Richard Watanabe - So What is a BuddhaHead?
   What exactly is a Buddhahead?

    Originally the term "Buddhahead" refered to a Japanese-American from Hawaii.  However, the term was soon applied to refer to Japanese-Americans in general.  It is important to note that "Buddhahead" is not used to refer to native Japanese, i.e., people born in Japan.

    The term is considered derogatory by many Japanese-Americans, especially those of the first (Issei) and second (Nisei) generations.  This label was commonly used along with "Jap", "Nip", and the like during the days when Japanese and Japanese-Americans were heavily discriminated against.  The term is not commonly used these days.

    Is it still derogatory?  In my opinion it's hard to say.   Some third and fourth generation Japanese-Americans will still take offense when they hear the term, regardless of who uses it.  Sometimes the term is just used amongst Japanese-Americans, and still others like myself liberally use the term with pride in reference to our heritage and as a reminder of how the Issei and Nisei struggled to provide us with the freedoms that the current generation enjoys.

   Where did the term come from?

    For years, I never knew exactly where the term "Buddhahead" came from.   I knew that during the Second World War when second generation Japanese-Americans (Nisei) volunteered from the internment camps for duty, the US Government (in it's usual infinite wisdom) created all Japanese-American units.  Like the Tuskeegee airmen and other minority groups who volunteered, these units were trained separately and were not considered to be front-line troops.  The first of the Japanese-American units formed was the 100th Battalion which drew most of its membership from Japanese-Americans from Hawaii.  Eventually, mainland Japanese-American units were merged with the 100th Batallion and eventually, the various Japanese-American units serving in the European theater were combined to create 442nd Regimental Combat Team (the most decorated unit of its size).  Other Japanese-Americans also served in the Pacific theater of operations, mostly serving in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS).  

If you are interested in more detailed information on the 442nd in general, there are a couple of very good personal web sites I can highly recommend.  One is Mike Furukawa's   Mike has a very nice review of the history of the 100th Batallion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.   The other is Darryl Hirohama's "Service Battery - A 442nd Memoir" a tribute to his late father who was a member of the 442nd.  

    During the formation of the unit, mainland Nisei called Hawaiian Nisei "Buddhaheads" and Hawaiian Nisei called the mainlanders "kotonks".  I had heard that the term "kotonk" was a reference to the sound a bad coconut makes when dropped.  This was apparently a suggestion by the Hawaiian Nisei that the mainlanders were "hollow-" or "hard-" headed.  I never knew where the term "buddhahead" came from.  I recently received a well referenced explanation from Steven Doi which I have reproduced here verbatim.  My thanks to him for the info and for permitting me to reproduce it for my page.

Re: Buddhaheads

The term, according to several sources came from Camp Shelby, Mississippi, sometime in 1943.   The worst source is from the Movie Press Book for the movie "Go For Broke" 1952, starring Van Johnson.  In the movie Johnson explains, "They like to be called Buddhahead..."   In the press book, it is spelled "Boodaheads".

More recently in Dorothy Matsuo's book, Boyhood to War, History and Anecdotes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, (1992).  On page 73, Daniel Inouye states that in the beginning the Mainlander JAs were called "Bastards", but when the Mainlanders called the Hawaiian Japanese "Buddhaheads", "someone would have been punched" meaning "Kotonk".   After the Hawaiian JAs went to visit Rohwer and Jerome Camps, did the Hawaiian JAs realize what the mainland JAs had gone thru, and the terms Kotonk and Buddhaheads became less derogatory and terms of endearment.  In the 1946 book, Hawaii's Japanese by Andrew Lind, has a footnote #22 on page 165.  He states that the term "Kotonk" refers to Mainland Nisei and suggest the sound of "an empty barrel falling to the ground" and "expresses the disdain in which the hard-fighting Islanders held the more restrained and polished Mainland Japanese".

In Thomas Murphy's Ambassadors in Arms, The Story of Hawaii's 100th Battalion, 1955, might be the best source since this was supported to be one of the official histories of the 100th written under T.H. sponsorship.  Murphy's explains on page 115,... "They coined a name for the Coast nisei--Kotonk.  Some claimed that it was in imitation of the noise made by the coal which these "yardbirds" had had to shovel as members of housekeeping detachments at Amry posts; others said it was the sound made by their heads when Island boys knocked them together.  The kotonks retaliated by called the Hawaii men "buddhaheads".   The Japanese word "buta" means pig, and "buddhahead" may be a corruption of "buta head", but it was generally thought that the term had been imported from Hawaii where it was applied to Japanese Buddhist priests who shaved their heads and by extension, to the Japanese residents generally.....

Thus, the answer.

No reference is made to kotonks or buddheads in Orvile Shirey's book published by Infantry Journal Press, Americans: Story of the 442. 1946, or C. Tanaka's Go for Broke, or any reference exits in The Kine Talk, a book about loanwords used in Hawaii.

Steven G. Doi
Asian American Book Dealer
A Footnote:

I recently received e-mail from Ms. Florence Hongo who read the above description and sent me the following which is reproduced here with her permission.

I think you have been misled.  The term buddhahead was originally coined to refer to J/A's of the Buddhist religion.  There used to be a great deal of animosity between those J/As who were Protestant and those who were Buddhist.   Those who were Buddhist thought of themselves as the true Japanese because they retained their original religion.  Those who became protestant did so to seek better acceptance into the main stream society - to become more Americanized (whatever that is).   So the term Buddhahead was developed as a derogetory term referring to those J/A's who remained Buddhist suggesting that they were unwilling to assimilate.  It existed way before World War II.

So who am I?  I know Steve Doi.  I am an old lady who remembers all this stuff just from being alive for 68 years.

Florence M. Hongo

Another Footnote (April, 1998):

Ms. Hongo recently sent me new e-mail with some more interesting information regarding the origins of the term "buddhahead". Again, it is reproduced here with her permission.

Subject: bulahead

This is the quote from page 32 of "Plantation Boy" by Milton Murayama.

""It's 'Bulahead,' Buddha's got nothing to do with it."  It comes from bobura or "the raised-in-Japan bumpkin," Boburahead became Burahead, then Bulahead.  It started as a putdown, then we started calling ourselves Bulaheads too."

So does Murayama know the roots better than you and I? It makes sense to me.


     Now I will readily admit that my Japanese is very poor, but I have never heard the term "bobura."  I checked with mother who is a native Japanese and she has never heard the term either.  Of course, it could be dialect from a specific part of Japan, but I don't think that the Japanese and Japanese-American population in either Hawaii or the mainland was very region specific.  I've checked with my grandmother in Japan, but so far she has not responded to my specific question.

My thanks to both Steve Doi and Florence Hongo for the information.  If anyone else has information they would like to contribute, I would love to hear from you.

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