Brazil Profile: Rev. Emilia Kajimoto

Born in São Paulo, Emilia Emy Urabe Kajimoto is a third-generation Japanese Brazilian. She grew up in the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist tradition at São Paulo Nambei Honganji temple, where her father worked as a missionary. From age five, she started chanting “Shoshinge” (Shinran’s Hymn of True Faith), and attended a local elementary school while living at the temple.

She found it difficult to explain who she was and where she lived to friends, who were primarily Catholic. She used Christian terms, which she felt they could understand, but felt it wasn’t quite right. She said, “I told my school friends that I lived in a church and that my father was a priest, even though I felt it was somewhat different.”

Her father, who was from Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, was assigned as minister of São Paulo Nambei Honganji temple in 1955. “He was sent to Manchuria as an engineer near the end of World War II,” she said. “There, he saw with his own eyes the harsh suffering caused by war, and experienced the worst suffering of human existence. From that bitter experience, father thought to himself, ‘I want to study life to see what I can do.’”

He became an ordained Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji) priest and moved to Brazil by himself. By contrast, Emilia’s mother was a second-generation Brazilian of Japanese descent. Her family operated a guest house near the temple. Her father met her mother when he visited with other temple priests. The family were devout Shinshu followers who frequently attended services at the temple. Three months after first meeting, they married. Subsequently, Emilia was born.

In addition to conducting Shinshu memorial services and events at the temple, her father started Dharma school for children. Emilia helped out and became interested in teaching. She enrolled in a university and studied education and music. A year before graduating, she met the man who’d become her husband, which changed her life.

That man was Hideyasu Kajimoto, a second-generation Japanese Brazilian, who also was born and raised in Brazil. He came from Aracatuba, a town located about 500 km northwest of São Paulo. He moved to São Paulo to attend a university. He joined the temple’s chorus group and participated together with Emilia’s uncle. That’s when he met Emilia.

“My husband doesn’t sing very well, but his main reason for joining the chorus was because young people that were second and third generation Japanese Brazilian gathered there,” Emilia said. Eight years passed before they married. After their children were born, Emilia cared for the kids, did housework, and also, participated in the temple’s women’s group and chorus. Afterwards, she moved with her husband and children to Aracatuba, where her husband and his brother started a footwear factory. For 20 years, she worked as a language instructor at a Japanese school operated by the Japan Culture Association. During that time, she also attended a nearby temple and immersed herself in Buddhist and Shinshu studies.

In 2012, São Paulo Nambei Honganji held a 60th anniversary service commemorating its founding as a Shinshu Otani-ha South American mission. On that occasion, Emilia assisted with interpreting and translation of Japanese and Portuguese. Although she was raised in a temple and attended services after getting married, she found it difficult to interpret and translate the teachings from Japanese into Portuguese. She felt she must learn Shinshu properly, although she disliked study.

She wanted to study in earnest, thinking, “What can I do for Shinshu at my age?” At that time, her second son had died at age 28. She wondered if the “ Namu Amida Butsu I thought I understood was true and authentic.” She began doubting the Jodo Shinshu she believed. These feelings prompted her to study Shinshu more seriously.

Eventually, after more study and the passage of time, her attitude became more positive, and she was able to confront her son’s death. She realized, “I’ve been supported by Namu Amida Butsu all along.” She moved to Japan, committed to becoming a full-fledged Shinshu priest.

Emilia attended school at Higashi Honganji’s Senshu Gakuin in Kyoto. During her year-long stay, she really wanted to “learn Shinran’s teachings in a way that was relevant to daily life.” Her classmates were almost entirely from Japan. Just three students, including herself, were from overseas. Although she felt the Japanese way of thinking and acting were quite different from her own, they all faced similar challenges and suffering in life. When the school year ended, Emilia completed her studies, received ordination, and returned to Brazil.

Currently, Rev. Kajimoto serves as a priest in São Paulo, helping to share Shinran’s teachings. “Addressing Brazilian culture is a big challenge.” She said. “There’s a gap between the Western way of thinking and Buddhist teachings. There needs to be a bridge between spirituality and the way people think about everyday life.” She feels it’s most important to first deal with cultural differences before explaining religion. “One can explain Shinran’s teachings only after explaining that Brazilian culture is this, and Japanese culture is that,” she said.

In years past, most temple members were Japanese immigrants who came to the temple, not necessarily to learn Buddhism, but to hold memorial services for family members. Beginning about 15 years ago, the people coming to the temple started to become more diverse. Rev. Kajimoto felt even more strongly the need to translate Buddhist teachings into Portuguese.

Then the pandemic hit. The temple began conducting services online. “By being online, many young people began participating in services,” she said. “Many of them were joining for the first time.” Now many participants in memorial services are from countries beyond Brazil, including Japan, the United States, France, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand. Rev. Kajimoto also uses social media to hold online Sunday services and study classes on Facebook and YouTube. Her audience includes people from countries such as Peru and Columbia. They send messages and ask questions.

Rev. Kajimoto really feels the truth of Shinran’s words, when he wrote: “Just as all the waters flow into the ocean and gain one salty taste.”

(This story was adapted from the publication, “Mon: Hearing and Gate,” Vol. 25, 2021, published by Higashi Honganji)

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