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Remembering Jane Imamura And Her Contributions To Buddhism

Albany Patch writer recalls the many contributions of a woman who furthered the study of Buddhism in America.

A special, exceptional and charismatic woman slipped into history over the holidays, and her passing went virtually unnoticed by the general public.  

A memorial service was held Jan. 7 at the for the legendary Jane Michiko Imamura, who died Dec. 26, 2011, at the age of 91. 

Imamura was well-known in the Japanese American community for her contributions to the temple and to the Buddhist Churches of America, and particularly in California, Hawaii and Japan.

Her passing marked a milestone of several memorable periods in the Buddhist Temple’s history. Her life encompassed the emotional upheaval when Japanese American families were uprooted from their homes and sent to internment camps to the harsh resettlement period immediately after World War II to the temple’s explosive growth in the 1950s, when thought-provoking discussions about Buddhism attracted Beat Generation icons such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, to Berkeley.

Even though I never met Imamura, I felt her immense influence and was deeply saddened by her passing. I’ve been researching and writing the text for our temple’s first 100 years and, along the way, have learned so much about the contributions of Jane Imamura, her late husband, Rev. Kanmo Imamura, and her late mother, Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura. 

Individually and collectively, they helped to advance the serious, intellectual study of Buddhism to Westerners, non-Buddhists and to the academic world in Berkeley and beyond. When they began holding Buddhism study groups in the late 1940s and 1950s, few institutions of higher learning had courses in Buddhism. Nowadays, it’s commonplace for colleges and universities throughout the United States to have religious studies devoted to Buddhism.

AS A YOUNG BRIDE, SHE WAS SENT TO INTERNMENT CAMP

Imamura was born on Aug. 9, 1920, and grew up in the small Central Coast town of Guadalupe, the daughter of Rev. Issei Matsuura and Mrs. Shinobu Matsuura. Her father was the minister of the Guadalupe Buddhist Church, which celebrated its centennial in 2009.

Imamura came to Berkeley in 1940 as a student at the University of California at Berkeley, where she majored in music and lived in the women’s dormitory at the temple. In the fall of 1941, she transferred to the Chicago Musical College, where she studied piano, conducting and composition.   

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Imamura boarded a train to return to Guadalupe. A few days after she arrived home, FBI agents went to the Guadalupe Buddhist Church and took her father away.

As she writes in her wonderful memoir: “Kaikyo,” her father shouted: “Jane, go to Berkeley and marry Rev. Imamura. Be happy!” Not knowing whether she would ever see her father again, she waved and cried: “Yes, papa!” 

She soon rode the bus to Berkeley, where she stayed with her brother—George Matsuura, who was attending UC Berkeley—before her marriage.

Three days after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the removal of all residents of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, the Imamuras were married on Feb. 22, 1942. They were initially sent to the Tulare Assembly Center and then to the Gila River War Relocation Center on an American Indian reservation 45 miles southeast of Phoenix, Ariz.

After they were released from the Gila River internment camp on March 6, 1945, the Imamuras stayed at the Senshin Gakuin—which later became the Senshin Buddhist Temple—in Los Angeles. The Japanese language school was transformed into a hostel to accommodate the returning internees, many of whom were without homes or jobs. The Imamuras returned to Berkeley in March 1946.

The next year, Jane Imamura created the Berkeley temple’s choir. She also began composing music and songs for the temple and for the entire Buddhist Churches of America.  

BUDDHISM STUDY GROUPS EVOLVED INTO INSTITUTE

At a time in American society when Buddhism was considered way out of the American religious mainstream, the Imamuras—along with Jane Imamura’s mother—began forming serious study groups. 

Their efforts were instrumental in the formalization of the Berkeley study class, which later was renamed the Pacific Seminar and held at the Asilomar retreat center in Pacific Grove before moving back to Berkeley, where the seminar is currently held at the Jodo Shinshu Center on Durant Avenue. 

The Berkeley study center was also the precursor to the Buddhist Study Center sessions—which, in turn, led to the establishment of the Institute of Buddhist Studies in the mid-1960s. In 1984, the institute gained affiliation with the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Jane Imamura also helped establish the temple’s more than 60 years ago to encourage young temple members to become more involved and to put the temple on more stable financial footing. The bazaar, now a two-day event held each May, attracts such internationally known artists as taiko master Kenny Endo and Hiroshima kotoist June Kuramoto and keyboardist Kimo Cornwell.

Rev. Imamura resigned as Berkeley minister in August 1958 after serving 17 years. But he continued to steer the transformation of the Buddhist Study Center in Berkeley into the IBS and served as the first director of the IBS from the mid-1960s until 1967. And from 1947 to 1967, he worked at UC Berkeley’s Lowie Museum of Anthropology (now known as the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology). He became the museum’s head curator and was appointed to the position because of his expertise in Asian history and culture, according to his son, Rev. Ryo Imamura.

IMAMURA JOINS UC BERKELEY DEPARTMENT OF MUSIC STAFF

After Rev. Imamura’s resignation from the temple, Jane Imamura joined the staff of the UC Berkeley Department of Music and was in charge of the music practice studios. She was also in charge of publicity for concerts, supervising student staff, making posters and flyers for events. 

“The music faculty and students came to rely on her for the smooth and cooperative functioning of the department,” Rev. Ryo Imamura said. “She was loved by everyone.”

The Imamuras left Berkeley in 1967, when Rev. Kanmo Imamura was selected as the first Hawaii-born Bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in Honolulu. He served until 1974. During their tenure, a movement to educate Westerners to become Buddhist ministers was established and the Buddhist Study Center was created there to advance the study of Buddhism in Hawaii.

The Imamuras returned to Berkeley in the mid-1970s. By then, Rev. Imamura was suffering from serious health problems, later diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease. He died in 1986 at the age of 82.

Jane Imamura published her memoir in 1998. Sadly, Alzheimer’s disease ended up stealing her vast treasured memories. In the end, she died of complications from Alzheimer’s.

REALIZATION—AND SADNESS—HIT AT MEMORIAL SERVICE

On the morning of the memorial service on Jan. 7 – a cold, crisp, clear day -- the temple members braced for a huge crowd of upwards of 400 to 500 people and prepared plenty of Japanese food. The turnout was healthy—about 250 people attended—but fell short of expectations.

When I realized why more people didn’t come, a profound sadness came over me. Jane Imamura had outlived many of her Nisei contemporaries. And many other Nisei seniors, for health and other reasons, couldn’t or wouldn’t attend.

The next day, at the New Year’s service, Rev. David Matsumoto told the congregation of the memorial service and spoke about Jane Imamura’s contributions and legacy. Then, in a final tribute on that New Year’s service, the congregation sang Imamura’s Buddhist Sunday School standard, “Farewell”:

So we’ll meet again next week, won’t you take good care?
Let us try to do what’s right, always kind and fair
We shall spread the happiness faith in Buddha brings
Now it’s time to say goodbye, till we meet again

Jan Naman January 30, 2012 at 05:52 AM
Thank you for sharing Jane Imamura's story. I found it a very personal and informative part of history and plan to read the memoir that she has written.
Tom Abate January 30, 2012 at 03:50 PM
She had a beautiful and purposeful life. Thanks for commenting.

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