Before I get into the meat of my first post, I would like to offer a few explanations for offering up a bit of personal and family history. First, I feel like it is essential for a historian to reveal his own positionality so that readers can understand the context for the rest of his work. Second, many of my motives for becoming a historian and much of my work involve a search to understand my own identity. And finally, I think that Mormon historicity has more connection to the self and family than other types of historical inquiry. I do not offer up these reflections as critiques; I actually think Mormon history’s either transparent or obscured connection to the self infuses it with a passion and vibrancy rarely found in other academic circles And now, the vignettes:.
Many years ago, I took my first paying job at a small convenience store on the outskirts of Idaho Falls, Idaho. Because the store was on the edge of the city, it catered to a variety of customers that ranged between suited businessmen to crusty farmers who lived out in the countryside. One solitary winter afternoon, I was working by myself when an elderly farmer walked in, proceeded to buy milk, and sat his purchase on the counter for me to ring up. I asked about his day, with my very best customer service skills, but in response he crassly stated, “A Japanese soldier killed my brother during World War II.” I remember feeling uncomfortable, scared, and uncertain; I didn’t know how to respond to his forceful declaration. After watching me squirm for a moment, this rugged character smiled at me and shook my hand. He told me that his wife had taught him that unless he forgave the Japanese people, he could never be saved in the Celestial Kingdom. He then confessed that he had been watching me for the past several months and had concluded that I was one of the nicest young men he had ever met.
In the foggy reserves of my memory, this experience serves as one of the first times that I really felt the weight of my racial “otherness” as one of the very few Asian Americans in Southeastern Idaho. As the son of a Japanese American father and white mother, my race was both non-issue and constant influence in our home. Very rarely did I understand that I was any different from other children. Yet in my interaction with the farmer, my unique racial identity presented itself in all of its confusing and complex implications. Although the elderly man accepted me as a completely assimilated “other,” a “model minority,” I realized that I would always be different in the eyes of many of the people that lived around me. In this one moment I became the representative for all persons of Japanese ancestry in the mind of this Mormon farmer—a role that I have played again and again. My presence, along with every other Mormon of another race, stands as a reminder that the history of Mormons must attempt to encompass a wide range of diversity.
The second story emerged from an oral interview that I conducted with my Grandmother about her World War II experiences in the Mormon communities near Rexburg. Although filtered through the lens of second-hand memory, the elements of the story demonstrate one of the ways that the war continues to affect her life more than fifty years later. She recounted:
There was a lot of people that got suspicious at everything the Japanese people did. My brother and them, they lived out in Burton [a small farming community near Rexburg]. And the people there used to be real good friends I think–neighbors and everything. There was some [people/neighbors] that every little thing they watched to see what they [her brother] did. And they had, I know that my brother had spotlight on his truck. He worked, we farmed, you know he farmed on the farm and then at night time he used to go haul coal, to supplement the income. And then, so he had a spotlight on his pickup and then sometime he put it out in the yard and turned the spotlight on. And a neighbor called into the sheriff and said, “They’re signaling the Japanese.” I don’t know how they could think that they could signal the Japanese out in the country there to Japan.
Although the details might be a little sketchy, the overall story has been confirmed by her brother. I find it interesting that this would be one of the experiences about the war period that looms vividly in the memory of my eighty-seven year old grandmother, but it begins to make sense when you identify some of the core components of the story. First, the narrative emphasizes the harmlessness of these Japanese Americans by framing them as hard working farmers and coal-haulers. Second, it demonstrates her own befuddlement that these neighbors would suspect her family of any type of sedition. Finally, it stands as a witness that one of the things that she remembers most about the war is the profound sense of “otherness” that she felt from those around her. This experience remains in her memory as a sign of wartime alienation and racial distrust.
Together, these narratives paint a very limited picture of one of the ways in which race has worked in Mormon communities in the twentieth century at a very personal level. They also demonstrate the stakes that I hold in doing this history, and the real life ripples it has created in me and my family.