International Reserach Group for Transregional & Emerging Area Studies
The International Reserach Group for Transregional & Emerging Area Studies is a non-partisan and multidisciplinary Think-Tank Organization.
11:40 - 23 January 2000

Japanese American Mormons in Utah: Bridging Cultures


Jessie L. Embry *

                In 1979 when I moved to Provo to work at the Mormon Church’s Brigham Young University, Masakazu Watabe, who teaches Japanese at BYU, was a counselor to the bishop, the lay minister, in my student congregation.  Watabe spoke English without an accent and understood American and Mormon culture so well I assumed he was a third or fourth generation Japanese American Mormon.  Years later I learned he immigrated to the United States from Japan because his father, a Mormon convert, wanted him to attend BYU.  Watabe always planned to return to Japan to help the Mormon Church grow there.  Instead he completed a Ph.D. in California and accepted a job at BYU.

                Watabe, like other Japanese Mormons who have come to the United States, learned to combine the Japanese, the American, and the Mormon cultures.  To varying degrees, these Japanese have learned to adapt to life in Utah despite language and traditional cultural differences.  This article examines the unique experiences of some Japanese Mormon immigrants who live in Utah where the predominate religion is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon or LDS).

                Immigrants have always been a part of the Utah experience.  Many nineteenth-century Mormon pioneers were Europeans who joined the LDS Church there and accepted church leaders’ requests to “gather” to Utah to be with other church members.  The newcomers learned English and American and Mormon traditions.  They intermarried, and within two generations were assimilated into a “melting pot.”

                During the twentieth century, however, Mormon leaders have encouraged new members to stay in their home countries and build up the church there.  Still, while gathering to Utah is discouraged, individuals continue to come to be near other Mormons.  So many Chinese immigrated in the 1990s, for example, that one scholar complained it was easier to find Chinese members to serve in church positions in California or Salt Lake City than it was in Taiwan or Hong Kong.[1]

                Mormon Asian immigration, even Asian Mormon converts, is a twentieth-century occurrence.  While the first Mormon missionaries went to Asia in 1852 and to

Japan in 1901, very few joined the Church.  By 1924 only 174 people had been baptized in Japan.  That year Church President Heber J. Grant, who had been one of the first missionaries to Japan, closed the mission because of a devastating earthquake, the U.S. Asian Exclusion Act, some Japanese prejudice against Americans, and the lack of proselyting success.

                The Mormon Church did not return to Japan until after World War II when American Mormon servicemen who came as part of the occupation forces taught and baptized some Japanese.  With increased opportunities for religious expression under the American occupation, Mormon leaders reopened the Japanese Mission in 1948.[2]  By 1970 there were enough members in Japan to form a stake, similar to a Catholic diocese.  That year the Church had an exhibit at the World’s Fair in Osaka, so more Japanese heard about the Mormons.  In 1980 the Church built the first temple in Asia in Tokyo.[3]

                While most Japanese Mormons remain in that country, often becoming inactive because of family and cultural pressures, some come to Utah to be near Mormon headquarters.  Determining how many have immigrated is difficult since Mormon membership records are closed to researchers and do not list national origin or race.  Understanding the Japanese Mormon experience is also arduous since few have written their stories.  This paper is based on oral history interviews conducted by the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, a research center at Brigham Young University.  The interviews with twenty-three Japanese Mormon immigrants are part of the LDS Ethnic American Oral History Project which includes African American, Native American, Hispanic American, Polynesian American, and other Asian American interviewees.

                As the oral history program director at the Redd Center, I wanted to hire interviewers who would understand the cultures of the interviewees.  Although funding limitations required that the interviews be conducted in English, I wanted interviewers who understood the people’s language and cultural dos and don’ts.  The ideal interviewers would have been natives, but since that was not always possible, I hired European Americans who had been on Mormon missions to the native countries.  Matt Eyre, an European American who had been to Japan on a mission, talked to the Japanese interviewees.  Eyre’s interviews lasted between forty-five minutes and an hour, some of the shortest interviews in the project because the informants struggled with the English language.

                In the oral history interviews, the Japanese Mormons discussed their conversions to the Mormon Church, their immigration to the United States, and their relationships with Utahns.  Most were interested in the United States and wanted to learn English even before they joined the Mormon Church.  As Michiru Tsuchida explained, “Even before I joined the Church, I was interested in learning English.  I also had a special feeling towards America.  In my heart, America was a dream country for me.”[4]  Some took English classes from the American missionaries, learning about the Mormons and developing a close relationship with the young Americans.  Masumi Watanabe remembered, “I had an interest in English.  I had friends in America because they were missionaries.  They said, ‘Come to America.'”[5]

                Many of the interviewees were in their twenties and also interested in attending college in the United States.  Some attended Brigham Young University; due to strict entrance requirements there, others went to Utah Valley State College, the state-owned community college in Provo.  Norikazu Uchida wanted to study bionics, a field he felt he could not study at Japanese universities.[6]  Kinuyo Kawasaki came to Provo with her mother because her mother wanted her to learn English.  She attended UVSC and felt comfortable using her second language.  “Speaking, writing, and reading English is so much easier for me than expressing myself in Japanese.”[7]  Kumiko Kimura wanted to study English.  It was too expensive to go to England “so I chose America. . . .  BYU was cheap and also safe.”[8]

                Unlike the other interviewees, Masakazu Watabe did not like Americans and did not want to attend BYU.  He felt that the only Japanese who came to the United States “were the ones that didn’t make it in the Japanese educational system.  I wasn’t about to give myself that kind of stigma.”  But even after Watabe was accepted at the Japanese National University, his father asked him to go to BYU.  After prayer and thought, Watabe obeyed his father and agreed to attend the Mormon university.[9]

                In Watabe’s case, the respect for family found in both the Mormon and the Confusian beliefs matched, so he did not experience a conflict.  Other Japanese Mormons whose parents were not members of the LDS Church faced split loyalties.  While both their Mormon and Confusian ideas emphasized the importance of family and reverence for ancestors, many parents opposed the change in religion.  In a Japanese culture where relationships are more important than what the society might see as right or wrong, even adults are reluctant to change religions without their parents’ blessing.  According to Masakazu Watabe, unlike Koreans, most Japanese do not recognize the similar values between Mormon and Confusian beliefs because they only see the Mormon Church as a American Christian religion.[10]

                While most interviewees joined the Mormon Church in Japan and then came to Utah, several were not Mormons when they came to the United States.  They took English classes at BYU because it was less expensive than other universities.  Yukie Nishigaki was living in Seattle near a cousin but “it was too expensive to live by myself.”  She started attending an English class in Washington offered by Mormon missionaries.  They suggested that she go to Provo and attend BYU “because it was cheaper.”[11]

                Those who were Mormons came to Utah because they wanted to be near Mormon headquarters.  Although Masakazu Watabe did not want to come, when he got to BYU, “I felt like this was my home and my family” because he was surrounded by members of his church who shared his values.  “These were the values that I’ve always been nurtured with. . . .  I felt really good, and I felt at home.”[12]  Haruo Miyagi noticed that when Mormon leaders came to Japan some were “very humble” and others were “quite proud” and he came to Utah to understand the differences.  He also wanted to provide an example of a successful Japanese in America so Mormon leaders and missionaries would have more respect for Japanese people.[13]  Yuko Nakanishi was impressed with the size of the Mormon Church in Utah.  There were “a lot of temples and churches.  I am always going to church or the temple. . . .  It always feels good.”[14]  Other interviewees referred to the nineteenth-century concept that Utah was a chosen place, a Jewish Zion.  Masao Watabe, Masakazu’s father, moved to Provo because “so far this is Zion.  All my family is here in this state of Zion.”[15]

                Once in Utah the interviewees varied in how they felt they were received.  While Masakazu Watabe was excited to be around people who shared his values, he was surprised that Utahns knew very little about other cultures.  “I do hear some insensitive comments about not just Japanese but other races.  That’s because people are not exposed to different cultures.  It’s just a matter of being insensitive because they have not had that experience.”  Matt Eyre suggested that Utahns were ignorant of other cultures, and Watabe concurred.[16]  Watabe had seen similar treatment of “gainjin,” especially Mormon American missionaries when he was in Japan.  As a young Mormon boy, he “was very embarrassed because everybody in town seemed to be talking behind my back, saying, `That little Masakazu knows a Caucasian.'”[17]

                Other interviewees–Japanese Americans, Hispanic Americans, and African Americans–did not see how foreigners were treated in their countries and pointed the fingers that Utahns do not understand and accept other cultures.  Hiroko Ogasahara found “BYU is a Caucasian world, a white society.  They do not really see the different people.”[18]  Kaori Yanagida conceded, “To be honest, I always feel like an outsider.  People are nice in the church, but they never become a friend. . . .  There’s a circle of people, and I’m always outside the circle.  But that doesn’t mean that they kick me out, but it’s just different.”[19]  She disliked people who stared at her on the bus and complained, “When they look at me, sometimes they treat me like the trash.  Just because I look different they think that I’m stupid.  They treat me like I don’t speak the language and that means I can’t do anything.”[20]

                Language was also a concern for Michiru Tsuchida.  While she disagreed that “people judge me because of how I look,” she added that some of her friends were “totally offended by the way Americans treat them.”  She continued, “I know that it wouldn’t be the same for American people to talk with me. . . .  It must be hard and boring in some way.  I suppose they don’t think I can feel like they do, have fun like they do, or have a mouth to speak like they do.  I feel pretty accepted in the community, but being a minority makes me feel like a little kid.”[21]                Yukie Nishigaki agreed that she felt left out was “not because I’m Japanese, but I think because of my English.”[22]

                All the interviewees expressed similar concerns about language.  Akiko Miyahira saw cultural differences reflected through language, explaining, “The jokes are different. . . .  It is hard for me to get into the conversation or get the jokes.”[23]  Even Masakazu Watabe insisted, “English is my second language.  Some of the things that I could do with the native language, I may not be able to do that well with the second language.”[24]

                Seiko Higgins, a Japanese immigrant, attended BYU-Hawaii in the 1950s, and felt frustrated by the lack of nuance in English.  “There is no politeness in English like in Japanese.  When I saw the president of the school coming toward me, I said, `Good morning.’  To me that was not enough.  I would say, `Good morning, sir.'”  But there was no way in English to express the respect and esteem she felt as there was in Japanese.  She also wanted to compliment “people working on the roadside or a stranger working hard and sweating,” but felt English lacked words to express those feelings.  She continued, “You say in English, `You don’t go to school?’  We would say, `Yes, I don’t go to school.’  But you say, `No, I don’t go to school.’  That was really hard for me.”[25]

                Minako Kurogi, born in Japan in 1967, said language was her major limitation.  She attended Ricks College, served an English-speaking LDS mission from 1989 to 1990, and was living in Orem, Utah in 1995.  She still felt, “I cannot speak English fluently.  Sometimes it makes it hard to talk with people.  If I knew how to express my feelings and ideas in fluent English, I could live in the United States without any problems.”[26]

                Other interviewees found additional problems besides language.  They described several ways that they felt they were not accepted by European Americans.  Matt Eyre asked if fellow church members treated them as individuals or as members of the ethnic groups, and while the responses varied, most felt Utah Mormons viewed them as Japanese rather than individuals.  Kumiko Kimura said that while her roommates saw her as an individual, they introduced her to members of her Mormon BYU geographical congregation several times.  They always claimed they had not met her.  She felt people “ignored her” and she feared “maybe I did something to them.”[27]

                Others disliked people in Provo who confused Asian people.  Yuoko Nakanishi was amazed some did not know the difference between Chinese and Korean and assumed they spoke the same language.[28]  Kinuyo Kawasaki agreed, “I am accepted as an Asian.  It is funny because a lot of the people think that Chinese, Korean, and Japanese are all the same.”[29]

                Because of language and cultural difficulties, the Japanese immigrants attended Asian congregations.  In Salt Lake City, there were enough Japanese to have a separate group.  Formed in 1952 as part of an ethnic regional mission, the Church News proudly announced in 1954 that “an eight-course Japanese dinner recently marked the inauguration” of the missionary efforts with Japanese people in Utah.  Six Japanese Americans had already been baptized, and one recent convert was translating at cottage meetings (group gatherings for non-Mormons to learn the church teachings).[30]

                To serve these members, the mission first organized a Japanese Sunday School, Dai-Ichi.  Historical records are often incomplete for wards and branches during this period, but a few minutes have survived for the Dai-Ichi Sunday School and Branch.  In 1952 a secretary kept track of who taught classes and gave talks, recording the names in English and Japanese.[31]  The group also sponsored social and devotional activities.  It started holding weekday evening activities in October 1955, averaging thirty-five members and investigators each week.[32]  The next year the mission assigned fifteen missionaries to the Sunday School, most had served on missions in Hawaii or Japan.  They approached nonmembers by offering classes in leather craft, Japanese gardening, and English tutoring.  As a result of their efforts, an average of forty-five people attended Sunday School each week.[33]

                The Sunday School continued to grow, and on 10 April 1962 general Mormon leaders Spencer W. Kimball and Mark E. Petersen organized a full-fledged congregation.  Members sustained Ralph Noboru Shino as the lay minister.  The first worship services were Sunday, 15 April 1962 in the regional mission offices.  Two weeks later members met in the Salt Lake Nineteenth Ward Chapel.

                The Dai-Ichi Branch sponsored fund raising activities as other LDS congregations did in the 1960s.  For example, in 1963 the branch sold soap as a welfare project.  But there were cultural twists.  The branch Relief Society and other members catered sukiyaki and teriyaki chicken dinners to church and community groups.  Each year the branch held a fund raising dinner and invited the community–LDS and non-LDS.  On 10 April 1963, 325 people paid $2.50 per ticket to sample Japanese specialties.  Mormons from throughout the Salt Lake Valley came.  On 27 April 1968, 450 to 500 people attended.  This dinner was still being held in 1997.

                The branch also sponsored Halloween and Christmas parties, an annual campout at Bear Lake, and beginning in 1964 a New Year’s dinner.  The manuscript history explained, “By tradition, New Year’s marks a period of special celebration and festivity for the Japanese, and we, therefore, have adopted this tradition of holding an annual potluck.”  A month later the branch members completed a large wooden Torii and installed it as an entrance way into the cultural hall.

                While a Torii is a symbol of Shinto, the Japanese Mormons viewed it as a Japanese cultural symbol and attached no religious significance to it.  When Masakazu Watabe was the president of a student Japanese club at BYU, the club obtained a Torii, possibly the one from the Salt Lake City congregation for a Japanese festival.  The Salt Lake City branch still uses a Torii for its Japanese festivals.[34]

                The branch Relief Society sisters heard lessons from two teachers, one speaking in English and one in Japanese.  Secretaries usually wrote in English, but sometimes they kept the minutes in Japanese.  In 1986 the branch published a newsletter listing speakers, ward activities, and special articles in both English and Japanese.

                Branch members provided a bridge between non-LDS Japanese people living in Salt Lake City and LDS citizens of Japan and other Japanese American Mormons.  For example, at the first fund-raising dinner in 1963, members of the Salt Lake Buddhist Women’s Association provided much of the entertainment.  In 1969 the branch loaned its Torii to the Japanese community for a parade in Salt Lake City.  For other dinners, Japanese students from Brigham Young University provided the entertainment.  In 1970 branch members staffed the Salt Lake Temple so that 371 Saints from the Japan Mission and Tokyo Stake could attend the temple in their native language.

                The branch members also helped connect Japanese Mormons and other Latter-day Saints.  Stake leaders had branch members form a choir for stake conference.  In 1965 branch members provided a potluck between sessions of the stake conference, dressed in traditional attire at the stake leaders’ request.   Members of the stake and other LDS members from Salt Lake attended the budget dinners and enjoyed Japanese food.

                The Dai-Ichi Branch met the needs of its members in many ways including providing special programs and language classes.  Another purpose, according to the manuscript history, was to encourage courtship between young people of Japanese ancestry.  In 1966 the history proudly recorded four temple marriages among its members:  “This is especially noteworthy as one of the basic purposes for organization of our branch was that church members of Japanese heritage would thereby have opportunity to meet and marry one of their own church and racial background.  We feel very gratified that this purpose is also being realized.”[35]  The Dai-Ichi branch is still (1999) operating in Salt Lake City.

                In Provo, however, there were not enough Japanese for a separate branch, and members attended an Asian congregation which combined Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans.  The worship service was held in English; Sunday Schools were in the individual languages.  While the congregation combined traditional enemies, some interviewees appreciated the opportunity to worship in their native language and the chance to meet people from other Asian countries.

                Minako Kurogi, born in Japan in 1967, joined the Church as a young girl.  She enjoyed the Asian ward in Provo because “we can learn the gospel in our own language.  In English it is hard for me to concentrate. . . .  I get tired.  I feel the Spirit, of course, but I cannot gain the knowledge of the gospel because of my poor English.”[36]

                Michiru Tsuchida, a Japanese immigrant and BYU student, agreed:  “I had a very different view before toward Asian people from other Asian countries because of the war.  It is very embarrassing, but I had prejudged Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, and people from other Asian countries. . . .  I was thinking about going on a mission and I knew I needed to change at least before I go.  I was afraid to stay that way and to be called to other Asian countries.”  On her first visit to the Asian branch, “two Korean returned missionaries shared beautiful testimonies with us.  I was touched. . . .  I noticed how dumb I had been by prejudging and avoiding to get to know these beautiful people.”  She continued, “I repented and changed a lot.  Right now I have tons and tons of Asian friends. . . .   The Asian branch is so spiritual and special.  Everybody’s so kind and loves everyone.”[37]

                A few Japanese interviewees attended the geographical congregations.  They explained that they were in the United States to learn English and to understand American culture.  They felt that they could not do that if they only associated with Japanese people.  Hiroko Ogasahara, who joined the Church in Japan, did not want to attend a Japanese branch at BYU because the members were “just going there and cuddling together.  They comfort each other, I think, just because they just want to be with Asians.  Maybe sometimes it’s good but not all the time.  If they want to go to an Asian ward, they can do it when they go back home.  I just feel like it is one kind of a scapegoat.”[38]

                Kaori Yanagida, a Japanese BYU student, attended the Asian branch in Provo a few times but did not like it.  “If I go to the Asian ward, my friends are going to be Japanese and I will not be able to speak the [English] language better.  Just hanging out with them all the time wouldn’t help me improve my language skills or become part of the society. . . .  I think that when we are here we should try to be involved with American people, too.  It’s hard but I think that’s what they should do.”  She enjoyed going to a student ward, giving talks, and participating in a “family home evening group” where she was a leader.  When she spoke in sacrament meeting, “a lot of people could understand where I was coming from and what I was going through.”[39]

                Masakazu Watabe, a Japanese professor at BYU, said he had always opposed Asian wards and had never attended one.  If the Asians go to their own wards, “the American members can’t appreciate them by having this diversity in the ward.  They need to learn about the members from other cultures.”  He felt that by having separate branches, “we are really depriving some of the blessings that come from different people, different opinions, and different perspectives of life.”[40]

                These Japanese Mormons have found life in Utah to be a mixture of good and bad.  They appreciate the opportunity to be with other Mormons who share their beliefs.  But they struggle with the language and the culture.  They are especially amazed how little Utahns know about other cultures.  Many attend separate Japanese or Asian congregations which increase their separation and the European American Mormons ignorance of other people.

[1].  Feng Xi, “A History of Mormon-Chinese Relations, 1847-1993) (Ph.D. diiss., Brigham Young University, 1994), 202.

[2].  R. Lanier Britsch, From the East: The History of the Latter-day Saints in Asia, 1851-1996 (Salt Lake City:  Deseret Book, 1998), 43-70, 229-31, 234-35.

[3].  Jessie L. Embry, Asian American Mormons: Bridging Cultures (Provo, Utah:  Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, 1999), 17-18.

[4].  Michiru Tsuchida Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994, LDS Asian American Oral History Project, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, Manuscript Division, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.  (All the interviews cited are from this collection.)

[5].  Masumi Watanabe Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[6].  Norikazu Uchida Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[7].  Kinuyo Kawasaki Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[8].  Kumiko Kimura Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[9].  Masakazu Watabe Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[10].  Masakazu Watabe Conversation, 1 September 1999.

[11].  Yukie Nishigaki Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[12].  Masakazu Watabe.

[13].  Haruo Miyagi Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[14].  Yuko Nakanishi Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[15].  Masao Watabe Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[16].  Masakazu Watabe.

[17].  Spencer J. Palmer, The Expanding Church (Salt Lake City:  Deseret Book, 1978), 191.

[18].  Hiroko Ogasahara Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[19].  Kaori Yanagida Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[20].  Ibid.

[21].  Tsuchida.

[22].  Nishigaki.

[23].  Akiko Miyahira Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[24].  Masakazu Watabe.

[25].  Seiko Higgins Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[26].  Minako Kurogi Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1995.

[27].  Kumiko Kimura Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[28].  Yuoko Nakanishi.

[29].  Kinuyo Kawasaki Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[30].  “Missionaries Baptize Six Japanese,” Church News, 17 July 1954, 5.

[31].  Dai-Ichi Branch, Minutes, 1952, LDS Church Archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[32].  “Pres. Smith Will Talk to Japanese,” Church News, 17 December 1955, 1.

[33].  “S.L. Valley Regional Mission Shows Gains,” ibid., 7 January 1956, 1, 8.

[34].  Conversation with Masakazu Watabe, 1 September 1999.

[35].  Dai-Ichi Branch, Manuscript History and Minutes, 1952-1986, LDS Church Archives.

[36].  Minako Kurogi Oral History, interviewed by Arien Hamblin, 1995.

[37].  Michiru Tsuhida.

[38].  Hiroko Ogasahara Oral History, interviewed by Matt Eyre, 1994.

[39].  Kaori Yanagida.

[40].  Masakazu Watabe.

* Assistant Director and Oral History Program Director of the Charles Redd Center at Brigham Young University.

Leave a comment
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *