Buddhist Church of Florin celebrates 100 years with a glimpse into the past

To members of the Buddhist Church of Florin, the Obon Festival last Saturday was a special one. Though the festival happens every year, this year’s festival featured an unusual display: the contents of a time capsule buried 37 years ago.

The 12-inch airtight copper box contained materials carefully wrapped in plastic bags, including newspaper clippings, family photographs, record tapes and church leaflets dating back to as early as the 1950s, as well as letters written by the third-generation church members addressing current members.

A group of people stood gathered around the time capsule’s contents, flipping through the photo album and reading newspaper clippings cut and pasted on paper. One took a picture of the photographs after she said aloud that she found her grandfather in them.

The capsule was buried at the church, the only remaining property still used by the Japanese Americans in Florin from before World War II, church documents show.

Church members and their families – as well as a number of visitors – came to see the time capsule display before participating in the Obon dance in the evening, a folk dance that accompanied the service. According to Japanese Buddhist teachings, the Obon Festival is a time when the souls of the deceased are supposed to return home for three days before going back to their resting place.

Beverly Tanaka said she moved out of Florin but came back because it is a home church that she’d like to support. She was excited about the time capsule and was very interested to see what her grandparents and their friends thought was important for her generation to see.

Lon Tsukamoto’s grandfather was one of the founders of the church. Born and raised in Florin, Tsukamoto recalled how the church used to be the central gathering point of the Japanese communities. His family used to come for Japanese movie screenings on Saturday nights in the hall where the capsule was displayed.

Tsukamoto said the time capsule meant a lot to him, as some of the photographs inside depicted his family when they were young.

“To see the work that (the founders of the church) did to build it towards today – I got a lot of gratitude seeing that,” he said.

The time capsule is a part of a memorial project stemmed from a gala reunion in 1981 for the community members in pre-war Florin area, when there used to be 2,500 Japanese Americans residents before they were relocated when Executive Order 9066 was carried out in 1942. Next to the time capsule, a monument known as the Florin area Nikkei memorial was dedicated to the Issei and Nisei – the first-generation Japanese immigrants who arrived Florin at around 1890 and their children – who struggled to make Florin a strawberry and grape-growing community.

The purpose of the monument was to shed light on how Florin’s community thrived and deteriorated due to the incarceration of 110,000 people during World War II, which very few have learned in school books, wrote Alfred Tsukamoto, the chairman of the church’s 1982 reunion committee, in a letter displayed at the event.

About half of the community members returned to Florin after the end of World War II to continue farming, but the community never fully recovered. Many eventually moved away to seek for new jobs and new beginnings, according to a Church pamphlet. The reunion in 1981 was an occasion when community members returned to Florin, and friends who “never dreamed they’d ever see again laughed and talked for hours.” According to the memorial inscription written by church member Mary Tsukamoto, they hoped that the tragedy and injustice would not occur again.

The theme of the church’s 100th anniversary is “Honoring our past – celebrating our future.”

Eric Fujii, co-chairman of the church’s 100th-year anniversary committee, said the church remains as the backbone of how members grew up, despite changes in the community throughout the years. Fujii’s family has been in Florin since his grandfather’s generation, and he was raised at the Gerber area near the church. He remains very close with members of the church he knew for more than 60 years and he wants his grandchildren to develop similar friendships.

Fujii said they are planning to bury another time capsule in September, around the day of their 100th anniversary celebration. He hoped the next generation will remember his generation, just as he remembers the elders of the previous generation.

“I hope that (the church) would still be around and still doing something, and when my granddaughters open (the time capsule) up, they will know (what the church) stood for back in my day,” he said.

Reverend Candice Shibata, the church’s minister, said it has been really exciting to think about what they are going to put in the new capsule and “to continue that tradition hopefully for the next 50 or 100 years.”

Theodora Yu covers Asian American issues for The Sacramento Bee. She is a Hong Kong native and a Columbia Journalism School alumna with an interest in immigration and climate change issues.