the Military Intelligence Service. Fujitani accepted Kawahara's invitation and attended language training at Camp Savage and later Fort Snelling. While on the mainland, Fujitani visited his father who was incarcerated in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During the visit, he was struck by the fact that he was an American soldier who was visiting his father who authorities considered to be a "potentially dangerous enemy." Fujitani's father, Kodo, was a prominent Buddhist minister and while he was incarcerated, authorities gave him the option of returning with his family to Japan. However, before making his decision, Kodo asked his family about their opinion. "We just talked about it," remembers Fujitani. "'Does anybody want to go to Japan?' Mother asked. And of course we all voted that down. So I guess Mother wrote to him and said, 'I'm sorry but you have to stay in Santa Fe by yourself.'" According to Fujitani, his mother was likely thinking about the well-being of the family's eight children and the limited opportunities that would be available to the family in Japan.
During the war, authorities assigned Fujitani to translate military documents for the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section. Fujitani went to Tōkyō for four months after the war to translate documents and was in Washington D.C. for six months before he heard news that his father had suffered a heart attack. Fujitani served out the rest of his enlistment based in Wahiawā and his father fortunately recovered.
After the war, Fujitani attended the University of Chicago where he studied the history of religions and earned a master's degree in the history of cultures. In Chicago, he met and married his wife, Tomi, a California native whose family had been incarcerated during the war. Later, Fujitani pursued graduate studies in Buddhism in Kyōto, studying at Otani University, Kyōto University, and Ryūkoku University. In 1955, he was ordained as Jōdo Shinshū priest. As Fujitani explains, "I didn't have any thought of changing anything, but I felt there was a need to continue the transmission of Buddhism. And so, after the war, when I had discussions with Dad, I thought that an American into the ministry was necessary for the continuation." Thus, Fujitani continued the family tradition of becoming a Buddhist priest. After his ordination, Fujitani and his family returned to Hawai'i where he served at Wailuku Hongwanji Mission on Maui as the associate minister to his father. Although he was fluent in both Japanese and English, Fujitani understood the importance of speaking English in Buddhist temples to attract the Nisei population to Hongwanji services. In 1960, Fujitani became the head of the statewide Hongwanji's English department and after serving at the Hawai'i Betsuin, in 1975 Fujitani was elected bishop of the statewide Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i, the second-youngest minister in Hongwanji history. During his tenure, the Hongwanji began its "Living Treasures of Hawaii" program that honors "individuals who have demonstrated excellence and high standards of achievement in their particular fields of endeavor, and, through their continuous growth, learning and sharing, have made significant contributions towards enriching our society." It has honored over 150 individuals of different faiths and ethnicities who have positively impacted communities in Hawai'i.
After twelve years of service, Fujitani retired as bishop and became the director of Buddhist education near the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa campus. He also served as president of BDK Sudatta Hawaii from 1998 to 2008 whose mission was to disseminate the book, The Teachings of the Buddha, worldwide. Fujitani is still active promoting religious toleration and interfaith participation among different groups as part of his legacy. As Fujitani explains, "I think the only way is to get out into the community and to work with other faiths. I think that we have to bear that in mind. We're not alone, we're part of a larger community." To achieve this goal, Fujitani continues to work tirelessly to promote service and religious outreach with other groups to create stronger community ties.
For More Information
Odo, Franklin S. No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai'i during World War II. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.
- Mark Santoki, "Nembutsu is Their Guide," Hawaii Herald, November 17, 1995, A-1.
- Hawaii Nikkei History Editorial Board, Japanese Eyes, American Heart: Personal Reflections of Hawaii's World War II Nisei Soldiers (Honolulu: Tendai Educational Foundation, 1998), 96.
- Mark Santoki, "Nembutsu is Their Guide," Hawai'i Herald, November 17, 1995, A-1.
- Karleen C. Chinen, "The Rev. Yoshiaki Fujitani," Hawai'i Herald, September 2, 2011, 23.
- "Living Treasures of Hawaii," Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i, accessed on April 11, 2016 at http://www.hongwanjihawaii.com/news_events/12.html.