Updated: Mar 16
In 1918, Rev. Issei Matsuura traveled from the town of Guadalupe in California’s Santa Maria Valley to Fukui, Japan.
Rev. Matsuura was the resident priest at the Guadalupe Buddhist Church from 1915 and this visit to Japan was arranged for him to be introduced to Shinobu Kuninaga, daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Kuninaga. This bit of history began with a pot of burnt rice prepared by this bachelor priest. The rice was discovered by the visiting Madam Wariko Kai, the renowned poet and educator who had toured the American Buddhist temples in 1915.
Upon her return to Japan, Madam Kai remembered the rice in Guadalupe and consulted with the eminent Buddhist scholar and priest, Joen Ashikaga. These two prominent figures decided that the priest in California needed a perfectly matched wife, wisely choosing Shinobu Kuninaga. With unanimous blessings, the couple shortly married.
Just 22, Shinobu left her comfortable home in Japan for a new life as a Bomori, the wife of a Buddhist priest, in America. She could not have expected the conditions that would greet her, but she promised herself what had been her long-standing dream: to have a piano in her new life. She firmly believed even as a novice Bomori that music should be an essential part of temple life in America.
In 1918, the Buddhist community in the Santa Maria Valley was largely farm workers living in primitive housing. There were many young families with children to be cared for while both parents worked the fields.
After Shinobu arrived in America, the deadly Spanish flu pandemic began in 1918. The temple became a refuge for children of sickened parents. The Matsuuras became front-line workers bringing goods and medicine to the sick. Shinobu remembers staying up long nights, crying alongside the crying babies in her care.
During 1919, with the continuing pandemic and the widespread discrimination against the Japanese, families sent their children to relatives in Japan for their safety. In response to this trend of family separation, the Matsuuras established a licensed Guadalupe Children’s Home within the temple grounds.
Thirty-six children ranging in age from 6 to 16 took up residence on the temple grounds, well-cared for while remaining happily close to their parents. Over the years, the temple would be home to almost 60 children.
In spite of the hardships, the Matsuuras continued temple services and managed to procure an old $60 pump organ for the Sunday School. As the pandemic eased in 1920, a temple fundraiser generated funds to purchase a used piano. Shinobu wrote modestly in her diary that since there was no one in the Sangha to play, she accompanied the gathas as best as she could.
Pioneering Gatha Book
Singable gathas had been Shinobu’s wish and she was grateful when a newly published gatha book, “Raisan” was sent to her in Guadalupe by Hawaii’s Bishop Yemyo Imamura. Bishop Imamura and his wife, Kiyoko, shared a keen interest in music and the arts. Under their guidance, a pipe organ was built into the newly constructed Hongwanji Temple in Honolulu in 1916.
The prominent Japanese composer, Kosaku Yamada, was engaged as resident composer for new gathas. Kiyoko wrote poems which Yamada set to children’s gathas. “Raisan” was the culminating work which was published and distributed. Little did anyone suspect that one day, Joen Ashikaga, the eminent Buddhist priest responsible for bringing together Rev. Matsuura and Shinobu would also arrange a meeting between the Imamura’s eldest son, Kanmo, and the Matsuura’s eldest daughter, Jane. Although the families came from the same Fukui region in Japan it is perhaps fitting that in America, this auspicious connection was kindled by a pioneering gatha book.
In 1928, the Matsuura family, now a family of six, returned to Japan. Shinobu had become ill in Guadalupe and needed care. In 1931, Rev. Matsuura responded to a call to become one of several priests in the growing Buddhist community of Fresno, California. The family, now seven strong, returned to America.
It was in Fresno that Jane began piano lessons. Jane progressed so quickly that despite the hardships of the Great Depression, Shinobu extravagantly bought a $100 used piano. This piano was to accompany their return to the Guadalupe community; follow them to the Gila River Relocation Center; return to Guadalupe after the war; and finally retire in Berkeley after the passing of Rev. Matsuura.
Buddhist Choir Formed
This piano and Jane’s remarkable musical talent paved an inspired path to one of the earliest Buddhist choirs in America. Upon returning to Guadalupe in 1935, Shinobu researched and found Mrs. Muriel Fisk, the best piano teacher in the area for Jane. Mrs. Fisk had settled in Santa Maria with her husband William from England.
Mrs. Fisk formed a deep friendship with the Matsuuras and started a temple choir at the Guadalupe Buddhist Church. Meeting every week, the Guadalupe YWBA Choir performed not only in the temple, but in various community festivals, including broadcasting on the San Luis Obispo radio station and performing in 1939 at the Golden Gate International Exposition at San Francisco’s Treasure Island.
Even after Pearl Harbor, Mrs. Fisk and her husband stood by the Japanese American community. They traveled to the Tulare Assembly Center to bring supplies and food to the large group of internees from the Guadalupe area. Mrs. Fisk led the choir for a final time on the Tulare fairgrounds grandstand, lifting spirits over the barbed wire fence.
The Fisks faced harsh repercussions for their support of the Japanese Americans, including job termination and chose to leave their home because of the local backlash. A widowed Mrs. Fisk returned to England after the war’s end. Before she left, she gave her baby grand piano to Jane in Berkeley. It was on that piano that Jane, as the Bomori of the Berkeley Buddhist Temple, would teach a whole new generation of young Buddhist pianists!
During the war years, Shinobu was active at the Gila River Relocation Center. She, along with three other Buddhist priests and Rev. Kanmo Imamura, who had just joined the family as the newly married husband to Jane, set up camp temple services, complete with music. Shinobu gradually handed her musical baton to Jane, now herself a young and devoted Bomori.
Shinobu and Rev. Matsuura returned to Guadalupe after World War II and turned the temple into a temporary hostel for returning internees. Suffering from cancer that began plaguing him while he was incarcerated separately from the family, Rev. Matsuura passed away in 1947. After his death, Shinobu moved to Berkeley, where Rev. Kanmo Imamura and Jane Imamura had settled.
Role in IBS Precursor
Shinobu continued her active work as a prominent member of the Buddhist community in Berkeley. Together with Bishop Enryo Shigefuji and Rev. Kanmo Imamura, they discussed plans for a new BCA Study Center. The first classes were held in 1949 in her modest but welcoming home. As the number of participants grew, lectures and classes were held at the Berkeley temple. Eventually the study center expanded to become the current Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS).
Shinobu played a large part in the arrival of the Buddha statue (Gohonzon) that sits in the Onaijin at the Berkeley Buddhist Temple. In 1955, Rev. Imamura asked Shinobu to seek out a Buddha image for the newly constructed temple. Shinobu chose the priceless Buddha she found standing in Joen Ashikaga’s temple on Ikunoshima in Hiroshima prefecture.
The Buddha statue dated from the Kamakura era (1185-1333), a period that saw the birth and spread of the Jodo Shinshu teachings throughout Japan. Joen Ashikaga and his temple members graciously bid their Buddha image farewell as it left for America in Shinobu’s care.
In her later life, Shinobu welcomed streams of visiting scholars, artists and interested Buddhists to her home. She traveled the world, inspiring others in the teachings of the Buddha through her modest and compassionate example until 1972, when she suffered a debilitating stroke.
She was still teaching Japanese, giving occasional sermons and greeting guests when, in 1980, she became bedridden. Before her passing in 1984, she was awarded the Zuihoshi 5th Order from the Emperor of Japan and the Humanitarian Award from Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai of Japan.