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Nikkei Heritage

A Spiritual Evolution

There is a spiritual hunger among many Japanese Americans today who, like myself, dropped religious observances when they were in high school or college but now admit they long for spiritual nourishment of some sort. Although Japanese American spirituality is not a novel topic, the interest in spirituality within today’s diverse Japanese American community is new.

In the past, one’s spirituality was defined by one’s association with a certain religion or denomination. Today, Japanese American spirituality is not necessarily based in any sort of denomination, religion or for that matter culture or ethnicity. For example, some Japanese Americans might cultivate their spirituality by praying on their knees in a crowded church, while another person might feel spirituality nourished by walking alone in the woods. The various ways to define spirituality are often quite personal rather than theological.

How can we define spirituality? The word “spirit” is derived from the Hebrew word “ruah,” which means “breath,” as in the breath of God. The Hebrew word was eventually translated to the Latin word “spiritus.” The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “spirituality” as those “things pertaining to the spirit or nonmaterial.” It also gives the following definition for “spiritual life”: “One’s openness and sensitivity to the nonphysical and thus the transcendent dimensions of human existence.”1

The website spirituality.com lists wellness, self-identity, career and financial security, among other factors, as pertaining to spirituality. Finally, the Reverend Michael Yoshii of Buena Vista United Methodist Church in Alameda, California, warns that for every definition someone might construct about Japanese American spirituality, there will be another to contradict it.

Contradictions aside, I believe there exist a few common traits particular to Japanese American spirituality. One is what I describe as “diaspora spirituality.” The term “diaspora” comes from the Greek word meaning “a scattering” and was specifically used as the term for Jews living outside of Palestine after the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. Generally, “diaspora” has been applied to any group of people who are living apart from their native land. Japanese Americans are obviously separated from Japan, but perhaps more significantly, the Japanese American culture is one without a true homeland. Japanese Americans are highly assimilated and most have also married outside of their race. They are geographically diffuse, scattered throughout the country, sometimes located apart from other Japanese Americans. One’s search for spirituality, then, is usually confined to the context of one’s own community, wherever that might be.

For example, there are a number of Japanese Americans with Jewish spouses. They have chosen to have their children go through the Jewish rites of passage. There are also a number of Japanese Americans who have rejected their parent’s church and have forged their own mix of spirituality that might include some religious practice and some practical spirituality.

One impetus behind this diffuse “diaspora spirituality” is a Japanese American desire to assimilate. Many Japanese Americans, myself included, grew up in primarily white neighborhoods. Because no one looked like us, talked like us, or ate the food we did, we endured periods of feeling alienated from dominant culture. As a reaction to this disconnection we also went through periods of trying, by and large unsuccessfully, to fit in. Because of this alienation from the larger society, some Japanese Americans have felt the need to search for a higher power and a spiritual connectedness to life.

Another common trait that compels Japanese Americans to seek spirituality is what Dr. Fumitaka Matsuoka, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Pacific School of Religion, describes as “historical injuries.” Most will agree that the main injury to the Nikkei community was relocation during World War Two. That trauma offended not just the incarcerated but generations that followed. Today, racism remains a continuing insult to the Japanese American community. Despite overall political, economic, and educational achievements, racism against Japanese Americans persists. These injuries can trigger a range of feelings, from hopelessness to anger. As Japanese Americans, we have struggled to reconcile these feelings, some by denying or ignoring such feelings, others by seeking a transcendent dimension to their lives and perhaps even some measure of forgiveness. Such historical injuries are a common motivation for Japanese Americans’ spiritual quest.

After returning from the internment camps fifty years ago, many Japanese Americans gathered for solace at temples and churches because there were few other viable or comfortable options. Today many Japanese Americans have rejected the traditional (and tired) dogma, doctrine and content of the Church, but have not rejected their sense of spirituality. This sort of rejection is not confined to the Japanese American community. Churches across the nation are seeing the need to change or die.

In response, many Japanese Americans have created their own unique and original spiritual practices. This year, Pine United Methodist Church is presenting a series of monthly workshops called “Sacred Space Gatherings” to help people explore their own spirituality through various traditional and “new age” mediums, including: Body Image Through Weight Training, Health with Flowers, The Way of Tea, The Art of Meditation, Healing Art of Reiki, and Butoh, to name a few. All of these gatherings offer participants an open and safe place to work closely with various spiritual vehicles so that they might enhance their own spirituality. These gatherings are an example of how Japanese Americans are blending the old with the new in order to deepen their spiritual lives.

If churches and temples are not the place where Japanese Americans are finding their spirituality, where are they going? Increasingly, Japanese Americans are finding their own spirituality by whatever means works for them. For example, many of my friends are experiencing spiritual growth through creativity, as the creative process draws from the sacred soul of one’s being. In her 1992 book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron writes of her belief in a greater spiritual being that guides the quality of creative work. She offers a recovery program meant to rescue one’s creativity and at the same time cultivate one’s spirituality.

Many young Japanese Americans I know find it difficult to sit still and mediate. Some have found “walking meditation” to be a useful alternative. Writer Kathleen Norris, in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, uses walking as a form of meditation and prayer. She explains, “Praying when I first get up in the morning is very important to me. One of my great rituals is to go for a walk in that wonderful twilight between dawn and sunrise. This to me is a spiritual practice; it’s not just exercise.” 2

Another way some Japanese Americans pursue spirituality is through social action. Socially conscious individuals and groups have understood the call to social action to be an integral part of their spirituality. The Reverend Yoshii explains, “There are individuals who are committed to justice and empowerment for other people, and this is part of our spirituality.” John Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian Bishop and author, writes in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that “Prayer is taking the proper political action to build a society in which opportunities can be equalized and no one will be forced to accept the status quo as his or her destiny.”3

The whole notion of spirituality in today’s richly diverse Japanese American community is being reinvented. Japanese American spirituality is as distinct and unique as the Japanese Americans who create it. In many ways Japanese Americans are changing the entire landscape of spirituality because they are creating their own types of worship to suit their own needs within their own contexts.


1. Kim, Donald. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Louisville, Westminster Press, 1996.

2. Obtained from the website spirituality.com, Kim Shippey interviews Kathleen Norris, adapted from Christian Science Sentinel, “Finding a Spiritual Life.”

3. Spong, John Shelby. Why Christianity Must Change or Die, San Francisco, Harper, 1999, p. 144.

*This article was originally published in Nikkei Heritage vol. XIII, Number, no.2 (Spring 2001), a journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society.


© 2001 National Japanese American National Museum

Sobre esta serie

This series republishes selected articles from Nikkei Heritage, the quarterly journal of the National Japanese American Historical Society in San Francisco, CA. The issues provide timely analysis and insight into the many facets of the Japanese American experience. NJAHS has been a Discover Nikkei Participating Organization since December 2004.

Visit the National Japanese American Historical Society Web site >>