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Closure of historic temple in Fresno dismays Japanese American community

The century-old Buddhist temple is for sale.

The asking price for its gilded columns and marble stairs is $1.1 million. But the cost to a blighted corner of this city and to the area’s Japanese American community is not as easily estimated.

Indeed, during this Obon season — when Buddhists remember the dead — the decision to abandon the landmark Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Temple balances two basic tenets of the faith: honoring ancestors and accepting the impermanence of all things.

The elaborate temple was built by migrant Japanese fieldworkers, the first-generation Issei who picked grapes and later sent home to Japan for “picture brides.” When the first wooden building burned in 1919, they rebuilt.

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“They made about $1 a day, yet they funded such an elaborate building. Their sacrifices were remarkable,” said the Rev. Kurt Rye.

He is, as he puts it, “a white guy from Seattle.” He wasn’t with the temple during the divisive 20 years leading up to the sale. The decision to leave the inner city was approved by a razor-thin margin, driven largely by younger families that had moved to more affluent areas. Some who were against abandoning the temple left the congregation in protest. Still, they return to ask Rye for tours of the hondo, the third-floor inner sanctuary rarely used because of its forbidding stairs.

“Some are sad. Some are angry,” he said. “They all say, ‘My parents were married here, my grandparents were married here. Buried here. This is my history.’”

The area where the temple stands is called Historic Chinatown, although the once-bustling Japanese community is as much a part of its history.

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Weary and largely abandoned, Chinatown has only a few remaining merchants: a taco spot popular with the after-hours crowd; a Chinese herb shop; a Japanese pharmacist who held out long after it was profitable but is now retiring; and the area’s anchor, Central Fish Co., which features fresh seafood and aisles of Japanese groceries.

Large encampments of homeless live within blocks of the temple.

Yet for years, temple life and street life coexisted peacefully. It wasn’t unusual to see tiny, elderly Japanese American women loaded down with grocery bags strolling past drug dealers.

Now, most of the services and the social hub of the temple have moved to the Family Dharma Center on the suburban north side of the city, and even thugs and drug dealers have ditched Chinatown.

“It’s not as dangerous a place as people think. Once in a while, you’ll see some gangbanger fresh out of jail, but they move on pretty quick when they realize there’s no action, no money,” said Tony Pearson, 52.

Pearson, who is homeless, has been a member of the temple for a year and sings in the choir.

The first time he watched 91-year-old church secretary Kimi Hirata walking up the 20 steps outside (there are 21 more stairs leading to the hondo), Pearson decided the temple was right to move for the sake of its members.

But, he said, it will make life harder in Chinatown.

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“Just having its presence, even for the migrant workers who stand out front every morning hoping for day labor, that bell out front is an anchor,” Pearson said.

The nearly 6-foot, 3,000-pound bell has an inscription, which says to not do any evil and to cultivate good.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin called and pleaded with the temple board not to leave Chinatown. But she said the city could offer no financial aid.

Staff from the Japanese American National Museum said they would love to help but had no funds. The same was true for other Asian museums across the West.

The members who protested the sale by leaving the temple are mostly wealthy, older farmers on the south side of the Valley.

“It hurts because I respect the hell out of them,” said Craig Yoshikawa, 62, a past board president.

“They’re the Nisei, the second-generation. They made it through the camps during World War II, and they can be stubborn.”

But it’s that generation that set the stage for the move, Yoshikawa said.

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“They said, ‘Go to college. Don’t bust your butt on the farm. Become successful. Look to the future,’” he said. “We did what they told us.”

Mike Ryan, a broker with Colliers International, is handling the property.

In the four months it’s been listed, there have been few prospective buyers. Ryan said it’s going to be a tricky sale because of the location and because it’s on the local Register of Historic Resources, which limits changes to the building.

He does see hope in leasing the accompanying annex for quinceañeras — in Latino culture, parties thrown for girls on their 15th birthday.

“There’s a 6,400-square-foot hall and full kitchen,” Ryan said.

But the biggest blow to the temple was the Japanese internment during World War II.

Farmers, merchants, Buddhist priests and schoolchildren were rounded up and taken to the Fresno Fairgrounds. They had to muck stalls where they would sleep. Once the manure was out, they were given straw for beds. They were guarded by men with bayonets.

The Nazi swastika was a corruption of an ancient Sanskrit symbol for life and eternity. Angry mobs did not discern the difference, vandalizing the temple with the symbol on its tiles. The temple closed while its members were sent to relocation camps across the West.

When the war was over, the temple became a hostel for a year, housing those who had lost homes and ranches. Japanese Americans had held some of the most prized farm lands in the Central Valley, and banks were quick to foreclose on their properties.

Linda Takahashi’s family was one of the lucky ones. Their neighbors, the Hull family, moved into their Caruthers house so it wouldn’t be vandalized and cared for the ranch during the four years they were gone.

Takahashi was one of those opposed to selling the temple.

“The grandparents built it. The Nisei cared for it. It’s seeped in history. It breaks my heart,” she said. “And I knew if my father was alive he would fight it.”

But on a recent Sunday, she sat in the air-conditioned gymnasium where services are being held until they can sell the old temple and build a new one.

“Even I — hard-headed, stubborn me — can see it’s perfect. There are mixed generations, not everyone is old and Japanese,” she said. “I wrote my little check towards the new temple.”

But, her farmer father, George, is still on her mind. It was a point of pride that he had some of the very vines his own father had planted, and that under his care, they produced better than in his father’s day.

After her father grew too feeble to farm, he sold it to a Punjabi American man who also kept the vines in pristine shape. When she drove by, she would report favorably back to her father.

“But I drove last weekend. Maybe the land changed hands again. The field is full of weeds. I’ve never in my life seen it so sad,” she said, in tears.

“It’s called life. You move on.”

metro@latimes.com

Marcum is a Times special correspondent.


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