By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
The graceful curved roof and ornate lanterns of Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple have long reflected the temple’s status as a sanctuary of peace and reflection within Little Tokyo.
Bishop Noriaki Ito noted that unlike Japan, the temple is constructed of concrete and that may have been a saving grace in the wake of a horrific act of vandalism last Thursday night.
An unidentified suspect scaled the fence, toppled two decorative metal lanterns and set fire to two wooden stands, melting the light fixtures on the pillars.
Days after Higashi Honganji was vandalized, temple leadership and community members gathered virtually to talk about what happened and next steps in a Zoom meetings on Sunday organized by Nikkei Progressives.
“I used to think if this temple was built like a Japanese temple with wood completely it would look so much nicer, it would look more like a Japanese temple. But on the other hand, the concrete temple is more indicative of being a Japanese temple in the United States. So we’ve grown to love the architecture,” Ito said. “On this occasion, it was a great thing this building was made of concrete. If we didn’t see the fire being lit, it could have set fire to the whole building.”
Rev. Masa Fujii was at the temple and heard the sound of glass breaking. He was able to quickly douse the fire with an extinguisher. The suspect didn’t enter the hondo, instead leaving the property. Once he was back on the sidewalk, the suspect threw a rock, described by Ito as about the “size of a lemon,” that shattered one of the large plate glass windows.
Damage estimates are approximately $6,000 but there are losses beyond property that will be harder to recover.
“As a member of leadership of the temple, I feel badly that this occurred. It’s something that our members are left with. It chips away at that sense of security,” said Wayne Itoga, president of the Higashi board of directors.
The Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Fire Department were called to the scene. Police reviewed security video and questioned an eyewitness who was across the street from the temple.
Investigators are treating the incident as a hate crime. LAFD is also investigating the attack as an act of arson. The vandalism at Higashi is the latest in a series of attacks in Asian enclaves throughout the country. Police are searching for a white male in his mid-40s to 50s. As of Monday, there was no suspect.
Councilmember Kevin deLeon condemned the vandalism as a “fundamental attack on a cherished religious institution.” Higashi is one of eight religious institutions that call Little Tokyo home.
“We cannot ignore the fact that this attack comes amid a dangerous spike in hate crimes against members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community. As the investigation by LAPD and LAFD continues, I urge anyone with information about this crime to step forward and share it with LAPD,” deLeon stated. “The City of Los Angeles and its residents stand in solidarity with the Higashi Honganji Temple and its members.”
Itoga pointed to the tall fence that the suspect had to climb and reflected on what he characterized as the “intentionality of the crime.”
“In order to define something as a hate crime is complicated. There have to have outward signs. In my own mind it’s clear to me what occurred,” Itoga said.
There was no security guard present at the time, and Ito noted that there has been discussion of greater coordination of security between institutions in Little Tokyo. Others on the Zoom meeting suggested a community watch and the need for 24/7 security presence, while also being mindful and respectful of the homeless population.
The neighborhood has seen a rash of window breakings that have impacted businesses and organizations, including the San Pedro Firm Building, Japanese American National Museum, California Bank & Trust, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center.
Late Sunday, Nikkei Progressives and Higashi Temple youth leadership (Jr. YBA and alumni) launched a GoFundMe campaign. By Monday morning, an initial goal of $30,000 had been reached. A new goal of $50,000 was established, which will help the temple increase overall security and add further measures.
Organizers said: “All additional donations towards (or beyond!) that goal will go towards increasing overall temple security infrastructure and adding preventative safety measures (i.e. large scale gate replacement, increased security guard coverage, improved lighting of the outdoor areas) and supporting the Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple’s numerous community programs that many of us know and love, as most of their fundraising efforts this summer were unable to take place due to COVID-19 restrictions.”
Partners supporting the fundraising effort include Azay, Go For Broke National Education Center, Japanese American Citizens League-Pacific Southwest District
JACL San Fernando Valley Chapter, JACCC, JANM, Little Tokyo Historical Society, Little Tokyo Service Center, Manzanar Committee, Sustainable Little Tokyo and TaikoProject.
On behalf of Higashi Honganji, Ito expressed gratitude at the outpouring of support. He has received numerous calls from media, including from Japan. He is hoping that as the temple shores up security, there are important lessons that will offer healing and friendship after such a traumatic event.
“We don’t want to see the temple become a closed-up fortress. There is that balance between maintaining security and safety, especially for the (Lumbini preschool) kids downstairs. As well as being open and welcome to our members,” Ito said. “We have a long road ahead to get everything in place to try and prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. We’ve also informed other temples to be vigilant about their safety.”
To donate to support Higashi Honganji Buddhist Temple, visit: www.gofundme.com/f/higashi