After having shared some of my personal connections to the story of Japanese Americans in Utah and Idaho and to set up a future post about my own research which looks at the experience through the eyes of these racialized “others,” I thought it might be nice to summarize one of my favorite articles by Leonard Arrington. Although it looks like someone is giving a paper at the next MHA conference on this topic, Arrington’s essay represents one of the only attempts by a historian to explain how the World War II internment of Japanese Americans affected Utah and how the unique dynamics of Mormonism affected Utah’s relationship to these Nikkei.
JI’s own Heidi has ably examined how Mormon’s changing racial attitudes toward Asians mirrored the larger malleability of racial ideologies in American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (I hope that she will post some of her research on this point in the future). In his article, Arrington actually makes a very different argument about Mormon attitudes during the war by defining the interactions between Mormons and Japanese Americans as an “ambiguous reception.” Although Arrington goes to great lengths to avoid exceptionalizing the Mormon experience, in this case, I am convinced by some of Arrington’s arguments that Utah’s experiences contrasted with the internment process in other Western states where the reception of the Nikkei was often anything but ambiguous.
Arrington outlines several reasons why Mormons might have held a favorable inclination toward people of Japanese descent and other reasons why they might have exhibited prejudice toward these people. For example, Arrington argues that Mormons respected the highly gendered nature of Japanese society and its emphasis on social control. He also emphasizes the ties that prominent leaders like President Heber J. Grant and Senator Elbert Thomas made with the Japanese people during their mission to the Asian nation. Before the war, Utah was home to at least 2,210 Nikkei, and Mormons had generally lived in harmony with this small minority population (a population, that never was interned I might add). Finally, he points out that Mormons’ past history of persecution might have made them more inclined to sympathize with other oppressed groups.
Nevertheless, there were historical forces that also stoked the flames of anti-Japanese prejudice in the Beehive State. First, Arrington points out how Mormons exhibited signs of hyper-patriotism in the wake of their rejection of polygamy. Second, he gestures to the idea that Mormons rarely welcomed any non-Mormon immigrants into Utah. Finally, he demonstrates how the weak pre-war economy in Utah made Asians immigrants an easy target for bitter nativists.
Arrington proves the ambiguity of Utah’s reception by quoting from letters written to Governor Herbert Maw and articles in the Deseret News addressing the problem of Japanese Americans. Arrington does point out that the harshest criticism of the Japanese Americans came from rural areas where the people had few opportunities to come into contact with Japanese Americans as part of their daily life. Although Arrington might have over-generalized in his reading of how the Mormon character influenced their interactions with the Nikkei, the late-coming of the alien land law to Utah, along with words emphasizing tolerance from President Grant and Governor Maw do stand in stark contrast to Idaho Governor Chase Clark who declared that, “Japs live like rats, breed like rats, and act like rats.”
Arrington’s essay, like most of his writing is insightful and imbued with a sense of humanity both toward the Mormons and the Japanese Americans he is describing. It also models a historical question that I think still needs to be answered in a larger, perhaps comparative, study on Mormon racial thought. Armand Mauss has done much to explore LDS attitudes toward African Americans, but I still think we need a systematic study of the impact of Mormon theology on racial ideology. What influence does LDS theology have racial thought? In the case of Japanese Americans it seems to have sometimes tempered the worst kinds of prejudice. Yet the lifting of the Priesthood ban came so late. Did the priesthood ban represent tradition more than actual racial ideology in the last years of its existence? Also, how have members of other races interacted with the church over the years? Someone needs to write historically about Mormon theology and Latino immigration. Are there books and articles that I haven’t read regarding these subjects? Thanks for wading through this post. Next time I’ll present some of my own research.
Leonard Arrington, “Utah’s Ambiguous Reception: The Relocated Japanese Americans,” in Japanese Americans: From Relocation to Redress, eds. Roger Daniels, Sandra C. Taylor, and Harry H.L. Kitano (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1986), 92-98.
 The Japanese term Nikkei refers to Japanese emigrants and their descendents all over the world. Historians of the Japanese American experience in the United States often utilize this term to refer to any or all persons of Japanese ancestry
 Heidi Harris, “Another Other: Asian Race and Theological Change, 1880-1930,” unpublished conference paper
 Alien Land Laws were statutes that denied Japanese immigrants the right to purchase land in a particular state. Most states in the West passed such laws in the 1910s and 1920s.
 As quoted in James A Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Have, CT:Yale University Press, 2003), 373.