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The Enduring Legacy of Jane Imamura

Through countless causes and conditions, the Imamuras engaged the efforts of an international community of scholars and artists and influenced the interest in Buddhism far beyond Berkeley, where Rev. Imamura was the minister and Jane was the Bomori.


Jane Imamura, the eldest daughter of Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura, a major BCA figure herself, continued her mother’s tradition in building a music tradition and was a key contributor to many BCA gathas that continue to be sung today. The article was written by the couple’s eldest daughter, Hiro Imamura David, on behalf of the BCA Music History Subcommittee.

Jane Imamura’s legacy continues today through her many gathas, the Institute of Buddhist Studies and musical programs that she inspired.


Jane Imamura’s parents, Issei and Shinobu Matsuura, were Buddhist pioneers and their example helped to form Jane’s development and outlook.


Jane was well-versed in her future role as Bomori from a very young age. Born in 1920, two years after her mother arrived as a young bride in America, she learned the art of selflessness, growing up in a temple, sharing her parents — not only with her siblings — but with the many children living in the Guadalupe Children’s Home that was run by the Matsuuras.


She also developed an early appreciation of music and the Buddhist gathas. She and her siblings would gather around their mother as she played the piano and sang, teaching them songs and gathas.


The turmoil that enveloped the world during Jane’s early years delayed her parents’ many plans. It was not until 1931, when the Matsuura family returned to the United States after two years in Japan, that Jane began piano lessons.


She practiced on a piano that came with the Matsuura’s rented accommodations in Fresno, where Rev. Matsuura was the minister. She progressed quickly and was soon able to master a Beethoven sonata of considerable difficulty. Shinobu splurged on a $100 piano during the hardships of the Great Depression.


Upon the family’s return to Guadalupe in 1935, Jane began her music lessons with Muriel Fisk, a successful and well-respected teacher in the Santa Maria Valley. Jane’s exemplary exam grades, given by the National Music Teachers Association, confirmed the promise she showed. Mrs. Fisk organized a choir at the Guadalupe temple, and Jane learned the art of choral training and conducting.


When Jane left Guadalupe to study music and composition at the University of California at Berkeley, Mrs. Fisk stayed in touch with her. In Jane’s senior college year, Mrs. Fisk helped her transfer to the Chicago Musical College to study piano with the famous teacher and president of the school, Rudolf Ganz.


But Jane’s formal musical education came to an abrupt halt with the mass relocation and detention of Japanese Americans that followed the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.


She returned from Chicago to Guadalupe, and she watched as her father was arrested and carted off by FBI agents — one of thousands of Japanese community leaders arrested nationwide — on suspicion of being a possible security threat. Her father’s parting words to her were: “Go to Berkeley and marry Rev. Imamura. Be happy!”


The esteemed educator and sage, Rev. Joen Ashikaga, had arranged a previous meeting between Rev. Kanmo Imamura and Jane. The first meetings were cordial and the two decided to continue a lively correspondence as Jane moved to Chicago and Rev. Imamura continued his duties as the new priest at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple.


But the relocation orders after Pearl Harbor changed their plans for a longer courtship. In 1942, with her father’s words ringing in her ears, Jane defied a travel ban and took a bus to Berkeley to visit her older brother, who was studying there. Rev. Imamura and Jane were wed soon thereafter.


Rev. Imamura was spared arrest, though records showed he was under careful surveillance by authorities.


He and Jane joined the rest of the Matsuura family at the Tulare Assembly Center. At the center, displaced internees were fearful and in despair. Rev. Imamura was the lone Buddhist priest among the almost 3,000 internees.


He immediately formed a Sangha. Hundreds of internees participated in the services. Shinobu Matsuura taught Sunday School and gave lectures in Japanese. Jane, though feeling ill from her first pregnancy, gathered what would be the biggest choir she would ever conduct. She managed to also perform in spontaneously organized concerts.


The family’s move to the federal internment camp in Gila River, Arizona, was a trying ordeal. Thankfully, Rev. Imamura was joined by three other Buddhist priests and they formed an active Sangha, complete with YBA, Sunday School, services for the Issei and even 500 mimeographed service books.


Every type of ceremony was held at Gila River, from Hanamatsuri, weddings, births, and sadly, funerals. Jane, in her growing role of Bomori, organized music for services and events. Two children, Hiro and Ryo, were born during those camp years.


In 1945, as the camps were gradually closed, the Imamuras moved to the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, the first Buddhist hostel. It was at the Senshin hostel, with soon to be ordained Arthur Takemoto, that they worked under difficult circumstances to help a steady stream of former internees as they left the camps, looking for a home and work. The hostel had been set up with the generous and tireless help of Rev. Julius Goldwater, a dedicated Buddhist who had kept in contact with the Imamuras throughout the internment. Takemoto’s parents and his future wife, Kazumi Sanwo, joined the staff during this effort.


After a year, most temples in California had set up their own hostels, and the Imamuras, now a family of five, returned to the Berkeley temple.


The following years were vibrant and highly productive. Throughout the United States, Buddhist temples thrived with increased membership and activity.


The Berkeley Buddhist Temple had a small congregation, but being located nearby UC Berkeley, a major educational institution, the temple attracted many students from Buddhist families. The temple grounds were a complex of buildings that housed not only the priest and his growing family, but eventually, a women’s and men’s dorm for university students.


Jane would become house mother to the dorm members as well as tending to her many duties in the temple and to her family. Once the Imamuras moved from their one-bedroom accommodation in the back area of the temple into a modestly small, but comfortable house on the same property, Jane accepted a baby grand piano given to her by Mrs. Fisk.


That piano was used by Jane to teach a whole new generation of Buddhist pianists. Although the purpose of the piano lessons was to create a group that would be able to play at temple services, many of the students went on to become accomplished players and teachers.


Jane and Kanmo were of like mind and vision. As progressive activists, they welcomed the support they met among an energized post-internment community.


A Buddhist Study Center was initiated in 1949, holding lively seminars and classes on Buddhist thought from all sects and cultures. The temple publication, Berkeley Bussei, flourished, and included articles from prominent scholars and artists. Interest in Buddhism spread beyond the Japanese community. Iconic figures such as Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, poets Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder joined the study classes and contributed articles to Berkeley Bussei.


Jane established a permanent choir in 1948. The choir performed new and traditional gathas. Jane encouraged the composition of new works to reflect the growing diversity of the Buddhist community.


Dorm members Kimi Yonemura (Hisatsune), Ricky Ito, and Hiroshi Kashiwagi wrote new lyrics for gathas. In the early 1950s, an Issei priest, Rev. Joshin Motoyoshi, chaired a committee to create the first service book entirely in English.


Jane formed the BCA Music Department with fellow Bomoris, Yumi Hojo and Chizu Iwanaga. Choirs flourished in many temples. At crowded annual Young Buddhist Association conventions, as many as nine choirs would participate. There was even a children’s choir in Berkeley that recorded newly composed children’s gathas.


After the new Berkeley temple was built in 1955, the social hall was often overfilled with audiences at lectures, concerts and for special performances such as that of Hiroshi Kashiwagi’s play, “Kisa Gotami,” which featured Mary Tagumi and young Cal student, George Takei.


Jane, who was fully engaged in her rewarding and challenging life as Bomori, did not return to college to complete her music degree. But she never lost her love of the piano repertoire. In her busy schedule at the temple and looking after her family of six, she made time to have occasional lessons with excellent teachers.


For a time, she met with a violinist from the San Francisco Symphony to play sonatas. Her daughter, Hiro, following Jane’s musical path, performed throughout the United States and parts of Europe as a concert pianist. Hiro noted that the repertoire Jane easily mastered on the piano was so difficult, she herself struggled to play it. Jane had the gift of perfect pitch, which coupled with natural ability, allowed her to play anything by ear.


In 1957, the Imamuras retired from the Berkeley temple and moved to their new private home. Jane continued to meet with the temple choir and Rev. Imamura continued his work with the Buddhist Study Center.


Jane took a job at the UC Berkeley Music Department. She quickly became an indispensable coordinator of department activities, overseeing the practice rooms and student concerts, and hosting weekly teas where faculty and students mingled. She hosted many musical gatherings during those years. Talented students, many who eventually went on to international acclaim, gathered at the Imamura home to play music late into the night.


In 1967, Rev. Imamura was called to Hawaii to become Bishop of the large and active Hawaiian organization of Buddhist temples, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii. Jane and Kanmo moved to Honolulu, back to the Honpa Hongwanji that Kanmo remembered from his childhood and young bachelor days.


Jane became Bomori on a new, larger scale, with many official and public duties that she carried out in her innovative style. She naturally encouraged an active music program in the temple, not only as choir director, but in giving music lessons to the students of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii School.


The full-time school — the only established Buddhist school in the United States at the time — had a student body of 300 children from kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as English classes for foreign students.


Jane also taught Japanese songs as part of a program at the Fort Gakuen Japanese language classes and the Rakuen Club for senior citizens. Rev. Imamura promoted the establishment of a new Buddhist Study Center based on the Berkeley model. All of the programs thrived with Jane and Kanmo’s active participation.


In 1974, because of Kanmo’s increasing ill health, the Imamuras decided to retire and returned to Berkeley. After a long fight with a debilitating illness, Rev. Imamura passed away in 1986.


To honor her husband’s remarkable life, Jane turned her devoted attention to writing a book, “Kaikyo.” Temple music continued to engage her. In 1989, she joined the BCA’s Ad Hoc Music Committee, whose purpose was to commission the composition and publication of new gathas. The response to this project was widespread and rewarding.


New gathas by American composers Lou Harrison and Shinji Eshima, along with Linda Castro, Dii Lewis, and others, joined standard works by Chizu Iwanaga, Yumi Hojo — and Jane’s own compositions.


Eshima, a successful contemporary composer of moving, dramatic works, many with significant political, social import and some based on Buddhist chants, is Jane’s nephew.


A new, revised BCA “Shin Buddhist Service Book” was published in 1994.


In her last private years, Jane gave way to dementia. But she miraculously remained able to sit at her piano and lovingly play complex works by Chopin.


She passed away in 2011, having touched and inspired multitudes.


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