Despite popular belief that Japanese women were not active in their community, they in fact commonly organized themselves into fujinkai (women's clubs) whose main function was to facilitate activities within various churches, temples, and organizations. Although commonly associated with Jōdo Shinshū temples, women were also active in other Buddhist sects including Nichiren Buddhism as well as Christian churches both in Hawai'i and the Mainland. [1] While some priests organized fujinkai , their wives and members of the congregation also organized these supportive groups. Fujinkai are often invisible in the Japanese American historical record, but they provided critical social, financial, and religious support that strengthened its female community.

Early History of Fujinkai

Fujinkai has a long history within the Japanese community beginning with the arrival of the large-scale migration of women. Christian women established some of the first fujinkai in southern California following the start of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 for the purpose of sending packages and monetary aid to Japan. [2] They not only engaged in American-style charitable work, previously unknown by Japanese immigrants, but also nationalistic activities. Fujinkai members provided food, lodging, and entertainment for members of the Imperial Japanese Navy who stopped over in Los Angeles and collected money and gift packages for the Imperial Japanese forces during the second Sino-Japanese War. According to scholar Brian Masaru Hayashi, these organizations were established by women "who felt they could not express their sentiments freely in committees dominated by Issei males." [3]

Women also formed fujinkai within the Buddhist faith. Kamuela Hongwanji Fujinkai , for example, was first founded in May 1920, when a group of "enthusiastic young mothers" selected a corner room of a grocery store as the site of their first gathering. [4] Many of these women were wives of migrant farmers and ranchers and led lives characterized by hard physical labor; working hours were long and pay was minimal. Working under demoralizing conditions, "they needed the teachings of the Nembutsu to give them peace and comfort." Fujinkai provided invaluable financial, spiritual, and community support to the early Buddhist and Christian church and the activism of its members was critical to the success of early Buddhist and Christian efforts both at the beginning of Japanese migration and following World War II when temples were closed along with their affiliated fujinkai . In April 1954, the thirty-four fujinkai organizations in Hawai'i united, eventually forming the Hawaiian Federation of Honpa Hongwanji Buddhist Women's Associations (HFHHBWA) with membership exceeding 7,000 participants from different generations, regions, social-economic status, and backgrounds.

"Enno Shitano Chikaramochi," (The Power Behind the Scenes): The Absence of Fujinkai in the Historical Record [5]

Despite the large numbers of Japanese women who participated in or benefitted from fujinkai , there has been limited research and scholarship done on these organizations due to a number of related factors. Women's activities have often been ignored as conventional research methodologies have regarded men in organizations as superior in their community. Further, research has often focused on the business, political, and economic areas of community decision-making in which women were assumed unimportant or absent. [6] Women are seldom perceived as local power elites, and their invisibility in the local community power structure is often taken for granted. Thus, male leaders and priests have been the focus of many religious histories. Women were never regarded to be powerful agents and their participation and influence in the larger community was considered peripheral at best. Yet the contribution of Buddhist and Christian women has been invaluable to the spiritual success of both religions. In Christian churches, fujinkai has stressed education and moral reform as well as spiritual and social matters. According to the 1916 constitution of the Japanese Methodist Church Fujinkai in California, its purpose was to "encourage women in the faith; to cultivate a virtuous life; and to create a warm fellowship." [7] Women have also been credited with the continuing vitality and growth of the Hongwanji in Hawai'i and the Mainland, explaining why women have been called, " enno shitano chikaramochi ," or the power behind the scenes. [8]

Religious Activities

Many women joined fujinkai to fulfill both personal and community needs which mobilized them on local, national, and international levels to spread their faith. They were critical to the efforts and survival of Christian and Buddhist organizations as expressed by a metaphor used by the women of the Honokaa Hongwanji Fujinkai to explain their role in the church: "The Kyōdan [administrative body] can be considered the right hand of the temple, and the Fujinkai its left. The Fujinkai works hand in hand with the Kyōdan in all of its functions and projects." [9] In rural locations on O'ahu such as Wai'anae, Waialua, Kahuku, and 'Ewa, which often experienced a shortage of ministers as they were "shared" among the temples, fujinkai members often assumed many of the temple's responsibilities. These responsibilities included preparing the obuppan (mounded rice offering) and fresh flowers, and initiating services. [10] During World War II, when many priests were interned following the closure of temples under martial law , fujinkai members played critical roles in maintaining the temples despite their official closure. Accounts of Waipahu Hongwanji credit Mrs. Mitsu Deme, wife of interned Reverend Josen Deme, with caring for the temple. [11] In other instances, when Revered Kakusho Izumi and his family were interned at a camp in Texas during the duration of the war, a devoted member of the Pāpa'aloa Hongwanji's Fujinkai , Mrs. Tomo Sakado, resided at the minister's quarters and took care of the temple until the war ended. [12] In contrast to Hawai'i, internment effectively ended many of the fujinkai on the Mainland as Japanese churches and temples were closed throughout the duration of the war.

As a part of the Buddhist and Christian church from the very beginning, fujinkai members perceive themselves as critical to the religious life of the community and of the church organization itself. Fujinkai helped to strengthen their faith, and its female members became bound by a spiritual commonality and sisterhood. Although inherently associated with the Japanese community and active in promoting Japanese values, customs, and language, its outreach extends far beyond the local and into the wider community. Today, many fujinkai members assist in youth recruitment efforts by giving financial support to the Sunday school and Hongwanji mission school and reaffirm their connection to older members. Besides observing Japanese holidays such as oshōgatsu (New Year), many fujinkai attached to Buddhist temples also conduct tsuito-e , a memorial service for deceased members marking an everlasting membership in a community of believers. They are also active participants in commemoration events like memorial services and obon . [13]

Japanese Christian women also promoted values advocated by evangelical Protestantism, especially bitoku , meaning virtue, grace, or noble attribute. To encourage women to become good homemakers and good neighbors, Methodist and Union fujinkai in Los Angeles often brought in speakers to discuss motherhood, family health care, childrearing, and flower arranging. To learn about American society, they brought in people to instruct them in American table manners and they visited different sites within the county—Barker Plaza, Frank Wiggins School, the Los Angeles County Farm, and Goodwill Industries. The Methodist fujinkai even visited a few non-Japanese churches and studied subjects unfamiliar to them, such as Shakespeare. [14]

Financial Support

In addition to offering religious and outreach services, women were critical to the financial stability of the temple or church and the larger community. For example, when the Pearl City Hongwanji's temple and adjoining buildings were destroyed by a fire, its fujinkai organized numerous bazaars to help raise needed funds. [15] Fujinkai regularly organize fund-raising activities to supplement operational funds for the church or temple and furnish the social hall, kitchen, office, and even the minister's residence. Some organizations like the Jikōen and Hanapepe Hongwanji Fujinkai organized a tanomoshi (mutual financial organization) club as an incentive for members to come to the temple. [16] As the income of most plantation workers was limited, few were able to borrow from an established financial institution; thus, individuals or organizations like fujinkai would facilitate the pooling of investments from interested individuals and then use the monies as needed. [17]

Personal and Community Empowerment vs. Limits of Traditionalism

Fujinkai activities, which are conducted by embracing their identity of women as "mothers" and "housewives," have both positive and negative attributes. In one way, fujinkai allow women access to the public sphere and active membership of the community in ways men cannot easily imitate. These activities have given women a place to exhibit their power and agency in the local community that challenge the dichotomous power relations between men and women. On the other hand, this public emphasis on domestic roles can reinforce stereotypical gender roles. As scholar Allison Jaggar explains, "All communities exert pressure on their members to conform to the prevailing interpretation of their unifying assumptions and values." [18] Thus, the gendered aspect of fujinkai may subject some members to a prescribed notion of femininity and social empowerment. Further, usually only women with the financial security of the income of other family members can engage in such activities limiting the participation of some and further resigning their role to one of dependency.

Despite these criticisms, it is important to acknowledge the historical contributions and activism of Buddhist and Christian women that spanned over a century and helped to create the Japanese community built upon the perpetuation of social traditions and religious practices that fujinkai actively propagated. Fujinkai activities create a sphere that cannot be simplistically categorized as "domestic" or "public." Rather their actions were a result of all the possible combinations that Japanese women have engaged in both private and public spheres. Although some may argue that fujinkai incorporated domestic skills into the public sphere, it might be more appropriate to propose that women of fujinkai utilized cultural identities as mothers, wives, and volunteers to engage in activities to gain and express power in the public arena.

Authored by Kelli Y. Nakamura , University of Hawai'i

For More Information

Bokemeier, Janet L. and John L. Tait, "Women as Power Actors: A Comparative Study of Rural Communities," Rural Sociology 45:2 (1980): 238.

Derby, John. "The Role of Tanomoshi in Hawaiian Banking," Social Process in Hawaii 30 (1983): HawH 66-84.

Hasegawa, Atsuko and Nancy S. Shiraki, eds. Hōsha A Pictorial History of Jōdo Shinshū Women in Hawaii . Taipei: The Hawaii Federation of Honpa Hongwaji, 1989.

Hayashi, Brian Masaru. ' For the Sake of Our Japanese Brethren': Assimilation, Nationalism, and Protestantism Among the Japanese of Los Angeles, 1895-1942 . Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai'i.

Jaggar, Allison M. "Globalizing Feminist Ethics." In Decentering the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World , edited by Uma Narayan and Sandra Harding. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Los Angeles Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin .

Nakano, Mei T. Japanese American Women: Three Generations 1890-1990 . Berkeley, California: Mina Press Publishing, 1990.

Nakayama, Patsy Y. "The Fujinkai" Hawaii Herald 10:6 (March 17, 1989): 18-19.

Nichiren Mission of Hawai'i.


  1. Mei T. Nakano, Japanese American Women: Three Generations 1890-1990 (Berkeley, California: Mina Press Publishing, 1990), 53; Brian Masaru Hayashi, "For the Sake of Our Japanese Brethren": Assimilation, Nationalism, and Protestantism Among the Japanese of Los Angeles, 1895-1942 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995), 95-107.
  2. Hayashi, 96.
  3. Ibid., 95.
  4. Atsuko Hasegawa and Nancy S. Shiraki, eds., Hōsha A Pictorial History of Jōdo Shinshū Women in Hawaii (Taipei: The Hawaii Federation of Honpa Hongwaji, 1989), 91.
  5. Ibid., 17.
  6. Janet L. Bokemeier and John L. Tait, "Women as Power Actors: A Comparative Study of Rural Communities," Rural Sociology Vol. 45, No. 2 (1980): 238.
  7. Hayashi, 96.
  8. Hasegawa, 17.
  9. Ibid., 87.
  10. Ibid., 57.
  11. Ibid., 59.
  12. Ibid., 99.
  13. Ibid., 26.
  14. Hayashi, 98.
  15. Hasegawa, 49.
  16. Ibid., 62.
  17. John Derby, "The Role of Tanomoshi in Hawaiian Banking," Social Process in Hawaii Vol. 30 (1983): HawH 69.
  18. Allison M. Jaggar, "Globalizing Feminist Ethics," in Decentering the Center: Philosophy for a Multicultural, Postcolonial, and Feminist World , eds. Uma Narayan and Sandra Harding (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), 9.

Last updated Jan. 15, 2024, 8:59 p.m..