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The Polarity of Protestantism: Protestantism within Korean American and Japanese Immigrants Communities

As Protestantism is one of the largest groupings of Christians in the United States, it is no surprise that many Asian immigrants and Asian Americans are a part of this faith, seeing it as an integral part of their lives and history. 


Both David Yoo’s book, Religions in Asian America: Building Faith Communities, and Kelly Chong’s article, What It Means To Be Christian: The Role Of Religion In The Construction Of Ethnic Identity And Boundary Among Second Generation Korean Americans, centering around Japanese immigrants in California and second-generation Koreans in Chicago, respectively, focus on the role of Protestantism in the lives of these two populations; however, how it functions for each differs significantly. 


Though Protestantism plays an influential role in the construction, support, and reinforcement of Korean ethnic identity for second-generation Korean Americans in Chicago, for Japanese Immigrants in California, Protestantism served as a way to integrate into American culture and society. However, despite these contrasting functions, both groups still face discrimination in what is known by many to be a primarily White American religion.


This article will discuss and analyze how Protestantism functions in the Korean American community in Chicago and the Japanese Immigrant community in California. 


 For the second-generation Korean Protestants of Chicago, the church aids in creating a sense of exclusive group identity while reinforcing traditional cultural elements. Many conventional Korean values run parallel to that Christian values; however, as Chong states, “a strong ethnic group unity and exclusivity is achieved by portraying Koreans as a ‘special’ group of Christians,” resulting in those of the Protestant faith using this idea of the superiority of Korean traditions to separate themselves from other Christians. 


According to Chong, “the argument is often made that traditional Korean values such as respect for elders are more consistent with Christian values than ‘American individualism’” This reinforcement of pride and nationalism regarding Korean values not only strengthens group unity within the Korean Protestant community of Chicago but aids in building boundaries against the outside world.


Moreover, select passages and interpretations from the bible directly aligned with Korean worldviews. Chong describes this connection upon visiting a California junior high bible class for girls: "Christian principles, the selection of a heroine whose devotion to God is demonstrated by chastity, especially through a refusal for remarriage, is significant. For women in the pre-modern Korean Confucian society, chastity and life-long devotion to one's husband and his family were considered cardinal female virtues.”


In contrast, upon immigrating to California in the late nineteenth century, Japanese immigrants who identified as Protestant or converted to Protestantism relied upon the Church itoadjust to American society. According to Yoo: “Japanese who ventured to the United States discovered Protestant missions that offered English language classes, lodging, job information, and referrals.”


 Rather than create a division between the American Protestant community in California and themselves, the Japanese immigrants leaned into the various social services provided by the Church to assimilate, in ways such as learning English, to American culture and society. 


Along with this connection to the larger Protestant community of California, Japanese immigrants still possessed a deeply rooted connection to their culture and community, creating the Gospel Society in 1877, which resulted in the formation of several other Japanese-led organizations across other Protestant denominations. 


Yoo states, "Management of leadership of churches fell largely to Japanese Americans because of culture and language– two factors that reinforced racial-ethnic foundations.”


 However, though there were distinct Japanese churches in California, by adopting Protestantism, Japanese immigrants could still integrate into society more fluidly due to their religious affiliation compared to other religious groups. According to Yoo, “The ties to missionaries gave Issei access to cultural capital that Buddhist counterparts did not enjoy.” 


Due to Protestantism's wide range and popularity in America, along with efforts made to assimilate into American society through interactions with missionaries, learning English, and adopting Protestantism, for the Japanese immigrants in California, the Protestant faith acted as a way to create some sense of unity between themselves and the rest of American society rather than a divide. 


However, despite both groups being a part of the Protestant faith, the second-generation Koreans and the immigrant Japanese faced severe discrimination in the United States. The interviews presented in Chong’s article reveal how racism is hugely prevalent in the Protestant Church, with many second-generation Koreans feeling targeted because of their race. 


Chong writes: “No matter how hard we try to prove ourselves, there's always a barrier in the minds of white Americans. They have a superiority complex. You know, like the recent racist remarks by that senator against Judge Ito. They don't know what minorities go through; it's never on equal footing” 


Yet, despite continuous racism, many Korean Americans still use the Protestant church to become more involved with their traditions and culture within Protestantism. 


As Chong explains, the discrimination faced by the second generation Koreans is “a significant catalyst for their decision to become more involved in the ethnic church, which organization subsequently serves as an important vehicle in their efforts at ethnic ‘rediscovery.’” In this way, through the shared hardship of racism and discrimination, the second-generation Koreans in Chicago derived an even stronger desire to connect with distinctly Korean churches, strengthening a separation between their Protestant community and others in the United States. 


Despite adopting Protestantism and taking steps to assimilating into American culture, both newly arrived Japanese immigrants and already-established Japanese Americans in California still faced severe discrimination building towards their incarceration in internment camps during the Second World War.


 Describing the hardships forced upon them, Yoo writes: “Laws barring them from naturalization and land ownership, as well as other measures ranging from restrictive housing covenants to outright violence, hindered individuals and families from gaining access to basic rights.”


 Furthermore, though the Japanese Protestant immigrants of California saw the Protestant community as a way to integrate into American society and had previously found support through Protestant missionaries, much of the discrimination they faced was ignored by the Church as “Unfortunately, immigrants discovered that beyond issues of immigration and exclusion, most Protestant patrons did little to critique the exploitation of Japanese labor or to challenge seriously the daily realities of racial discrimination.”


In spite of their efforts to integrate into American society and being favored over other Asian immigrants of different faiths, such as Buddhism, the Japanese immigrants in California were unable to completely assimilate as the racist attitude and prejudices of the government and other Protestant churches separated them from the rest of society. Whether the Protestant faith served as a way to connect to one’s culture and traditions or a way to adhere to American culture, discrimination remains a constant for Asian Americans and immigrants of all ethnicities.


In summary, by reflecting upon the hardships endured by these Asian American populations along with how Protestantism uniquely serves their communities, not only is religion’s multifaceted nature revealed, but the complexity of the relationship between ethnicity and religion as well.

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