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.
Where did the term come from?
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.
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 Katonk.com.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
FLORENCE M. HONGO
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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