Interview and photos by Akiko Kusunose For The North American Post
Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki and the Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple’s 120th Anniversary
Auto-translated from Japanese (Oct. 14) by the “Soy Source” website, with further editing
by David Yamaguchi The North American Post
The Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple, whose summer Bon Odori is widely known in Seattle, has a history of more than 120 years. To belatedly mark the temple’s anniversary, we asked Rimban (head minister) Katsuya Kusunoki about his career leading up to his arrival in Seattle, his activities here so far, and the difficulties of the pandemic.
Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki grew up in Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture. After graduating from Nagasaki Higashi High School, he entered the Department of Education at the University of Miyazaki, Kyushu. He traveled to Zimbabwe, Africa as a student and member of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers. Following graduation from university, he taught at an elementary school in Miyazaki Prefecture (southeast Kyushu) for three years. After later studying Buddhism in Kyoto, he was assigned to Lodi, California in 2010 as a Buddhist minister. He has been the Rimban at Seattle Betsuin since 2017.
Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki was born as the second son of a temple family in Nagasaki (western Kyushu). His parents’ temple has endured there since the early Edo Period (1603-1867). It is the setting for a folk tale (“Ugume no Yurei” or “Ameya no Yurei”) in which a mother who died before childbirth returns as a ghost to buy candy for her baby. In addition to temple services, they have held Sunday school since the Meiji era (1868 – 1912). In 2009, Sunday school graduates ran a streetcar in Nagasaki with the sign “Hikari Children’s Sunday School 100th Anniversary.”
However, Kusunoki didn’t like being the son of a temple family.
“When you are born and raised in a temple, you are always in the view of the people around you as the son of the temple. I always wanted to go far away where no one knew me. I went to the University of Miyazaki (about 240 miles away), instead of going to a local university, and went to Zimbabwe in Africa because I wanted to travel far.”
Kusunoki started playing softball in elementary school and played baseball throughout junior high, high school and college. He was always at the center of the team, playing catcher on defense and trusted as the team’s captain. He dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and practiced repeatedly; but over time, he felt the limits of his abilities. Still, he wanted to be involved in baseball in some way. For this reason, he applied to the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JICA) and headed to Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia), a country in southern Africa, when he was in his fourth year of university. His mission was to coach children and young people in playing baseball.
“I must have been worried about my first time abroad, but I was also just excited.”
At that time, the internet was not yet widespread, and baseball was an unknown sport for local children.
“I took over what my predecessor was doing, went around to elementary schools and taught hard. There were times when I wondered about teaching baseball every day. It was not the most important thing in a poor agricultural African country that was once a British colony. It wasn’t the computer skills that would be needed in the future. However, I was supported by the locals who said, ‘If you don’t have something to enjoy, you can’t live,’ and so continued my activities.”
He returned to university after two years and four months in Zimbabwe, then taught at an elementary school in Miyazaki Prefecture after graduation. He had obtained a teaching license because he wanted to teach baseball as a school activity. However, after his third year as a teacher, he retired to find his true calling. He decided to go abroad again.
On the advice of his family, this time he chose to go on an overseas mission as a Buddhist envoy. Before going to Zimbabwe, he had already completed his initial Buddhist studies to become Buddhist minister. So he enrolled in a Buddhist seminary, “Chuo Bukkyo Gakuin,” in Kyoto to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha.
“Until then, I didn’t know about other temples; but when I was studying in Kyoto, I felt again that my parents’ home was an amazing temple, as they had continued Sunday school for a long time. Growing up in it, I had hated the temple, but I went through many experiences and came back to it.”
In 2010, he was appointed as a Buddhist minister to Lodi, a town in northern California. Shortly before that, he married his childhood friend, Ayano.
“We were in the same class in elementary school, junior high and high school, but it was nothing more than that. We were at different universities, then met again at an alumni reunion.”
“Ayano followed me when I said I was going to America. I’m grateful for that,” Kusunose said.
In 2016, their son Yuya was born. The following year, at the age of 39, Kusunoki moved to Seattle with his family.
The Temple’s 120th Anniversary
Among many Buddhist temples overseas, an important base is termed a “Betsuin,” effectively a branch of Hongwanji (the head temple of The True Essence of Pure Land Buddhist Teaching). Its chief minister is termed a “Rimban.” Kusunoki joined the SBBT as its new Rimban.
The Seattle Betsuin has a long history. From the end of the 19th century, many Japanese men came to the United States to work in sawmills and railroads in the northwestern United States. According to the 1900 U.S. Census, Seattle had 2990 Japanese residents. In 1901, the Young Buddhists Association (YBA) was established in Seattle. In November of the same year, the first Buddhist minister arrived from Japan and began the Seattle Buddhist Temple of the Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji sect.
“At the time, there were many young people in their 20s, and they must have been looking for a leader to support them; they also needed to unite the young, vigorous people,” Kusunoki speculates.
In 1908, the first Seattle Buddhist Temple building was completed on Main St. However, when Yesler Terrace, a major public housing project, was planned, the Buddhist Temple was forced to relocate. A new Buddhist Temple was completed at its present location, a few blocks east of the original temple.
In December 1941, Buddhist priests and influential community members were arrested shortly after the war began, and all Japanese Americans left Seattle the following spring through their forced eviction to inland camps. It wasn’t until 1946 that many people from the camps returned to Seattle. Then, the building, which had been used during the war by the Maritime Commission, was returned to the Seattle Buddhist Temple.
After the war, the temple resumed its activities and expanded its programs. In 1948, a nursery school was opened and a Boy Scout troop was formed. In 1954, the Seattle Buddhist Temple was elevated to a Betsuin in recognition of its varied activities. The Seattle Betsuin celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2021.
Regarding the milestone anniversary, “the pandemic has limited (its celebration) to watching it on YouTube,” said Kusunoki.
The former baseball player is now a Seattle Mariners fan and sometimes plays in inter-Buddhist games.
“My son seems to be interested in baseball, too, and my wife and son went to the stadium at the end of August, even though I couldn’t go on Ichiro Night because of a business trip,” Rev. Kusunoki says happily.
The Kusunokis’ son, Yuya, who was a baby when he came to Seattle, will start kindergarten this fall.
Unfortunately, the Seattle Betsuin’s annual Bon Odori, which would have marked its 90th anniversary this year, was also held only virtually.
“Next summer, we’ll host the 90th Bon Odori, so please look forward to it.”
Following the pandemic’s onset (Jan. 2020 in Seattle), there were no in-person Sunday services until April 2022. Until then, worship services and lectures were held on Zoom and YouTube.
“Talking to the equipment alone in the main hall sometimes felt frustrating and empty,” Kusonoki said.
Reviving face-to-face worship and gatherings in the main hall are not the only challenges arising from the coronavirus disaster. New technical challenges have also arisen. For even with the resumption of in-person worship, the online worship that people have become accustomed to could not be completely eliminated; so services are now both in-person and online. Moreover, the YouTube sermon needs to be edited once it is delivered in the main hall.
Kusunoki: “Despite the difficulties, I can say that the pandemic has enhanced our appreciation at being able to gather in person again. It has also been an impetus for online teaching.”
A long time ago, Kusunoki traveled as far away as Africa to convey the joy of baseball. Now, he has something to convey to the United States as a Buddhist minister spreading the teachings of Buddha.
“Regardless of whether you are an adult or a child, I want you to cultivate a flexible heart and broad view through the teachings of Buddhism. (Through it,) you can see that you are never alone in this world and that you are supported by all life, including your family and community. It makes you feel grateful and kind to others.”
After growing up in a temple and trying to leave, he returned to it. Despite his earlier angst and uncertainty, none of it was in vain. For throughout, he has been in the palm of Buddha’s hand.
Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple was founded in 1901. It practices the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) Honganji sect. Worship services are held every Sunday in both Japanese and English. Its summer Bon Odori is popular as a Seattle Seafair destination event. Completed in 1941, its present building is designated a historic landmark of the City of Seattle. In addition to worship services, it also provides memorial services and weddings.