History of the Buddhist Church of Oakland
KANSHA: In Gratitude……our first 100 years
1900 – 1919 Planting the Seeds of the Dharma
The first Japanese immigrants to California came from the Japanese province of Aizu Wakamatsu and settled north of Sacramento in the mid-1860’s. Unfortunately, this colony of Issei pioneers was not able to survive due to harsh conditions. To this day, generations of Japanese Americans annually visit the grave of Okei, a young girl who was a member of this colony, and the first Japanese woman to die in California.
Large-scale immigration to the Bay Area started a little later, and it’s said that by 1900, there were almost 2,000 Japanese Issei in San Francisco. On July 6, 1898, Reverends Eryu Honda and Ejun Miyamoto of the Hongwanji headquarters arrived in San Francisco to study the prospect of establishing a Hongwanji mission (temple) in the Bay Area.
At this time, the San Francisco Young Men’s Buddhist Association was formed, and later, this organization became the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. On September 1, 1899, Rev. Dr. Shuye Sonoda and Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima arrived as the first two resident ministers for the Buddhist Church of San Francisco. The arrival of these two ministers also marked the founding of the Buddhist Churches of America.
As the early Japanese Issei pioneers started to move to other locations throughout California, temples were soon started in Sacramento, Fresno, Seattle, and San Jose.
It was in early 1901, that some young Issei, many of them in their late teens or twenties gathered together in Oakland to hear the teachings of Buddha. The Rev. Tetsuei Mizuki from the Buddhist Church of San Francisco would cross the Bay by boat to conduct monthly services and bring words of comfort and guidance to these early day Oakland pioneers. After Rev. Mizuki, Rev. Kakuryo Nishijima would come to conduct the Oakland gatherings. By the end of this year, it was decided to form the Buddhist Church of Oakland.
The first permanent church facility was secured in September of 1903, when a house on Seventh Street was rented. This same year saw the start of the Oakland Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), the forerunner of today’s Jr. and Sr. YBA. Early day leaders of the YMBA included Messrs. Tahara, Ryokaku, Murakami, Yamasaki, Okakura and Ikeda. On March 28, 1904, the Fujinkai (Women’s Association) was formed, and later that year, the first Oakland Japanese Language School was established.
Rev. Mokuji Fujii from Yamaguchi Prefecture was assigned as the first resident minister for the Buddhist Church of Oakland in May 1905. With the assignment of Rev. Fujii to Oakland, the Church began to see a growth in membership and activities.
In April 1906, the San Francisco Earthquake would cause many San Francisco Issei to move to the East Bay, and this too, caused a surge in membership. In September, the YMBA would change its name to Oakland Buddhist Church.
With this increase in membership, the church moved in September to 71 Sixth Street, but even this facility did not provide enough space and the church moved again to a larger house at 313 Sixth Street.
In 1911, the State of California officially recognized the group as a church. 1911 also saw the departure of Rev. Fujii back to Japan and the arrival of Rev. Tatsugen Fukushima as the second resident minister for the church. However, Fukushima sensei’s association with the Oakland members would be a short one. Within six months’ time, Fukushima sensei would pass away due to illness.
After the passing of Fukushima-sensei, Rev. Gyodo Haguri was assigned as the third resident minister in November 1911. In 1913, Rev. Doshun Mizutani came to Oakland. Overseeing both the temple and Japanese Language School, Mizutani-sensei is remembered by early day members as a very strict sensei demanding discipline and order. It wasn’t uncommon to be reprimanded by Mizutani-sensei if a student wasn’t standing in line at attention.
In 1916, Rev. Kohan Akita from Chiba Prefecture, Japan was appointed to Oakland for three years. During this time, Akita-sensei started a kindergarten at the church for the now arriving Nisei generation. A Buddhist English school was also started in 1916.
1920 – 1929 Emergence of the Nisei Generation
With an increase in the Nisei generation, Oakland’s fifth minister, the Rev. Ryugyo Fujimoto, organized the Oakland Buddhist Sunday School in June 1920. After a few months, Rev. Fujimoto would leave Oakland and later attend both Stanford and USC before being appointed to teach at Ryukoku University and later at the BCA Study Center (predecessor of the current IBS in Berkeley.)
Oakland’s next minister would be Rev. Tassho Noryo from Kumamoto, but he too, would only serve Oakland a few months before being re-assigned to another temple. Rev. Noryo would also seek higher education in the US from the College of the Pacific and later Harvard University before returning to his temple in Japan.
As the temple, located on the corner of 6th and Alice streets grew with more and more Nisei children, it was decided to purchase a permanent place for the church. In February 1923, a large mansion on the corner of Sixth and Jackson Street was purchased. This building had a full basement, two floors and an attic. The living room was used for the hondo chapel and the adjacent dining room was used as an overflow room for the congregation. Mr. Watanabe was the custodian of this new church facility.
In the spring of 1923, Rev. Mizutani retired and the Rev. Taigan Hata was appointed the next resident minister. During Rev. Hata’s tenure, it was decided to build a larger and new church facility, and under the leadership of Mr. Kikutaro Nakashima, donations and pledges were sought from the membership.
On the way home from one donation solicitation home visitation, Rev. Hata was involved in an auto accident and would wind up spending many weeks in recuperation.
Under Rev. Hata’s guidance, a new young adult group called the “Kosei-kai” was formed. Early members included Nobuzo Endo, Kengo and Kenji Nakahara, Zoichi Fujise and Masao Kubose, who was later ordained as the Rev. Gyomay Kubose, and founded the Buddhist Temple of Chicago.
In 1926, due to some doctrinal differences, Rev. Hata resigned from the Oakland church and started the Kyudosha Mission Church with his followers, located a few blocks away from the Oakland church.
This disagreement would also cause the church’s Japanese Language School to split into two organizations with the church’s Japanese Language school being called the “Showa Gakuen” and the other new school being called “Wanto Gakuen.”
In July of 1926, Rev. Kenshi Iwao would serve as head minister of Oakland for a year before going back to Japan and then Iwao-sensei would later return to California be re-appointed to Oakland from 1929-1931.
With the growing Nisei membership, the church started the Lumbini Club in April 1926, similar to today’s Jr. YBA.
Rev. Shoi Yamada, who had previously served temples in Hawaii, Singapore, Los Angeles and Seattle, was then assigned to Oakland in May 1927.
Through the dedication, determination and support of the Issei membership, a beautiful two-story temple, designed by San Francisco Nisei architect George Shimamoto, was completed at a cost of $37,000.00 on the site at Sixth and Jackson. The former church building was then moved to another site within the church’s property.
Dedicated on October 5, 1927, the celebration included a marching band, and an ochigo procession which included BCA Bishop Hosho Sasaki, other Bay District ministers and Oakland church board members.
After the celebration, the church was saddened by the death of one of its dedicated members, Mr. Keisaburo Oka, who died as a result of blood poisoning from a sliver he picked up during the construction of the temple.
Immediately after the 1927 dedication, Rev. Masao Washioka arrived in Oakland. A distinguished, well groomed man. Rev. Washioka was a graceful dancer and taught the Dharma School students Obon Odori dances. He was also a good athlete and could easily outrun the other Issei at the annual church picnics.
In July of 1928, the Young Women’s Buddhist Association (YWBA) was organized.
In 1929, a fire struck the church complex and destroyed the wooden “old mansion” building. The church board then decided that a new replacement structure called the “YMWBA Building” (Young Mens/Womens Buddhist Association) would be built. This facility included classrooms, a Judo hall, kitchen, meeting room and residence for the minister and his family.
During the Depression years, covering operating costs for the temple was not always easy. Even with a substantial membership, there would be times when the church could not pay utility expenses, and individual members would have to cover the costs for these expenses from their own personal pockets.
1930 – 1939 Pre-war Years
The Junior YMBA was founded in 1930 and the Junior YWBA was started in 1932. During this period, young members participated in activities of the Bay District YBA and California Young Buddhist League as well.
In the 1930’s, with ever-increasing activities and programs, Oakland would see a stream of ministers sharing their skills, talents and teachings with the members. In 1932, Rev. Tokumon Aoki and his family came to Oakland. Aoki-sensei was followed by Rev. Hideo Shimakawa who would serve for six years before returning to Japan.
In the mid-1930’s, a North Oakland Buddhist Society (English-speaking group) was started and led by Rev. Francis Geske. A Central Oakland Buddhist Society was also started by William Reuter and James K. Stewart. During this time, a Dr. Clark, who was an ordained Buddhist minister would come to the church on Sundays and lecture to the young people.
Rev. Tetsuro Kashima and family would arrive in Oakland in 1936 and serve until wartime evacuation. In 1938, a then-young and eager Rev. Eiyu Terao would serve for two years before going to Seattle.
At this time, the world situation was also quickly changing. On the European front, Hitler was emerging. In Asia, the Japanese military was exerting its might. Here at home, these world events also increased tensions for Japanese Americans. For centuries, the swastika with counter-clockwise facing legs (called “Manji” in Japanese) was the symbol for Buddhism. In fact the term “swastika” is actually a Sanskrit word. The symbol was frequently used on temple designs, artwork and crests.
The original Oakland temple building had the Buddhist swastika design incorporated on its roof end tiles and entryway. However with ever-rising tensions, some of the young members of the temple felt these Buddhist “manji” symbols, even though they were the reverse of Hiltler’s swastika design were inappropriate for the temple. Therefore, these young men actually climbed onto the roof and removed the symbols and tiles from the building.
1940 – 1949 The War, Internment & Coming Home
Inevitably, with the coming of World War II, Oakland members immediately found themselves living within the restricted “Red Zone.” All members were rounded up and most initially sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center in San Bruno (present day location of Tanforan Mall). Later, most members along with Rev. Kashima were incarcerated at the Topaz, Utah concentration camp. During the war years, the temple was used to store personal belongings of the members, since there was no indication when members would be able to return to their homes.
During these terrible war years, no one was more important to the church members than Mr. Cos Loustalot, who, despite the feelings of the times, valued and honored his friendship with his Japanese American friends. Friendly neighbors and the Loustalot family all through the war years carefully and safely looked after the church and the stored belongings.
The only major temple loss during the war years was the disappearance of a statue of Ninomiya Kinjiro (a Japanese school boy icon who represents determination and diligence in studies) which had been donated by Mr. and Mrs. Kiyoichi Nobori and was placed in the Japanese Schoolyard.
With the end of World War II, members gradually began to return to the Bay Area. Rev. Gibun Kimura was dispatched to open the church for temporary housing for members and friends returning home from the concentration camps. Kimura-sensei worked tirelessly to rebuild and reorganize the Oakland Sangha. The YBA was the first organization to restart itself in 1946, and this was followed later in the year by the Dharma School and Sunday services.
In 1949, Rev. Kimura was re-assigned to the Fresno Betsuin, and Rev. Gyoyu Hirabayashi replaced him. Young and energetic, Rev. Hirabayashi continued to revitalize the temple and its membership emerging from internment.
1950 – 1959 Nisei Leadership, Moving the Church
In 1950, due to the construction of the Nimitz Freeway (now I-880), the church received a notice of condemnation from the State of California and would have to move from its location at Sixth and Jackson.
The church’s directors, which had now become dominated by the Nisei generation, spent many hours hashing out possible solutions to the temple’s forced relocation.
One idea was to move and build a new temple, the second choice was to form an East Bay church which would include members from the Alameda and Berkeley churches and build at a site on Redwood Road in the East Oakland hills or the third possibility was to move the church building to a nearby location.
The first choice was ruled out due to the fact that many members were still trying to re-establish themselves after internment. On the second option, while Berkeley members was willing to consider this proposal, the mostly Issei board members of the Alameda temple felt comfortable with their current temple.
Thus the only viable option for the Oakland church board was to move the current building to another nearby location. A 125’x125’ lot was available at the corner of Ninth and Jackson, however, the board felt that they might run into opposition from the apartment complex neighbors of the property.
With his foresight and good business sense, then church president, Mr. Mitsuteru Nakashima, asked the owner of the apartment complex if the complex was available for sale, and to his surprise, he received a positive response. Mr. Nakashima, then quickly moved to purchase the apartment complex with his own funds and under his name.
Additionally, through his skillful negotiation talent, Mr. Nakashima was able to get the State of California to pay $105,000 to the Myers Construction Company to move the church to Ninth and Jackson, and an additional $20,000 for the YMWBA building.
In order to finalize the move, a court hearing had to be held. Only one person who lived next to the proposed site, saying that “he did not want an idol worshipping church moving next door to him” filed a single objection. But his opposition was thrown out by the judge who gave the neighbor a good lecture on Buddhism.
With the completion of the court hearing, everyone thought the church’s problems were over, however, the County then informed the church that since they had no building for a place of worship on the proposed location, they would lose their tax exemption status and have to pay taxes on the property until a building was completed. In order to comply with the County ruling, token services were held on the church grounds during this interim period.
The church building then had to be moved three blocks northward to the corner of Jackson and Ninth. In order to do this, the building was cut into two pieces and slowly moved to our present location.
On July 1-2, 1950, the members celebrated the completion of the move to its new location and Mr. Nakashima transferred the title of the apartment building from his name to the church. A great deal of credit and respect must be paid to the late Mr. Nakashima for his dedication and business acumen which enabled the church to make this successful move to our current location.
Ever dedicated to the Buddha-Dharma, Mr. Nakashima said that he would not have been able to accomplish all that he did without the backing and support of the Issei and Nisei committee members. Some years later, Mr. Nakashima would make a substantial donation to the church to establish the Mr. & Mrs. Kikutaro Nakashima Endowment Fund for the purpose of funding special church programs.
This move to Ninth and Jackson Streets gave the church an opportune time for some remodeling as well. The old kitchen became the minister’s office and the YBA Room next to the Women’s restroom was converted into the kitchen. A very dedicated Rev. Hirabayashi spearheaded all of these and the other improvements.
At this time, the Issei pioneers realized that the next generation must take over the responsibilities for running the temple, and from 1951, the church board was comprised entirely of Nisei members, with the Issei members serving as advisors to the Board.
In 1951, the Oakland Buddhist Church Nihongo Gakuen was established and the Junior Fujinkai was started in 1953.
Rev. Kenyu Masuyama was assigned to the Oakland church in 1954 and would later serve for 14 years as head minister. In 1956, Mrs. Chizu Iwanaga started a church Children’s Choir, followed by an adult choir. After 12 years, and Mrs. Iwanaga’s move to Palo Alto, church member Allen Yamamoto took over leading the choir until he left Oakland to further pursue his music education back east.
In 1958, Rev. Hirabayashi would be called to Kyoto to accept a higher ranking position at the Hongwanji denomination headquarters.
1960 – 1969 The Next Generation
During Rev. Masuyama’s tenure, the Issei Memorial/Dharma School building was built and dedicated in 1962 and a building next to our property was purchased for future expansion needs.
Throughout its history, the Oakland church often time served as training ground for newly arriving ministers from Japan. Rev. Keisho Motoyama served the church from 1956-1957 but has since returned to Japan and has a temple in Kumamoto. Rev. Hiroshi Futaba was in Oakland from 1950-1952 and served at various BCA temples, before completing his career serving as Rinban of the Sacramento Betsuin and is now a BCA minister emeritus. After leaving Oakland in 1963, Rev. Sensho Inouye (1960-1963) was assigned to the Los Angeles Betsuin, Rinban at the San Jose Betsuin and is now at the Buddhist Church of Fowler.
In October of 1961, the church celebrated its Sixtieth Anniversary at Goodman Hall in Jack London Square.
With the growth of the Sansei generation, branches Dharma Schools were established in Concord and the Ashland (Hayward, San Leandro and San Lorenzo areas.) Adult Buddhist groups were also started for members residing in the Concord, Walnut Creek, Orinda and Martinez areas.
To provide sports activities for the younger members, the Church Youth Club was founded in 1962, sponsoring basketball, softball and hardball teams.
Rev. Haruo Yamaoka would begin his first assignment to Oakland in 1964 for seven years before being re-assigned to the Stockton Buddhist Church.
In 1968, after fourteen years at Oakland, Rev. Masuyama was reassigned as head minister of the Gardena Buddhist Church in Southern California. In 1969, Rev. Zesei Kawasaki moved from Central California and was assigned to our church as head minister serving for five years before his retirement from the BCA ministry in 1974, and subsequent retirement to Oxnard.
1970 – 1979 Continued Growth of our Sangha
The church’s 70th anniversary was celebrated in 1971, with over 700 members and friends joining in the celebration. This year also brought Rev. Zuikei Taniguchi from the Cleveland Buddhist Church to Oakland, and Taniguchi sensei would later start the church’s Karate Club.
In 1974, the church purchased additional property at Eighth and Alice streets as an investment for future expansion.
With more and more activities and members at the church, a Small Chapel was added on the second floor and the kitchen on the main floor was remodeled. Designed by Taniguchi sensei, the Small Chapel’s altar was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Sadaichi Neishi in commemoration of their Sixtieth wedding anniversary. Rev. Taniguchi’s parents, the Rev. and Mrs. Yushin Taniguchi personally brought the Amida Buddha and adornments over from Japan to insure their safe delivery
In 1976, Rev. Gerald Sakamoto transferred from the Hawaii Kyodan and was assigned to our church for three years before transferring to the White River church in Washington state.
1980 – 1989 Passing the Dharma to the next Generation
After thirteen years at our church, Rev. Taniguchi transferred to the Alameda church in 1983. In honor of their years at our church Rev. and Mrs. Taniguchi presented the church with funds to establish a Dharma Award Fund to recognize deserving Dharma School students going into college.
The first Sansei church president, Mr. Dennis Nakamura was elected to serve in 1983 and Rev. Toshio Murakami, who had been serving at the BCA Headquarters, became our next resident minister in January 1984.
During Rev. Murakami’s tenure, Mrs. Murakami once again started the Oakland church choir. Mrs. Etsuko Steimetz of Berkeley directed a highly successful summer school pilot program for Eastbay children called the Dharshana School at our church, but the program was not able to continue due to Mrs. Steimetz’s passing.
Rev. Murakami’s term at Oakland was only a short two years when he was appointed Bishop of the Canada Kyodan in 1986. Subsequent to serving in Canada, Murakami sensei would go on to open the first Hongwanji Sangha in Australia. At the time of Rev. and Mrs. Murakami’s departure from our church, they presented the church with funds to establish a special fund to assist church youth programs.
Between the time of Rev. Murakami’s departure and the arrival of our next resident minister, Rev. Kenyu Masuyama, who had retired from active BCA ministry and returned to the East Bay with his wife, was appointed as interim minister for our church. Due to his prior long assignment at our church, the members were most grateful for sensei’s dedication to our sangha.
Rev. Kodo Umezu who was serving at the Los Angeles Betsuin was assigned to our church in 1987. In 1988, the Junior and Senior Fujinkai’s organizations combined together to form one Oakland Buddhist Women’s Association.
In 1988, in memory of Mrs. Kinoko Yoshida, the Yoshida Family donated a new shrine for the Nokotsudo – columbarium, located next to the main shrine in the Hondo.
With the election of Clifford Yokomizo as church president in 1989, three generations of Yokomizo’s have served as Oakland church president, starting with Motoemon in 1935, followed by Tony in 1953. Mrs. JoAnne Hayashida became the first woman to serve as President of the Oakland Buddhist Church in 1990.
In October 1989 the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, inflicting major damage on the church’s rental buildings which were then demolished. The church building itself sustained only minor damage, but this earthquake gave incentive to the church to have the church and apartment buildings’ foundations reinforced. The space occupied by the former rental properties was then turned into much needed parking (for weekday use by the public and weekend use by the church members).
1990 – 1999 The Dawn of a New Millenium
After over sixty years since the church building was built, the roof tiles were showing wear and tear and the whole roof was retiled. In the summer of 1990, the church embarked on a $500,000 “Kansha Hiyaku” fund raising campaign to pay for the necessary remodeling and repair work on the church building.
In December of 1993, the Yoshida Endowment Fund was established by church past president and advisor Mr. Eiichi Yoshida as one of his last wishes and ‘dana’ to the temple. Accepted on behalf of the church by Rev. Umezu and church president Dick Sasaki, it was Mr. Yoshida’s wish that the annual proceeds (interest) from the Yoshida Endowment Fund be used by the church to help offset operating costs for programs and special needs. Through this Fund, Mr. Yoshida’s lifelong dedication and support to his beloved temple will continue on into perpetuity.
In 1996, Rev. Umezu was appointed Executive Assistant to the Bishop and would transfer to the BCA Headquarters in San Francisco. Rev. Haruo Yamaoka, who had just finished serving three terms as Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America, would return to our church to serve as our next and current resident minister.
Through the kindness and dedication to the Nembutsu of Mr. Toshi Nakamura, church member and owner of Serika Restaurant in Orinda, a beautiful, large wooden statue of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism was placed in the entryway to the Main Hondo on the second floor. Mr. Nakamura even asked that everyone touch the statue so that the oil from our hands would enhance the color of the wood.
As we come to the close of the 20th Century, our church is again growing with new fourth and fifth generation members joining the church and Dharma School and assuming the responsibility for carrying the torch of the Nembutsu. The 21st Century will bring our church into our second century of existence, and continuing growth and sharing the Nembutsu teaching with more and more fellow Americans.
2000 – 2001 A New Millenium of the Nembutsu
On June 5, 2001, members gathered together to welcome His Eminence Monshu Koshin Ohani to our church on his visit to the Buddhist Churches of America. In preparation for this visit and for the Centennial celebration, various improvements and repairs to the temple were made. Tne most noticeable of these improvements was the new shrine enshrining the portrait of Rennyo Shonin was installed on the Onaijin, (Main Altar). From the inscription on the rear of that original shrine, it appears that the shrine housing the Rennyo portrait was at one time the main shrine for the temple from the early 1900’s. The maejoku, the large table in front of the Amida Buddha shrine was completely and beautifully re-furbished. New uwajoku, the smaller altar tables which sit in front of the three shrines were also purchased.
Other areas of upgrades and improvements included new flooring in the temple’s Social Hall and kitchen. New carpeting was installed throughout the rest of the temple. A new curtain was hung on the Social Hall stage. Other improvements and minor repairs performed using the funds contributed for the Centennial Celebration included: re-furnishing of the minister’s office, re-paving of the parking lot, installing a new wrought iron fence around the church, and installation of a new P.A system in the Hondo and Social Hall.
For one hundred years, this temple has been our second home, our spiritual home. With a deep sense of gratitude and thanksgiving, we express our appreciation to our Issei pioneers, to all of the ministers and their wives who have served our church and to countless members whose sacrifices and dedication to the life of Nembutsu have enabled us to come this milestone, the Centennial Celebration of the Buddhist Church of Oakland.
2002 – Present / A New Generation
In 2009, Rev. Harry Gyokyo Bridge was appointed as the resident minister after serving for 2 years at the Buddhist Church of Lodi.