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Asian Influences : The number of Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans and others doubled in the past decade. Immigrants have found ways to adjust to their new home.

March 05, 1992|LEO SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In describing how Ventura County has changed over the years, one might talk about shopping centers, golf courses and housing developments--glaring alterations to the area.

But there are other changes, cultural and demographic, that tend to be more gradual and therefore less obvious.

According to figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the Asian and Asian-American population in Ventura County increased by 104%, to 33,000, between 1980 and 1990 while overall county population grew by 26%. The county ranks 41st in the country with 5.4% of the population being Asian.

The largest subgroups in the county's Asian-descended population are Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. Of those groups, the Chinese community saw the biggest jump in population in the past decade, an increase of 145%.

But people of Asian heritage have a long and illustrious history in this county. They have helped make it an agricultural center, they have established themselves in local business, and they have shared their traditions with the community.

During times such as these, when economic hardships lead to increased tensions between cultures, contributions made by Asians tend to be forgotten. This may be a good time to look at some of the county's fast-growing Asian groups, and see how immigrants continue their struggle to adapt to life in the United States.

Oxnard Buddhist Church

It was 1956, and Helen Inouye decided that it was about time to do something about the situation in Oxnard's Japanese community. So she gathered 14 other Japanese Buddhist women and discussed things.

"I was thinking, 'Gee, what can we do to make our church strong again?' " Inouye said. " 'We could get a women's club going.' "

Not only did the women establish a club of their own, but they gave a big boost to the revitalization of the Oxnard Buddhist Church as the center of the county's Japanese Buddhist community.

The church opened in 1929, as the Oxnard Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, in a building on East 6th Street, now the home of the Oxnard Rescue Mission. Initial membership totaled 35. The congregation relocated to the church's present spot on H Street in 1965 and now has a paid membership of 330.

All went well from its founding until World War II. Then many of its members were interned in prison camps. From 1942 until 1945, the temple was used as a storage place for the belongings of interned members. After the war, the temple was still used as a storage facility. It also became a home for elderly members who couldn't afford to live elsewhere.

It wasn't until 1952 that temple activity began to pick up. But even then, members had trouble making it work.

"People had moved out of the camps and were not well-situated. They didn't have funds to run the (temple)," said Inouye, a Sunday school teacher, historian and choir member. "The reverend was destitute."

In addition to the monetary situation, it was a time of discrimination against the Japanese. Buddhism, said Inouye, was not something that all Japanese wanted to practice publicly, and many turned to Christianity so as to blend in more with the surrounding community.

Then came that pivotal meeting of what would become the Oxnard Buddhist Women's Assn., with Inouye as its first postwar leader. The organizers began a membership drive, and interest from the community grew.

"There were a lot of people we didn't know were around," Inouye said. "Our first drive brought 35 women."

As the club's membership increased over the next several years, so did the temple's membership.

"In late 1958, 1959, we all started moving this way," said church member Susuka Ito, who came to Oxnard from Orange County. "It was mostly farmers who came from the same location in Japan. They were celery growers."

Ito, who was born in the Japanese town of Mie Ken, said the conditions were right for her family to move north to Oxnard.

"There was too much smog in Orange County. We couldn't afford to farm there," she said. "We saw the (temple) on TV; they had any kind of weddings there, any kind of funerals."

In 1965 temple officials purchased a former Lutheran church, took out the stained glass windows, removed the cross, remodeled the building to conform to Buddhist traditions, and renamed the temple Oxnard Buddhist Church. The new facility, along with the 1960s baby boom, meant more members.

These days the church has members countywide, the next closest Japanese Buddhist congregation being in Santa Barbara.

The Oxnard church offers a Sunday (or Dharma) school for children, a Junior Young Buddhists Assn., a Sangha Teens program, a Japanese language school, flower-arranging classes, the annual Obon Festival in July and other social activities.

"Other people have Japanese cultural centers," Ito said. "We get together at church."

The Pinoys Club

Like most groups that came to the county, some natives of the Philippines were drawn here by agriculture. But in the case of Filipinos, the Navy provided the biggest opportunity for immigration.

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