On 30 April 1900 the Hawaiian Organic Act was passed and from that day onwards the Islands have been part of the territory of the United States—although I say this with reservation because at the time a majority of the Hawaiian population was opposed to the process of annexation that started in the 1880’s.
Hawaii officially became a member state of the USA in 1959 and interestingly, it is the only state that is comprised of a majority of Asian Americans. Because of its location on the Pacific Ocean, during the late 19th Century many Asians immigrated to Hawaii in order to work on the sugar plantations—which is also why Hawaii has the largest percentage of Buddhists in all of the United States. The American Values Atlas reports that the national average of Buddhists per state is 0.8 per cent, yet in Hawaii Buddhists make up six per cent of the population. This is much higher than the next in line—Rhode Island—whose population is just two per cent Buddhist.
According to Honolulu Magazine, “the person most credited with establishing Buddhism in the Islands is Bishop Emyō Imamura. He came from Japan in 1899 to examine life at the plantations, and he was instrumental in building temples in plantation towns. Plantation workers converted plantation homes to create the first temples. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 170 temples in Hawai‘i. They were the lifeblood of the plantation towns, where they served not only as the place of worship, but as a community center and as the nucleus for political and labor discussions as the Japanese fought for a place in the Islands.”
In the same article, which was published in 2013, Honolulu Magazine reports that Japanese Buddhism in Hawaii is on the decline. True, temples remain popular with the elderly, who appreciate the conventional Buddhist practices such as chanting and performing rituals. However they are seldom visited by the Islands’ youths who are further removed from this traditional part of Japanese culture and who often do not speak Japanese.
Reverend Earl Ikeda—minister of Moiliili Hongwanji temple—is of the view that in order to survive, Japanese Buddhism needs to grow beyond its traditional Japanese roots. He says “Buddhism should be considered a universal religion, not a cultural religion.”