239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
178
 | 
October 7, 1912
Oakland, CA
Storify Feature

‘Abdu’l-Bahá Addresses a Persecuted Minority

THREE LANGUAGES, from three corners of the Earth, reverberated in rapid succession off the walls shortly after 8 p.m. on Monday, October 7, 1912. The sonorous Persian of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá started the rhythm. Fluid English followed from the tongue of Dr. Ameen Fareed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s interpreter. As each string of Fareed’s words fell silent, the Reverend Kunio Kodahira intoned the same sentence in Japanese for his congregation’s ears at the Japanese Independent Church at 552 Sycamore Street in Oakland, California.

In 1912 Americans were conflicted about how they felt about increasing numbers of Japanese immigrants in their midst. Like everyone else in the world, they had been astonished by Japan’s crushing victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. When President Roosevelt invited the warring sides to settle their differences in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1905, he chose the small city partly to avoid the rampant anti-Oriental racism of Boston or New York.

But since Japanese families were disembarking — or swimming — onto California’s shores at the rate of 1,000 per month, anti-Japanese prejudice was on the rise in San Francisco. After the 1906 earthquake, the San Francisco School Board had moved quickly to segregate the ninety-three Japanese students in their elementary schools. Every Japanese child on the West coast, Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris writes, “would now learn what it was like to be a black child in Alabama.” In the spring of 1907, President Roosevelt was exasperated to hear that anti-immigrant riots had broken out in San Francisco, conducted by mobs of workmen fearing competition from low-cost Japanese laborers.


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Five years later at the Japanese Independent Church, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá rose to speak to an audience comprised of a persecuted minority, something he had, by now, done many times in the United States. “I feel a keen sense of joy being present among you this evening,” he began, summoning almost exactly the same words as he had used back on April 23, in front of the black audience at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC. “It is for some time that I have entertained a special desire to meet some of the friends from Japan, for, as I have often observed, the Japanese nation has achieved extraordinary progress in a short space of time — such progress, such achievements, have astonished the world.”

“I am face to face with a revered group of the Japanese,” he told the congregation, “and from the accounts which have reached mine ears the Japanese nation, as a nation, is not prejudiced.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had already tried to counter the racism he witnessed against the Japanese in America. The first target had been Saichiro Fujita, the student whom he had asked to accompany him on his trek westward to the Golden State. In Glenwood Springs, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s party of six arrived for dinner in the Hotel Colorado’s restaurant to find only five places set for them. “Well,” the waiter said, “he is your servant,” indicating Mr. Fujita. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as he had done in Washington with Louis Gregory, had another place-setting brought to the table. Once they arrived in San Francisco, a newspaper listed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s secretaries by name; Fujita, again, was merely listed as “a Japanese servant.”

“Any kind of prejudice,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá emphasized to Reverend Kodahira’s congregation, “is destructive to the body-politic. When we refer to history, we shall observe that from the inception of human existence unto this day of ours, every warfare or battle which has taken place, every form of sedition which has occurred, has been due to this sort of prejudice.”

“Thus may religious prejudice, racial prejudice, political prejudice, patriotic prejudice, partisanship, sectarianism, all cease amongst man.”

ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Loie Mead

    In his “Tablet to the Hague”, ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke of prejudice in a way that cries out to all of us living today:
    “Yea, in the first centuries, selfish souls, for the promotion of their own interests, have assigned boundaries and outlets and have, day by day, attached more importance to these, until tis led to intense enmity, bloodshed and rapacity in subsequent centuries. In the same way this will continue indefinitely, and if this conception of patriotism remains limited within a certain circle, it will be the primary cause of the world’s destruction. No wise and just person will acknowledge these imaginary distinctions. Every limited area which we call our native country we regard as our mother-land, whereas the terrestrial globe is the mother-land of all, and not any restricted area. In short, for a few days we live on this earth and eventually we are buried in it, it is our eternal tomb. Is it worth while that we should engage in bloodshed and tear one another to pieces for this eternal tomb? Nay, far from it, neither is God pleased with such conduct nor would any sane man approve of it.”

  • Karridine

    This day’s podcast: http://bit.ly/SIEmcb, wherein ‘Abdu-l Baha steps courageously into the spotlight of glaring racial ethno-centrism, so rampant in America in that day. Have we ELIMINATED racism in America? No, but we have made great strides, great progress learning to see each other as humans first, skin-colors second if at all…

  • Bryn Higgins

    Since the notes and records kept by early believers differed in spelling of the name for the Reverend who translated ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s talk, I did some research.

    Ella Cooper’s notes gave two spellings for the same person: Kazahira and Kodahira.

    However, later, Agnes Alexander meets a man named Kodaira in Tokyo in May 1931 at a Religious Conference in which she quoted from the words of ‘Abdu’l-Baha which were from His speech to the Japanese in Oakland:

    “After the talk a Japanese minister, Rev. Kodaira, came and told me that he was present when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke in Oakland and had translated His address into Japanese. He said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had invited him to breakfast with Him in San Francisco and that it was a time of great inspiration. He was going to England in the summer, and hoped to stop in Palestine on the way, and there pay his respects at the Shrine of ‘Abdu’l- Baha.”

    To this a letter dated Jun 20, 1931 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi states:

    “He was glad to hear of the proposed visit of Rev. Kodaira to Haifa in July. Although unfortunately he will not be present himself, he wishes to assure Rev. Kodaira of a hearty welcome.”

    (From: Agnes Alexander, History of the Baha’i Faith in Japan)

    Since Agnes Alexander was a pioneer in Japan and had more familiarity with the language, and as we can see helped convey the intention of the visit by the Reverend, I figured Agnes would be better at the proper spelling. The only problem was that she didn’t have his first name. After combining this information “Kunio” and “Kodaira”, I have done some Googling around based on the compared the different spelling and it is clear the actual name of the Reverend was Kunio Kodaira. (Feel free to check and verify, and if possible, update the text accordingly.)

    Thank you for all the work put into the site. It has been a wonderful 239 days.