August, 2003 NUMBER 12
 

THE FIRST BUDDHIST MISSIONARIES IN PERU
An Unknown Centennial History

Hirohito Ota

Rev. Taian Ueno (Photo taken at Jionji)
 

In 1903, three Japanese priests carried Buddhism to South America for the first time: Rev. Taian Ueno of the Soto Zen School and Rev. Kakunen Matsumoto and Rev. Senryu Kinoshita, both of the Jodo School. This centennial history is not well-known, however, so in this article, I will present the stories of these three men who crossed the Pacific Ocean because of their passion for spreading the Buddhist faith. I would especially like to mention the achievements of Rev. Ueno as well as a brief history of Jionji, the first Buddhist temple in Peru.

A discrepancy between the motivation of the mission and the people’s recognition of it

The motive for doing missionary work in South America was to work among the Japanese immigrants like those who had gone to Hawaii and North America. In South America, the first Japanese immigration was to Peru in 1899. Seven hundred and ninety contracted immigrants disembarked in Peru and began working in the big sugarcane and cotton plantations or in sugar factories on four-year contracts.

Many young people died because of the hard work, inferior lodgings, contagious diseases, and so forth. Journalist Kazuo Ito has written, “79% of the immigrants died before the expiration of their contract” (A Bridge to Andes, The Celebration Committee of the 80th Anniversary of Japanese Immigration to Peru, 1982). Another writer noted similar things. According to these writers, the owner of a certain plantation did not want to give permission for the funeral of each person who died. This was because people did not work while attending a funeral and the owner did not want to lose their working hours. So in order to maintain the daily level of labor on the farmland, he told them that they should keep dead bodies in their rooms until joint burials could be performed. This episode later became a sort of legend among the Japanese-Peruvian community and in a way, they became captivated by a sympathy they felt for the deceased spirits. It also happened that the existence of Jionji, founded in 1907, came to be associated with this “tragedy of the first immigrants.”

Memorial tablets (Ihai) at Jionji.
 

Many memorial tablets (Ihai) of the Japanese and their ancestors are still kept in Jionji. When Kazuo Ito wrote about these first immigrants, he emphasized the tragic aspect because there are many "memorial tablets without a Buddhist precept name" or "memorial tablets that are handmade." (Quarterly Kaigai Nikkei Jin, No.5, The Association of Nikkei & Japanese Abroad, 1979). However, missionaries in Peru could not have covered the whole country and there were also many immigrants from the prefecture of Okinawa who did not use a precept name. Ready-made memorial tablets were also not sold. For this reason, it can not be said that a tragedy occurred simply because the precept names were not given or that the memorial tablets were handmade.

In truth, the vast majority of the immigrants did not die. According to information by Ryoji Imamura (Noda), First Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, just ninety-eight people died in the first year and later on, many fewer people died. (Archives of Japanese Diplomats, Volume 36, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 1903). Ninety-eight is not a small figure, but the 79% figure quoted by Ito isn’t simply an error, it was a preconception on his part. It is now thought that Japanese in Peru had already come to a consensus that many of the initial immigrants died tragically. It is very likely that Ito was influenced by that consensus. However, the motivation for the Buddhist mission was not only to perform religious ceremonies for the dead people. The mission to South America was the same as for all Buddhist schools at this time in Japan, namely the movement to raise the level of education and morality.

Children of immigrants.
 

In the Soto Zen School’s bulletin, “Shuho”, we can find many indications for the reasons to send missionaries abroad. For example, in the No. 142 of the bulletin (1902), there was an article named “Missions Abroad.” The point of the article can be found in the following, “Thousands of our Japanese compatriots are now in Europe, America, Australia, and Russia. Regardless of whether such people are religious or not, a human being must have faith, and it is the vocation of monks to guide such people in terms of faith.”

These articles never touched on the subject of the “tragedy of the initial immigrants” as the reason for such missions. There is a discrepancy, then, between the real reason for the mission, and the reason for the existence of Jionji, as it came to be perceived by the Japanese- Peruvians. Later, that discrepancy influenced the writings on the history of Jionji and is one of reasons that the relation between the temple and the Japanese-Peruvians was broken off.

The first step of the 100 years of missionary work

In 1903, the priests Revs. Ueno, Matsumoto and Kinoshita received orders from their respective organizations to go to Peru as missionaries. On June 20 of the same year, they left from the port of Kobe on the ship “Duke of Fife” which carried 1178 people, the second great immigration to Peru. They arrived at the port of the Callao in Peru on July 29 of the same year. This is the first landmark of the one hundred years of the mission. At this time, the monks were the following ages: Rev. Ueno was 32, Rev. Matsumoto was 29, and Rev. Kinoshita was 24.

Directors of Jionji (in the background is Jionji of Santa Barbara).
 

Each of them was contracted to be superintendents of the Japanese workers by the immigration company. Rev. Ueno went to the Tumán plantation in the District of Lambayeque, Rev. Matsumoto went to the Casa Blanca plantation in the province of Cañete, District of Lima, and Rev. Kinoshita went to the Santa Clara plantation, province of Lima, in the same district. They wanted to provide the duties of monk for the public, but in order to live they had to work, because at that time the various Buddhist schools did not send any money for the mission work nor for daily living expenses.

Kinoshita and Matsumoto

A year later, both Kinoshita and Matsumoto left their jobs saying “People did not want to hear anything about religious topics nor did they have any interest in a good life based Buddhist education.” Rev. Kinoshita also said, “I could not do the mission work well because the emigrants work hard, for twelve hours in the sugar factory or ten hours on the farm, so they don’t have any free time. Sunday is their only opportunity to rest and go shopping. No one seriously listens to sermons.” (Quoted in Jodokyoho, the institutional bulletin of the Jodo School, (No.653, 1905). In the same edition, he said, “I think it still isn’t time to begin the mission in Peru because there are not many Japanese and only a few of them support us. For that reason, it is very difficult.” But Rev. Kinoshita did not leave Peru. In 1905, he established the Japanese Club in the city of Lima to continue with his mission.

Rev. Matsumoto also mentioned in the same bulletin “Neither the immigration company nor the immigrants have spiritual needs such as morality or cultivating the mind. Their only thought is of money. We were welcomed nowhere” (Jodokyoho, No.800, 1908). After his resignation in the Casa Blanca plantation of Cañete, he made several changes of residence among different plantations, and as of 1905, he began to live in the Japanese Club with Rev. Kinoshita. According to the bulletin “Jodokyoho”, he was not welcome in that club either. In the end, Rev. Matsumoto returned to Japan in 1908.

In 1907, Rev. Kinoshita went with the immigrants to the Tambopata Rubber plantation located in the district of Puno. In Tambopata, Rev. Kinoshita had a project to form a temple of his School with the support of the immigration company. But the international price of crude rubber sharply declined and for that reason the plan for the Japanese immigration to the rubber plantations was held up. Rev. Kinoshita returned to Japan in 1910. The two priests had begun their mission counting on the collaboration or the power of the immigration companies, but by going about it this way they were never able to get the attention of the immigrants.

Rev. Ueno and Jionji

There were many problems at Tumán Plantation, where Rev. Ueno was located, including immigrants escaping from the work crews, massive pay fraud, and assault or murder between Japanese workers. The owner of the plantation, angry because of these problems, terminated the contracts of all Japanese including Rev. Ueno in June of 1905. In the same month, Rev. Ueno and the immigrants of Tumán went to several plantations in South Lima, especially in Cañete, to find work. The plantation at Santa Bárbara that had a sugar factory contracted with the priest. After two years, in 1907, Rev. Ueno opened a temple there. “A temple has been established through the enthusiasm of a monk, Taian Ueno, and through the many donations given by the immigrants of that district. It is not magnificent, but it is the first and at the moment only Buddhist temple in South America. On Sundays, sermons are given and funerals and ceremonies for the deceased are performed.” (Ryoji Imamura (Noda), Investigation on labor places of the immigrants of our country, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, 1908).

Rev. Matsumoto also mentioned it in the Jodo institutional bulletin “I could not establish a prosperous mission. Mr. Ueno had difficulties to live too, but finally he constructed a small temple... But I was never able to go and see that temple” (Jodokyoho, No.800, 1908). It is important to know that the directors of Jionji, from its founding, were of several Buddhist schools from Japan. A primary school was also opened next to the temple and Rev. Ueno began to teach the Japanese children. He was a teacher licensed by the Soto School’s university (presentday Komazawa University), too. It is said to be the oldest Japanese school in South America.

Rev. Doyu Oshio
(Missionaries had to ride a horse in those times).
 

According to the “Shuho” bulletin, No. 457(1916), more than 530 immigrants donated a great amount of money to support the Japanese Army. This money was managed and remitted by Taian Ueno of Jionji. By this time, his mission in Peru had already lasted more than ten years. It can be said that a rich harvest was through his effort and that people trusted him spiritually.

Rev. Ueno never asked for the support of the immigration company or of his School. He did not send any information to be included in the Soto School institutional bulletin either. He was a quiet person whose work was based on deep devotion. A year later, on August 18, 1917, Taian Ueno returned to Japan, his mother country, after 14 years of absence. He handed over his position at the mission and for religious services at Jionji to his successor, Rev. Senpo Saito of the same school. Rev. Ueno was already 46 years old.

Missionaries who succeeded Rev. Ueno in Peru
Rev. Senpo Saito

The second missionary, Senpo Saito, was born in Yamagata Prefecture in 1888. He studied at the Soto School University. In February 1917, he arrived in Peru and started his job as a missionary. But only a few years later, the administrative headquarters issued a new order to Doyu Oshio to work as a support missionary. In February 1919, Rev. Oshio went to Peru, but he did not arrive before Rev. Saito died in April of the same year because of influenza. He was 31 years old. He was the first missionary to South America who died there.

Doyu Oshio

The third missionary, Rev. Doyu Oshio, from Hiroshima Prefecture, was born in 1894. He was in the same Dharma lineage as the monk Ueno. Around the time of the arrival of Oshio to Peru, the Japanese immigrants began to leave the plantations and go to the metropolitan areas to start their own businesses step by step.

Through the change of location of the Japanese residents, Rev. Oshio extended the area of the mission not only in Cañete, but he also visited several cities where Japanese were living. Around 1924, Jionji was moved to the town of San Luis in the same province. In 1977 it was moved again, but the building in San Luis in which the tomb of Rev. Saito is located still exists. In May 1927, Rev. Oshio returned to Japan.

The second missionary who died in Peru, Rev. Kenryu Sato.
 

Kenryu Sato

The fourth missionary, Rev. Kenryu Sato from Akita Prefecture, was born in 1894. He received his order to go as a missionary to Peru in June 1926. After entering functions, in 1927 he opened a hall for meetings and giving sermons, Buddhist ceremonies, and for the recreation of Japanese-Peruvian children living in the capital zone. This social circle was called “Jiko Kai” and it was located in Lima. He lived in the same place and performed activities such as the Flower Festival of the Buddha and a composition contest of the children, and so on.

In addition, Rev. Sato visited other cities like the monk Oshio who preceded him, but never left his main place of work in the Jionji in Cañete. He always had a friendly relationship with the people of that region. Through his leadership and the contributions of the congregation, a stupa was constructed in 1933 for the peace of the ancestors’ souls in the Japanese cemetery of Casa Blanca. After some years, people always associated Jionji with this stupa, which could easily be seen in the Casa Blanca cemetery.

In July 1935, Rev. Sato died in Peru at the age of 41 years.

Shodo Nakao

The fifth missionary, Rev. Shodo Nakao, was born in Tottori Prefecture in 1907. He arrived in Peru in 1935 and one or two years later, he opened a new official temple in Lima that was authorized by the administrative headquarters of the Soto School. Although it was only a simple house, the meaning of its name was “The Central Temple in South America (of the Soto School).” However, the Japanese in Peru did not maintain connections with their own Buddhist schools of their families. Moreover, the true work of the mission such as religious education and morality had already been taken over by the Catholic Church. The only expectation that people had of Buddhist priests was to perform ceremonies for their ancestors. They had no particular interest in its religious doctrines or teachings, nor were they interested in meditation. There was only a need for a person who knew how to recite the Buddhist sutras. In 1941, before World War II begins, missionary Nakao returned to Japan. During the War, Peru also declared war on Japan. At that point, the South American mission was interrupted.

A new epoch

A paper charm of Jionji.
 

Following the War, the Soto School began a mission to Brazil in 1955. According to the Soto School bulletin Shuho, “This is the first Soto School mission in South America,” thereby completely overlooking the history what happened to the immigrants and missionaries in Peru. It also happened among the people of Japanese-Peruvian ancestry that anyone who knew how to chant sutras came to be called “Reverend,” even if they had not trained in a monastery and did not have a license to be a priest.

At Jionji, there was no priest during the War. Following the War, a few people that knew sutras performed the services at Jionji. In November 1961, an immigrant named Ryoko (Ryotetsu) Kiyohiro, who had studied to some extent the teaching of the Soto School, received an order from the Soto School concerning the revival of Jionji. With the support of the Soto School, Japanese corporations in Peru, and donations from the second generation Japanese-Peruvians, he was very successful at least superficially for the “Ceremony Center only for the Ancestors” with much emphasis on the subject of “the tragedy of the early immigrants. But Jionji never returned to being a place for the mission of teaching how to live a better life.

The missionaries who returned to Japan

Rev. Taian Ueno accomplished a great task in setting up the first mission in South America, and to found the oldest temple on that continent. However, during the time of his activity, the administrative headquarters of the Soto School lost interest in the mission in Peru. This was because Soto and other Buddhist schools began a massive mission in Asia counting on the support of the Japanese imperial government. After Rev. Ueno returned to Japan, he remained in his beautiful village in the Hyogo Prefecture where he opened a nursery school. People loved and respected him very much.

On February 11, 1950, Taian Ueno died in a fire. He was unmarried and was 79 years old. Until the end, he did not write anything about the mission in Peru.

The third missionary, Doyu Oshio, went to Korea and the fifth, Shodo Nakao, went to Tinian Island in Micronesia also as a missionary. At the end of World War II, they returned to Japan. Both priests passed away just a short time after returning to Japan, Rev. Nakao in 1949 and Rev. Oshio in 1950.

Following the death of Ryoko Kiyohiro in 1992, Jionji has not had a priest.

Hirohito Ota was a chief editor of the Editorial Perú Shimpo, a Japanese language newspaper in Peru.

Copyright © 1996-2004 by Sotoshu Shumucho.All rights reserved. No reproduction or republication without written permission.