New England Congregationalists first brought Protestant Christianity to the islands in 1820. Roman Catholic missionaries came to Hawaii in 1827. Quakers came in 1835 and Mormons in 1850. Methodists came in 1855, and members of the Church of England arrived in 1862.
Shortage of laborers to work in the growing sugar plantations prompted the Hawaiian Legislature to pass “An Act for the Governance of Masters and Servants,” a section of which provided the legal basis for contract-labor system (labor shortages were eased by bringing in contract workers from Asia, Europe and North America.)
Japanese immigration to Hawaiʻi that began in 1868 marked the beginnings of large-scale settlement and, with it, the establishment of a strong religious base of Buddhism.
A large wave of Japanese laborers started arriving in 1885; 29,000 Japanese traveled to Hawai‘i for the next nine years to work on sugar plantations under three-year contracts.
The history of formal Buddhism teachings in Hawai‘i can be traced to the arrival of Soryu Kagahi, a priest of the True Pure Land Sect and a native of Oita Prefecture.
Upon learning of the extreme hardship, both physical and spiritual, of the Japanese immigrants in Hawaiʻi due to the differences in language and culture, he came to Hawaii to comfort these immigrants and to help in alleviating their hardship.
Kagahi, the first Hongwanji minister, came to Hawai‘i to minister to the religious needs of Japanese immigrants and to share the teachings of Shakamuni Buddha and Shinran Shonin.
Upon arriving in Honolulu on March 2, 1889 (which is presently celebrated as Hawai‘i Kyodan’s “Kaikyo Kinen-bi” or “Hongwanji Day”, the founding day of the mission), Reverend Kagahi rented a house and hung a sign, “The Great Imperial Japan Hongwanji Denomination Hawaii Branch” and used it as a base for his religious activities.
He also traveled to Kauaʻi, Maui and Big Island and conducted religious services. He visited the Big Island on two occasions and helped the people in Hilo in founding the fukyojo, the forerunner of the present Hilo Betsuin. (Hilo at that time had a larger Japanese population than did Honolulu.)
In October 1889, Reverend Kagahi returned to Japan to report on the Hawaiʻi situation and to urge establishment of Jodo Shinshu in Hawaii. He also stressed the need for financial assistance to Hawaiʻi to carry forward these activities.
However, since authorities in Japan initially viewed the Japanese presence in Hawaii as “transient,” they did not see the need for a Hawaiian mission.
That changed in 1897 when the Japanese immigrants petitioned the Honpa Hongwanji headquarters in Japan and requested that Buddhist missionaries be sent to Hawai‘i.
They expressed the urgency and need for “community stability” – a stability achieved through religious institutions and the revival of cultural commonalities among the immigrants.
Leadership in Japan, now aware that the Japanese immigrant had become more than a transient, responded enthusiastically, and more missions were established.
The rise of Buddhism in a predominantly Christian environment was due, in part, to this deeper expression among the Japanese immigrants of their need for a sense of community.
Several of the sugar plantations were sympathetic and supportive of the desire for temples and donated parcels of land near the immigrant camps.
In 1898, the Rev. Honi Satomi arrived as the first Bishop of Hongwanji and property located off Fort Street at the end of Kukui, in the area called Fort Lane (just above Beretania Street and Central Fire Station) was purchased for the first site of the temple.
Queen Lili’uokalani and Mary Foster (donor of Foster Botanical Garden,) attended a Buddhist service in 1901 to commemorate the birth of founder Shinran Shonin.
In 1918, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission was built in Honolulu, the world’s first reinforced concrete Buddhist temple.
Several Buddhist sects came to Hawai‘i in the late-1800s and early-1900s to fill the needs of the early Japanese: Jodo Shin-shu Honpa Hongwanji Sect, Jodo Sect, Shingon Sect, Nichiren Sect, Jodo Shin Sect and the Higashi Hongwanji Sect.
Over the past 120 years, the Japanese community established 174 temple sites and through the process of building and rebuilding, constructed nearly 300 Buddhist temples throughout the islands, many of which were built in sugar plantation villages by early Japanese immigrants and served tiny congregations.