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Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka, Former Bishop of BCA, has Died

Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka and his wife, Shigeko. From

Retired Jodo Shinshu priest Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka, a former bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America and professor emeritus at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, died 21 December 2023. He was 89 years old.

Rev. Yamaokoa did not always want to be a Buddhist minister. Early in life, he had planned to be a newspaper reporter, after working as a reporter and editor at Central Union High School and Fresno Junior College. He also worked as a sports editor at Fresno State University.

With all of his prior work experience, journalism seemed like a natural fit. However, there was a strong anti-Japanese climate in the United States in 1956, when he graduated from Fresno State University. Much of the racist backlash came as a result of World War II, when more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent were forcibly held in internment camps.

“I had journalism professors tell me that I wouldn’t be able to get a job out of college,”Rev. Yamaoka noted in a recent interview. “At that time, it was pretty hard to be hired as a Japanese American. I got a summer program and worked on some weekly newspapers, but as far as a good position anywhere, it was difficult.” (The Rafu Shimpo)

When it became clear that finding a job in journalism was not an option, Rev. Yamaoka turned his focus to ministry, beginning a career in 1964 that spanned nearly 60 years. In that time, he completed a wealth of religious education, which included earning two degrees from the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union, a master’s degree in Religious Education (MRE) and a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min) degree.


Rev. Yamoaka also studied in Japan, earning two degrees from Ryukoku University in Kyoto, an MA, and a D.Litt (Doctor of Letters, which equates to earning a PhD in the US).

He served as the vice president of development at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, and as a part-time faculty member at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, in addition to working as an overseas minister for the Buddhist Churches of America.

Rev. Yamoaka quickly gained a reputation as a phenomenal leader and fundraiser, soliciting millions of dollars in donations over the past 30 years. These funds were integral to sustaining both the Buddhist Churches of America and the Institute of Buddhist Studies

The president of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto, said of Rev. Yamaoka’s legacy: 

Although many people have made important contributions to IBS over the years, IBS as we know it would not exist without Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka. When he was the bishop of BCA, Rev. Yamaoka’s dream was that IBS would someday gain accreditation, become a GTU (Graduate Theological Union) member school and have a solid financial foundation. Now, 40 years later, his aspirations and tireless efforts have enabled IBS to accomplish those goals.

(The Rafu Shimpo)

This sentiment was echoed by institute’s dean of students, Dr. Scott Mitchell, who stated: “None of us would be here if it wasn’t for Rev. Yamaoka. His leadership and vision for Shin Buddhism in the United States made possible everything that we’ve been able to accomplish the last few years at IBS.” (The Rafu Shimpo)

Rev. Yamaoka’s funeral will be held on 20 January at the Buddhist Church of Oakland, 825 Jackson St., Oakland, CA 94607. Services begin at 1 p.m. PST.

See more

Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka (d. 2023) (Buddhist Thought and Practice)
Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka, Former BCA Bishop, Dies at 89 (Nikkei West)
OBITUARY: Rev. Dr. Seigen Yamaoka, Former Bishop of BCA (The Rafu Shimpo)
Rev. Dr. Seigen Haruo Yamaoka of Seal Beach, California | 1934 – 2023 | Obituary (Fukui Mortuary)

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