Japanese temples are struggling to survive as their members age, putting cherished cultural traditions in Hawaii at risk.

The crowd is large and eclectic at Honolulu’s largest annual bon dance.

As hundreds of dancers slowly circle a cloth-draped tower that serves as a platform for musicians at the Moiliili Summer Fest, countless others stand in line to buy freshly fried andagi, browse stands selling Japanese towels and flower leis, and write wishes and prayers on strips of bright yellow paper. 

Bon dances, a Japanese Buddhist tradition, have become a quintessential part of modern Hawaii culture, drawing people of all ages and ethnicities.

But the community at the heart of the event is facing significant challenges in keeping the ancestral celebrations alive.  

In 2018, there were 34 bon dances scheduled on Oahu between June and August. This year there are 23.

Members of Hawaii Eisa Shinyuu Kai lead bon dancers at the Moiliili Summer Fest. Although bon dances have become a quintessential part of modern Hawaii culture, many of the temples behind the tradition are struggling to stay open. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Some bon dances have been put on hold because of lingering concern over Covid-19 transmission. A bigger challenge is the dwindling number of members at Japanese Buddhist temples.

Hawaii’s Japanese community has the oldest median age of any ethnicity in the state — a notable fact considering Hawaii has the fastest-aging population in the country. 

Most Japanese organizations in the state are starting to shrink unless they are finding ways to appeal to a younger audience, said Nate Gyotoku, president of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

Numerous temples have closed in the last few decades. Others are open but no longer have regular services, or are operating mostly with “ghost members” — people who pay dues to the temple but have not attended an event in years.

Kaneohe Higashi Hongwanji partnered with the larger Windward Buddhist Temple for its bon dance last year, because it could no longer pull off the event on its own, the temple’s minister said.

Clark Watanabe, bishop of the statewide Shingon Mission of Hawaii, made the tough decision to cancel the bon dance at one of his Hawaii island temples this year because of a lack of volunteers.

“Our kitchen crew was two ladies that were in their late 80s,” he said.

Even at the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission — the temple connected to the Moiliili Summer Fest — most members are senior citizens, said Richard Oka, an office worker at the mission. 

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“A lot of temples are reaching a crisis point,” said George Tanabe, an emeritus professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa’s Department of Religion.

Japanese temples are not alone in these challenges, points out Watanabe.

Many churches are grappling with declining and aging congregations, as are civic institutions and nonprofits that rely heavily on volunteers. Still, the incredible impact of the Japanese community in modern Hawaii history and culture makes the decline of these temples noteworthy. 

“The challenge with the closure of these temples is that they have an incredible repository of community knowledge,” said Kelli Nakamura, an associate professor of history at Kapiolani Community College. “They really are a critical part of Hawaii’s history that I really do hope will not be lost.”

A Tradition Rooted In History

Many of the state’s Japanese Buddhist temples date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, and the influx of Japanese immigrants arriving to work Hawaii’s sugar plantations.

Plantation owners supported — or at least allowed — the establishment of various temples, in part to create a kind of cultural continuity among workers and encourage a more stable workforce, Nakamura said — a part of “plantation paternalism.”

In 1920, when 42% of Hawaii’s population was Japanese, there were more than 150 active Japanese Buddhist temples across the islands. Most of the temples were located in plantation towns, and served not only as religious centers but also social centers.

Although current challenges facing the temples are tied to aging membership, Hawaii’s Japanese Buddhist community has been struggling for generations.

As the number of plantations declined — and as second and third generation Japanese families in Hawaii left plantations in search of greater economic mobility — there was also a decline in the number of temples.

“There’s this break or change in continuity from having these temples be a central part of your identity, your community, your understanding of belonging,” Nakamura said.

Adding to the challenge facing temples in sustaining membership, Tanabe said, is that the majority of Japanese Buddhist temples in Hawaii are managed by headquarters in Japan. To this day, most Buddhist ministers in the islands are sent from the headquarters of various Buddhist sects in Japan to serve in rotating missions here.

A troubling decline in membership is forcing Lanai Hongwanji Mission to reimagine its purpose in a small, multicultural community. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2022)

Although some temples now offer services in English, many do not. This has created a language barrier, Tanabe said, for the many Japanese Americans who are not fluent in Japanese.

“Why should a young person go to a temple and sit through all this mumbo jumbo that they don’t understand?” Tanabe said.

Watanabe, the bishop of the Shingon Mission of Hawaii, is a rarity in that he is from Hawaii and went to Japan for training and ordination. Because of how often people assume that he doesn’t speak English, he’s taken to wearing aloha shirts when he’s asked to conduct a community event like a house blessing, only changing into his black robes after he’s arrived.

“Just to show like, ‘Hey, I’m from here,'” Watanabe said.

Tanabe sees the challenges facing the Japanese temples as being inherently tied to the fact that they are still — more than 125 years after the arrival of the first Buddhist minsters in Hawaii — considered Japanese temples.

“What we need to do is to develop a local Buddhism,” he said.

Watanabe, who sometimes jokes that at 55 he is the youngest member of his congregation, sees the membership declines as part of part of a broader societal shift affecting all religious institutions.

But perhaps Japanese Buddhist temples in Hawaii have been overemphasizing Japan, he added.

“There will always be a sort of familial connection with Japan,” he said, “But going forward we have to sort of try and emphasize the Hawaii or American way of doing things.”

Forging New Traditions

Newspapers first warned about a possible end to bon dances in Hawaii nearly 100 years ago. 

“Many years ago this dance was very popular in the Hawaiian islands, but is now gradually dying out,” wrote the Honolulu Star Bulletin in 1924. 

Instead of fading away, bon dances became part of a cultural tradition that extends far beyond the Japanese community. The Moiliili Summer Fest, which boasts the largest bon dance on Oahu, is organized in partnership with numerous community organizations, including Kamehameha Schools and the Japanese Cultural Center. 

Bon dances have been popular in Hawaii for generations. (Screenshot/newspapers.com)

The result is an event that it is a bit more commercialized than what historically would have been a religious celebration for members of the Moiliili Hongwanji Mission, said Oka, sitting at a children’s craft booth at the festival.

But it’s also an event that creates community. All these groups coming together over the course of the year to plan the festival creates important connections, Oka said, something that would be lost if bon dances are not sustained.

This creation of broader community connections — and the embracing of bon dances by so many ethnicities in the state — may present a path forward for struggling temples as well.

The Hamakua Jodo Mission on the Big Island was down to about two dozen members mostly in their 80s and 90s, when Sandy Takahashi was asked by an elderly neighbor to become the temple treasurer in 2018.

“I started looking at things and said ‘Oh you know our membership is on the decline. Maybe there are ways we can engage younger people to join as well,'” Takahashi, now the president of the temple board, said.

The temple has doubled its membership in the last five years and held its first board election in more than a decade earlier this spring. Part of the turnaround is due to steady efforts to get the temple more in the public eye. There were lots of people, even in the surrounding community, who didn’t know the temple existed, Takahashi said.

But Takahashi has also expanded her recruitment efforts to look beyond traditional candidates for temple membership. One of the current board members lives in Nevada. Other new members are not Buddhist but are active in the community and want the temple to survive because of its rich history.

Helping the temple survive for the long haul, means looking for ways to evolve, she said.

“Change is hard. I know it is,” Takahashi said. “Especially for older people, you know, to see different ways being adopted. But in order to survive we have to constantly change.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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