Arts and Culture

A professor focused on how Japanese Americans maintained their Buddhist faith while imprisoned in internment camps during World War II has earned a prestigious Grawemeyer Award.

The University of Louisville and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary jointly awarded the 2022 Religion Prize to Duncan Ryūken Williams Friday.

Williams, a professor of religion at the University of Southern California and director of USC’s Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture, said the recognition of this research highlights something important about this nation.

“Once we start acknowledging that Asians are a part of our American history and fabric, I think we may have a different view as we enter an era in our future that is actually a much more diverse future,” he told WFPL.

The award comes with a $100,000 prize. 

“Williams’ work opens the way for a discussion that values religious inclusion over exclusion,” Tyler Mayfield, who directs the Grawemeyer religion award, said in a news release. “He shows how Japanese Americans living in a time of great adversity broadened our nation’s vision of religious freedom.”

U of L also named the other 2022 awardees this week: 

  • Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth received the music prize.
  • Rucker Johnson, a University of California-Berkeley public policy professor, was recognized with the education award.
  • Psychologist Terrie Moffitt earned the psychology prize.
  • Rutgers University scholar Mona Lena Krook was honored with the world order award.

Below are excerpts from WFPL’s conversation with Prof. Williams, which have been edited for brevity and clarity:

On how he got interested in this specific part of American history:

“I was in graduate school, and my professor, when he passed away suddenly during my studies, I discovered that his father was a Buddhist priest in one of these camps. And I started to translate [his] diary from Japanese into English. This was about 20 years ago… And that’s when I began to understand a little bit about the life of these people, how they endured it during these difficult wartime years.”

On what he learned about that time from the Buddhist priest’s diary:

“Things that surprised me was that the government did not give these American citizens what we would normally consider… constitutional principles, like due process or religious freedom, etc. They were kind of not afforded to this community at the time. But on the other hand, for the Buddhists among them, they drew on the Buddhist faith, and the Christians among them, they drew on their Christian faith. And so for people who are in the sudden dislocation, it’s not surprising that in that moment of this disorientation, they turn to things that are steady… It helped them to give them a sense of meaning and purpose, even in the time loss.”

On what he thinks is the lasting legacy of this history:

“I think all of these constitutional principles and aspirations we have as Americans around due process or religious freedom, etc., they’re just words on a piece of paper unless somebody enacts them and actualizes them. And for me, despite all these pressures to not be Buddhist, this was a community that maintained and persisted in their faith tradition. And that’s what actually makes America America or makes America a land of freedom, of religious freedom and pluralism that the founders envision.”

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts & Culture Reporter.