Rev. Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams has received the 2022 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion for his widely acclaimed and groundbreaking book “American Sutra,” which detailed how Japanese American internees endured and practiced Shin Buddhism in detention camps during World War II, the University of Louisville announced.
Rev. Dr. Williams, a religion professor who directs the Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture at the University of Southern California, won the $100,000 prize for ideas he set forth in "American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War." Harvard University Press published the book in 2019.
"Williams' work opens the way for a discussion that values religious inclusion over exclusion," said Tyler Mayfield, who directs the Grawemeyer religion award. "He shows how Japanese Americans living in a time of great adversity broadened our nation's vision of religious freedom."
In the aftermath of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor and beginning in 1942, the U.S. government forcibly relocated more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry and imprisoned them in detention camps. Two-thirds of the internees were practicing Buddhists.
Some were sent to live in former fairgrounds — which acted as assembly centers before the move to the mass detention camps — where stables were hastily converted into living quarters. Others were crowded into dwellings of tar paper-roofed, Army-style bunkers. Many lost their homes, farms and businesses along with their possessions.
As Williams reviewed diaries and other records of their stay in the camps, he learned Buddhists continued to worship despite their confinement. One family celebrated Buddha's birthday by pouring coffee over a carrot carved in his likeness when they could not perform the traditional ritual of pouring tea over a Buddha statue.
"Their imprisonment became a way to discover freedom, a liberation that the Buddha himself attained only after embarking on a spiritual journey filled with obstacles and hardships," he said.
The Buddhists' steadfast devotion to their faith while living in such conditions showed it was possible to be both Buddhist and American and helped launch a less sectarian form of the religion in the United States, Williams found.
Recipients of the Grawemeyer Awards were named the week of Dec. 10 pending formal approval by university and seminary trustees. The prizes also honor seminal ideas in music, world order, psychology and education.
The University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary jointly gave the religion prize.
Winners will visit Louisville in April to accept their awards and give free talks on the winning ideas.