By Nancy J. Taniguchi

First Obon dance in Salt Lake, 1936

The Japanese have consistently maintained a rich cultural life and high level of achievement in Utah despite decades of racial prejudice. Although they have been present in Utah in small numbers since the end of the nineteenth century, many of Utah's current Japanese residents came to the areas as relocatees during the infamous incarceration of World War II. Many remained after their release and drifted to the well-established Japanese communities that predated the war. The majority of Utah's Japanese citizens now live in Salt Lake City, Ogden, and a handful of farming towns scattered through northern Utah, and in Carbon County. In these areas they have been able to perpetuate much of their traditional culture.

The first Japanese in Utah were seen as either exotic or as expendable, depending on their status. Representatives of the newly-westernized Meiji government, Ambassador Extraordinary Iwakura and his party, visited Salt Lake City in 1872 where they were graciously received by the territorial governor and the city's mayor. However, their short-lived stay resulted in no permanent relationship, and within a decade Japanese workers were being imported into Utah for the lowest sort of labor.

A group of Japanese women were brought to Utah in 1882, some of them destitute widows with children, as prostitutes for the Chinese and Caucasian railroad workers. Shortly thereafter, Japanese men were brought to Utah on transient railroad labor gangs. Some members of these two groups may have formed settled families and the nucleus of Utah's "Japanese Towns."

The Japanese population in Utah grew during subsequent decades. By 1900 the census reported 417 Japanese in Utah, increasing to 2,110 in 1910 and 2,936 in 1920. Many of those arriving during this period were recruited by Japanese labor agents from the Hashimoto family. The first of these, Yozo Hashimoto, supplied workers throughout the Intermountain West in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. Recruits included his nephew, Edward Daigoro Hashimoto. By 1902 he had established his own labor agency, the E.D. Hashimoto Company, in Salt Lake City's Japanese Town, an area now largely occupied by the Salt Palace. He not only provided section gangs for the Western Pacific and Denver and Rio Grande railroads, but he also imported Japanese food and supplies, ran a store, provided banking services, and helped others with government forms and legal problems.

Partly through Hashimoto's efforts, increased numbers of Japanese workers entered Utah. Then, replaced by Italians on the railroad, the Japanese became coal miners at Castle Gate, Hiawatha, Sweets, and other Utah mines, usually under the supervision of a Japanese boss. Coal companies constructed separate boarding houses and residential areas for the Japanese, as they did for other ethnic groups. The Japanese area was often distinguished by a special bathhouse with a large concrete tub, because the Japanese have always put special emphasis on cleanliness.

Other occupations opened to Japanese people in the early twentieth century. Salt Lake society matrons employed some of them as "houseboys," deploring the lack of reliable servant girls. By 1910 some of them were also working in the beet fields, again for E.D. Hashimoto. He grew beets for what would later become the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company. He established the Clearfield Canning Company and also opened a sugar beet center in Delta, Utah. Traditional Japanese respect for farmers led many to specialize in certain crops. Utah Japanese produced nationally acclaimed celeries and strawberries.

The growing number of Japanese in Utah facilitated the establishment of businesses and institutions that catered to their needs. In 1907 the Japanese-language Rocky Mountain Times began publication. The Utah Nippo, still in existence, was first printed in 1914 by the Terazawa family. Fish markets, restaurants, and variety stores provided specialized goods in the Japanese enclaves of Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Helper. Touring Kabuki troupes sometimes performed traditional Japanese drama. In 1919 the first Japanese school in Salt Lake City was established. All Japanese communities strove to maintain such an institution, to teach the Japanese language and culture to new generations.

Even more importantly, the Japanese were increasingly able to experience a full religious life. In the fall of 1912 a memorial service for deceased Japanese immigrants, or issei, conducted by a Buddhist priest from San Francisco, prompted the formation of the Intermountain Buddhist Church. The first minister, the Reverend Kenryo Kuwabara, served first in Ogden and later headed the Salt Lake Buddhist Church, which became the parent organization. In 1918 both churches established a Fujinkai, a women's organization originally created to help young brides from Japan adapt to life in America. In addition to these traditional religious groups, the Japanese Church of Christ was established in Salt Lake City in 1918.

During the 1920s, Japanese also formed a variety of fraternal and benevolent societies. For example, the Carbon County Kyo Ai Kai, still in existence, was founded to provide pensions in the event of a disabling accident in the coal mines, and also to provide a proper Buddhist funeral upon death. It still fulfills those functions, as well as acting as a social bond for the area's dwindling number of Japanese residents. Other societies, such as Salt Lake's Hiroshima Ken Jin Kai, were organized by local Japanese from a particular area of origin.

During the twenties, while Japanese community life became richer and better established, the American public grew increasingly anti-Japanese. In 1922 the United States Congress passed the Cable Act which deprived American-born Japanese (nisei) women of citizenship if they had married issei men. The provision remained in force until 1931. The Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 prohibited the immigration of all Japanese. The increasing exclusion of nisei children from school extracurricular activities led to the creation of a Young Buddhist Association (YBA) at the Salt Lake Buddhist Church in 1923.

Opportunities for the Japanese constricted further during the thirties, and more than a thousand left Utah. However, the greatest blow fell in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese already residing in Utah faced much wartime prejudice, including the vandalization of their cemeteries, which were segregated from the graves of the other dead. The Utah legislature considered a bill to intern Utah Japanese along with those evacuated from California, but it failed to pass; however, Utah did pass a law prohibiting land purchase by aliens, mandating a yearly lease instead. Despite generally widespread prejudice, Utah Japanese found a champion in U.S. Senator Elbert D. Thomas, who did what he could to mitigate the effects of wartime hysteria.

Japanese residing in California were forced to leave the state for unsubstantiated "strategic" reasons. In the few weeks before internment became mandatory, Japanese were allowed to leave the West Coast voluntarily if they could prove they had a place to go. Fred Wada, a former Utah resident living in California, negotiated with the sheriff of Wasatch County to lease almost 4,000 acres of land near Keetley for an agricultural colony. It shortly became the home for ninety relocated Japanese.

Topaz, just outside Delta, became the main Utah camp for those expelled after the voluntary relocation offer was withdrawn. However, several "troublemakers" were sent in 1943 to the old Dalton Well CCC Camp in Grand County. Among the Topaz internees was the Reverend Kenryo Kumata, head of the Buddhist Churches of America, previously located in San Francisco. The government restricted the activities of Buddhist churches during the war, but released the Rev. Mr. Kumato from Topaz in 1943 and allowed him to serve in Ogden. There, he set up the Ogden Buddhist Church as an independent organization and founded branches at Honeyville, Deweyville, Garland, and Corinne. Another Buddhist priest interned at Topaz, Rev. Tetsuro Kashima, became minister at Ogden in 1945 when the offices of the Buddhist Churches of America reopened in San Francisco with the help of the Rev. Mr. Kumata.

The war's end brought many changes for the Japanese. Most importantly, in 1947, Japanese again could buy their own land in Utah due to the repeal of the Alien Land Law. Several Japanese who had lost all in the West Coast relocation decided to stay, and the 1950 census counted an increase of 1,183 Utah Japanese.

Demands for redress for relocation abuses met with limited success. Congress passed the Evacuation Indemnity Claims Act in 1948 after intensive lobbying by the Japanese-American Citizen's League (JACL), an effort spearheaded by a Utah Japanese, Mike Masaoka. Less than ten percent of the actual losses suffered was paid--$38 million of an estimated $400 million loss. Recent lobbying efforts resulted in congressional approval of further reparations in 1988. A 1989 appropriation of monies mandated by this legislation--$20,000 to each survivor--was approved for each relocation survivor, a benefit denied to their heirs.

Utah's Japanese residents now include third and fourth generations--sansei and yonsei, respectively. About half of the sansei have intermarried with non-Japanese, but they and their families frequently participate in the two major festivals still celebrated in Utah's Japanese communities. The first of these is New Year's Day. Prior to the celebration, debts must be paid, homes cleaned, and quarrels settled. Party-goers toast "kampai" with a tiny glass of sake, rice wine. Special New Year dinners always include mochi, balls made of glutinous rice flour, and black beans, eaten for good luck. Midsummer brings the festival of Obon, the Japanese equivalent of Memorial Day. Obon is traditionally celebrated with music and dancing.

Japanese community members sometimes also join together for an annual picnic. One of the games played is the cone fight, in which an ice cream cone is tied to the heads of participants, who try to knock off the cones of their opponents with a single sheet of rolled newspaper. The newspaper represents the samurai sword, symbol of the Japanese code of honor, but the lighthearted event is enjoyed by all ages. Other traditional holidays, such as the doll displays for Girl's Day and flying carp-shaped kites for Boy's Day, are now more remembered than celebrated. Utah's Japanese are becoming increasingly assimilated, and many traditions are dying with the few remaining issei. However, the years of intolerance, while painful for participants, have helped Utah's Japanese to preserve much of their ancient culture.

See: Helen Zeese Papanikolas and Alice Kasai, "Japanese Life in Utah," in Helen Zeese Papanikolas, ed., The Peoples of Utah (1976).

Disclaimer: Information on this site was converted from a hard cover book published by University of Utah Press in 1994. Any errors should be directed towards the University of Utah Press.