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Japanese Americans and Catholicism

The recent release of Martin Scorsese’s film SILENCE, on the persecution of Catholic missionaries in early modern Japan, has increased popular interest in the long and eventful encounter between Japanese Americans and Catholicism, a subject that has tended to pass unnoticed in chronicles of Nikkei life. This absence of discussion is peculiar, since in most places around the world where Japanese emigrant communities became established in the 20th century—including Latin America, the Philippines, New Caledonia, and Quebec—Catholicism was the dominant religion. In these regions, the Church played an important role in assisting the Nikkei, some of whom ended up intermarrying and/or converting to the Catholic faith. In contrast, the United States (like Australia and English Canada) is an Anglo-Protestant society where Catholics have historically occupied a minority, and sometimes stigmatized, position.

In spite of their marginality, Catholic clergy and members of religious communities in different regions have been important supporters of Issei and Nisei. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Catholic schools and colleges in the United States accepted numerous Nisei students. The medical school at Creighton University in Omaha trained a generation of Nikkei physicians from Hawaii and the mainland. Loyola University in New Orleans not only welcomed Nisei students, but later professors as well: by the mid-1950s there were four Nikkei on Loyola’s faculty, including Father James Yamauchi, a biracial Nisei Jesuit who served as chair of the Department of Religious Studies. The Maryknoll sisters ran an orphanage in Los Angeles where numerous Nisei grew up.

Conversely, while only a small fraction of Japanese Americans embraced Catholicism, there were some notable converts, including early 19th century migrant Joseph Heco; Nisei newspaper editors James Sakamoto and Harry Honda; Joseph Kurihara, World War I veteran and leading dissident in Manzanar; and Chicago-based attorney Franklin Chino (who even became an officer of the local branch of the Knights of Columbus).

Catholic church in Poston, Arizona. (National Archives 210-G-K332)

Such support became especially noticeable in the wake of Executive Order 9066 and mass removal of West Coast Issei and Nisei. As Anne Blankenship reveals in her new book Christianity, Social Justice and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II,after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many members of the Catholic clergy expressed their support for the Nikkei and decried the prejudices this community had to face.

The Maryknoll missionaries worked, though without success, to help Japanese Americans avert confinement. Maryknoll Father Hugh Lavery and Brother Theophane Walsh pushed the WRA to approve resettlement efforts. Walsh later moved to Chicago and aided Japanese American resettlers there. Maryknoll Father Leo Tibesar, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Seattle, followed his Nikkei parishioners to Minidoka, where he lived and conducted services, and then on to Chicago at war’s end. Father Edward J. Flanagan, the renowned founder of Boys Town, a home for abandoned youth near Omaha, Nebraska, sponsored several Nisei for jobs at the institution to permit them and their families to resettle—future JACL President K. Patrick Okura was named staff psychologist.

One particularly intriguing story of Catholic engagement with Japanese Americans is that of the Catholic Worker movement. Founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day, and directed by her until her death in 1980, the Catholic Worker is a progressive lay spiritual movement. It is known for its hospitality centers in American cities, where volunteers offer food and shelter to the poor.

The organization’s journal, the Catholic Worker, supports labor activism, peace and human rights. Yet in addition to these other causes, Dorothy Day and her movement became distinguished for their outspoken opposition to Executive Order 9066 and open embrace of Japanese Americans.

Before getting to the core of the subject, it is useful to provide some background on the history of Dorothy Day and her movement.

Dorothy Day, 1916 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Day was born in 1897 in Brooklyn in a non-practising Protestant family. Her father, a sports journalist, repeatedly moved the family across the United Sates. (The Day family was living in Oakland in 1906 when the Great earthquake struck San Francisco, an event which drove Mr. Day’s newspaper out of business). Soon after, the family settled in Chicago, where Dorothy spent her teens. In 1916, after having spent two years at the University of Illinois, she left for New York City, where she started working as a journalist for various radical newspapers and magazines like The Call and The Masses. During this period, she met all the intelligentsia of Greenwich Village; Max and Crystal Eastman, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Eugene O’Neill, etc. Ironically, even though these people were fighting for a “socialist paradise”, they were also profoundly individualistic.

Dorothy Day yearned instead to forge a community and bring about genuine fraternity between people. Blocked from her goal, she engaged in various unhappy love affairs, underwent an abortion and wrote an autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin. After a Hollywood studio bought the rights to the novel, Dorothy Day was able to use the money to buy a small cottage close to the beach on Staten Island. It was there that she spent some of the happiest days of her life, living in a common-law marriage with the biologist and activist Forster Batterham, by whom she bore a daughter, Tamar.

After her relationship with Batterham ended, Day threw herself into Catholic spirituality. Under the influence of Catholic thinker Peter Maurin and in collaboration with him, she devised a radical mix of spiritual thought and social action. The organizational product of their efforts was The Catholic Worker. Founded on May 1st, 1933, its goal was to help people affected by the aftermath of the 1929 crash, and to offer a humane alternative to capitalism. Throughout the 1930s, Day remained in New York and ran the organization’s newspaper and its hospitality center, in the process braving the skepticism (and at times outright hostility) of the city’s Catholic hierarchy.

At one point during the 1930s, Day had welcomed a Japanese immigrant at The Catholic Worker, and had had to brave the race-based opposition of some members. She also corresponded with the Massachusetts-based Nisei Socialist and pacifist Yoné U. Stafford. Still, Day was taken by surprise by the anti-Nikkei climate following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As Anne Blankenship points out, the Catholic clergy, despite their expressed sympathy for Japanese Americans, were limited in the opposition they could offer, at least publicly, to Executive Order 9066. Conversely, as a layperson Dorothy Day was more free to voice her disgust to what was being done to the Nikkei. For Day, the United States were no better than Nazi Germany, if the nation treated its citizens in the same way that the Nazis did. It is important to bear in mind that Day was strongly influenced during this period by the theological concept of the “Mystical body of Christ.” To harm anyone, whoever the person was, was the same as to injure the body of Christ. Thus, her firm pacifistic stand during World War II.

During the late spring of 1942, she spent some time on the West Coast. In the June 1942 issue of The Catholic Worker, she gave a chilling account of Camp Harmony, the camp she had seen near Seattle, where Nikkei were held before being moved further east to other camps: “I saw a bit of Germany on the west coast. I saw some of the concentration camps where the Japanese men, women, and children are being held before they are resettled in the Owens Valley or some other place barren, windswept, inaccessible.”1 Even though she was not able to speak to anyone in the camps, she was well-informed about the living conditions the people in them were facing due to her correspondence with Nikkei friends who were detained there.

Dorothy Day didn’t hesitate to quote sections of these letters in her article, so her readers could bear witness to the injustice that was being done in the United States: “There are flood lights turned on us at night”, she quoted one letter.2 She cited a long passage in another: “There is no privacy[.…] There are long rows of toilets, all facing each other, with no partitions in between, and rows of showers. It is very cold out here, because the building is full of knot-holes. There is no place for the children, we hear their crying all night and all day.”3

Block 14 women’s latrine replica at Manzanar National Historic Site. 

Day continued her reporting in the following issue of her journal, telling the shocking story of a young Japanese American boy who was shot to death when he tried to retrieve a ball that had rolled outside the fence of the camp where he lived.4 All those details about life in the camps brought the Office of Censorship in Washington to send a letter to The Catholic Worker criticizing it for disobeying to the Code of Wartime Practices of the American Press. Even though, Day apologized for not respecting the Code, she continued to publicly denounce Executive Order 9066.5

The interest of Dorothy Day in aiding the Nikkei community didn’t stop with the end of the war. Until her death, she would often remind her readers that the US government had committed a monstrous crime by bombing the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Also, during the postwar years she would befriend and work with the famed Nisei writer Hisaye Yamamoto, who spent some years at the Peter Maurin farm during the 1950s and wrote articles for The Catholic Worker.



1. Dorothy Day, “Grave Injustice Done Japanese On West Coast,” The Catholic Worker, June 1942.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Dorothy Day, “Day After Day,” The Catholic Worker, July/August 1942.

5. June 1942, “Grave Injustice Done Japanese On West Coast.”


© 2018 Greg Robinson; Matthieu Langlois

catholicism Dorothy Day incarceration religion war