The permanence of impermanence

The transition of the Japanese immigrant into the Japanese-American who enriched Hawai‘i’s cultural identity is evident in the structures of worship created throughout the past century. In a current exhibition at the Kaua‘i Museum in Lihu‘e, guest curator Lorraine Minatoishi Palumbo explores the relationship between Buddhist temple design in Hawai‘i and the social transformations in the Japanese-American community throughout the islands. The exhibit is composed of historic photographs, architectural drawings and documents assembled and available to the public for the first time.

Looking past the plasticity of a structure into the symbolic nature of these temples is a direct reflection of the history of Buddhist missions and the Japanese community in Hawai‘i. It was through the building of the temple structure that Japanese immigrants honored and perpetuated their heritage.

In an interview with Palumbo at Kaua‘i Museum, she explained that while many Japanese immigrants came to the islands as agricultural laborers and skilled craftsman seeking higher wages and improved quality of life, they did not relinquish their spiritual beliefs.

“In fact, the social center to their newly immigrated community fell on the auspices of their religious life,” Palumbo said.

Coinciding with the greatest wave of Japanese immigration from the 1890s through the 1920s, the most prolific period of temple building in Hawai‘i took place. No less than 185 temples and 300 temple structures were built during this time.

Palumbo took on this study over 10 years ago for her Ph.D. in the field of architectural history as an American student in Japan.

“As a third-generation Japanese-American from Hawai‘i, I wanted to do something that no one else could do,” she said of choosing that subject to study.

It was her professor at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo who encouraged her to take on the mission to “save these temples.” From that time Palumbo has researched, studied and collected the most comprehensive analysis of these buildings ever done in the islands.

Long-time friend of Palumbo, Michael Schuster of The East West Center, is the co-curator of this exhibit and feels the project fits perfectly into the philosophy of the center’s vision.

“We want people to understand the Asian-Pacific world and our world better,” Schuster said. “We want to celebrate the significance of these temples that literally created community and sustained culture.”

Unlike the Western religious tradition of building churches and mosques meant to stand the test of time in unmoving stone, the Japanese Buddhist ideology is to build and rebuild with transient wood construction. This contrasted philosophy of temple building is evident when comparing a structure like Notre Dame in Paris and Kyoto’s famed temple structure at The Summer Palace. While Notre Dame remains unfazed over centuries, the temple in Kyoto, built of wood, has been built and rebuilt in the exact same way on the average of every 50 years over five centuries. It is the permanence of impermanence that characterizes a core philosophy in Buddhism.

These cultural differences were finally recognized in the 1994 conference on World Heritage standards in Nara, Japan, where measures of authenticity and preservation as they exist in the Asian paradigm were given equal status with Western criterion. This expanding scope of what defines authentic, historic culture is an evolving study; Palumbo’s work greatly contributes to an understanding of cross-cultural identity.

The perception of these differences had their impact on the Japanese-American immigrant, and soon the pressure to assimilate manifested in the building of Hawai‘i’s Buddhist missions. Palumbo’s exhibit includes temples that began to take on varied aesthetics, clearly demonstrating how the Buddhist temple responded to these new influences.

“It wasn’t until 1918, at the tail-end of the building swell, that the larger Hawaiian community first recognized a Buddhist temple as a significant religious structure in the Honolulu Advertiser, and of course, it was the one built in stone,” Palumbo said.

The evolution of architectural design has been named by Palumbo in five distinct categories, all of which directly responded to Hawai‘i’s culture, climate and customs. The Kaua‘i temples included in Palumbo’s dissertation are the Hanapepe Hong-wanji, Hanapepe Zenshuji, Kapa‘a Hongwanji, Kapaia Hongwanji, Koloa Jodo, Koloa Taishido, Lihue Hongwanji and the Waimea Shingon. Walking through the exhibit reveals the varied influences upon the Japanese-American community and the reactive nature of culture over time.

The temple became the heart of the Japanese diaspora in Hawai‘i, it housed the cultural memory of their birthplace. A visit to this exhibit is educational in a significant and objectively recent aspect of Hawai‘i’s cultural tapestry. The value of a study like Palumbo’s is stated clearly in the Nara Document:

“In a world that is increasingly subject to the forces of globalization and homogenization, and in a world in which the search for cultural identity is sometimes pursued through aggressive nationalism and the suppression of the cultures of minorities, the essential contribution made by the consideration of authenticity in conservation practice is to clarify and illuminate the collective memory of humanity.”

This body of work seeks to celebrate and re-create our cultural memory while enhancing the islands’ preservation of religious diversity.

• Keya Keita, lifestyle writer, can be reached at 245-3681 or


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