Koyasan Buddhist Temple, located in the heart of the Little Tokyo neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, was founded by Reverend Shutai Aoyama, who came to the United States in 1898. Reverend Aoyama labored alongside other Japanese immigrants in agriculture and shipbuilding for more than a decade after his arrival in America, during which time he became increasingly aware of the workers’ need for support and spiritual guidance. So, in 1912, he started the Koyasan Daishi Mission in a small storefront on Commercial Street in Little Tokyo. As the temple grew, its members formed a mutual aid association and then a fujinkai, or women’s association. The women of the Koyasan fujinkai were well-known in the 1920s and 1930s for providing a welcome – usually in the form of a lunch and city tour – to sailors on Japanese naval vessels that had docked in the Southern California port of San Pedro.
In 1920, the temple moved to new quarters in a wood-frame building at 133 North Central. A rubber tree was planted by the temple’s front door, a tree which today shades the walk between the Japanese American National Museum and the Go for Broke monument (the building itself was torn down long ago). A year later, Reverend Aoyama returned to Japan and Reverend Hokai Takada replaced him. In 1924, the same year in which the Koyasan Sunday school program commenced, Reverend Takada was in turn replaced by Reverend Taido Kitagawa. Reverend Kitagawa was well known for helping those Japanese who continued to enter the United States after passage of the 1924 law restricting immigration.
In 1931, Reverend Kitagawa formed Boy Scout Troop 379 as a way to help Japanese American children armor themselves against the anti-Japanese rhetoric of the early Depression. That same year, Reverend SeytsuTakahashi arrived, and after two years of oversight, Reverend Kitigawa transferred leadership of the temple to Reverend Takahashi and returned to Japan. Despite the economic hardships of the Depression, the temple flourished under Reverend Takahashi. In February 1935, Troop 379 was named the outstanding Boy Scout troop in the United States by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For twenty days in August 1935, Koyasan Scout Troop 379 toured the United States. A reception was held for them in New York, where they were honored by the national Boy Scout organization for their extraordinary level of merit badge awards and service work. In June 1937, eighteen members of the troop also made a goodwill tour of Japan.
After trying for several years to find a location where the congregation could build its own temple, the money was raised in 1937 to buy a lot at 342 East First Street in Little Tokyo. Shops were built along East First Street on both sides of the approach to the temple, so that income from their rental could be used to help pay for construction and operation of the temple building. The groundbreaking took place on November 17, 1939, with sailors from the Japanese naval vessel Shiriya in attendance. The ceremony was marked by a blessing, followed by sumo matches. The temple was designed by Mieki Hayano and built by the Cooper Construction Company. The temple, raised in status to Koyasan Beikoku Betsuin, officially opened on October 26th and 27th of 1940, with a big parade from the old building to the new facility led by the Drum and Bugle Corps of the Koyasan Scout Troop 379.
On December 7, 1941, Reverend Takahashi happened to be conducting a service on Terminal Island. Upon news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he was forced to stay overnight, as no “enemy aliens” were allowed to leave the island. He drove home to Little Tokyo the next day, making it past the soldiers on the bridge who apparently mistook him for a Mexican. The FBI picked up Reverend Takahashi at his home the following day, December 9th, and detained him for the duration of the war in several different prisons and detention camps, including Crystal City, Texas.
The temple housed Japanese Americans who were immediately evacuated from Terminal Island until they were removed from Los Angeles to internment camps. During the war, the temple basement and hall were used to store the internees’ goods. Cadillatz Insurance was retained to oversee the temple and shops. Reverend Sogabe, who had not been detained by the FBI, handled all of these arrangements.
In 1944, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) offered to have the belongings in the temple moved into government warehouses in preparation for returning the building to religious use. Reverend Sogabe was allowed to return to Los Angeles temporarily in October 1944 to effect this transfer. Despite his trepidation, the Koyasan Betsuin was in good condition and the goods were transferred without incident. Reverend Sogabe returned to Poston on November 4, 1944, but was back in Los Angeles by January of the next year. Since housing was in short supply and people returning to the West Coast from the different camps were only provided with living expenses for one month by the WRA, Reverend Sogabe reopened the temple as a hostel. Reverend Takahashi was not released from the Crystal City camp until May 1946.
In 1945, the temple received notice from the county that it owed $5000 in taxes because it had not sustained its tax-exempt religious status during the war and because it was now collecting rent as a hostel. The county declined to consider the temple’s protests that the federal government had made it quite impossible to continue holding religious services during the war, so a payment plan was worked out. The temple was finally relieved of this debt in 1957, when the Wartime Evacuation Compensation Bill forced the Department of Justice to pay the temple $5200.
A sign that the temple was beginning to recover from the painful internment period came in 1949, when the Sonenkai, or Young Buddhist Association, was formed at Koyasan Temple. Following the geographical dispersal of the Japanese American community, the temple built the Harbor City Church and a Japanese language school in 1954 and 1955. It was also during this era that the Koyasan Temple fundraising carnival began, with a single carnival in 1948 and the onset of an annual tradition by 1955.
Koyasan Temple is currently the home of the Hiroshima Memorial Park peace flame, and holds a memorial service each year on the first Sunday in August for the victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The temple is still the home of Scout Troop 379 and continues to be a vibrant center of Japanese American life and worship in Little Tokyo. The congregation is looking forward to celebrating its centennial in 2012!
Posted by the Little Tokyo Historical Society, courtesy of Koyasan Buddhist Temple, Los Angeles, California (with particular thanks to Frances Nakamura).
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lthistory — Last modified Mar 30 2011 8:01 p.m.