Mormonism in Their Own Words

By March 27, 2008

I’m happy to be blogging for JI on a more permanent basis. I have always enjoyed being a token “model-minority” in Mormon country:)

I thought it might be interesting to post some the words of Japanese Americans used when dealing with Mormonism. Some of these quotations come from oral interviews and probably represent the Nikkei’s long-standing relationship with the the area’s dominant religion as well as their perceptions of history, while the other addresses how Japanese American ethnicity and Mormonism interacted historically. If you like this first set of sources, maybe I’ll do a post with more of them.

The first snippet comes from an oral interview done by Sandra Fuller in 1984 with Alice Kasai who was a prominent leader of the Salt Lake City chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. In answering the question about whether her children ever wanted to join the Mormon faith.

No, but I can tell you that they didn’t like the answer they got from their Mormon friends when they were told that they were yellow because they were really half-baked. Yes, that was a new one to me. That God and the Devil had a war and the white people were on God’s side and the black people were on the Devil’s side and the yellow people were half-baked because they were fence sitters. [1]

I wonder if she was projecting Mormon folklore about African Americans onto herself as a non-Mormon Asian or if some Mormons easily transferred racist folklore onto other racialized bodies.

The second taste comes from an editorial in the English section of the Utah Nippo giving advice to Japanese Americans leaving the internment camps to work in Utah. Although I don’t know if this particular author was Mormon or not, I am fascinated by the allusion to Mormon culture.

Once an evacuee has decided that ‘This Is the Place’ for himself and his family, if he has the courage and determination, he will be able to start a new life for his family. The thousands who have gone out have proven that resettlement is not impossible. Dreaming of 1941 and pre-evacuation days is not going to earn our bread and butter. If we study the history of various persecuted groups, we find that those who did not survive the trials and tribulations invariably did not have the courage.

We must be thankful that at east thousands of Issei and Nisei had the adventuresome spirit and were bold enough to get out of the relocation centers to start anew. They are the ones who will be prepared to face the post-war era with a better foundation. [2]

I wonder what Brother Brigham would think about this use of his words.

The last sample comes from Shake Ushio, another leader of the Salt Lake City JACL during World War II. This quotation comes from an interview with Sandra Fuller in 1984. It seems that it makes a big difference whether you are an insider or outsider when addressing Mormonism from an ethnic perspective. When asked about his opinion that Mormons tolerated Japanese Americans more easily than other groups, Ushio replied:

Well, Mormon background may have something to do with that. Mormons themselves were a persecuted people, see. And they understood what it means to be unjustly persecuted. That doesn’t mean that all the Mormons were for us, you know. But by and large, they understood. I can remember all during that time for about 2 years we’d have sponsors and I and two or three other members of the Mormon Church, we’d go and speak sacrament services about twice a month. We’d get invitations all over the town and up in Ogden. And all over. And the gist of our message was that we were being unjustly dealt with. We are also God’s children. That this is the situation, to let you know what’s happening. And we got invitations from all over because congregations were interested in what’s happening. They’re interested in Japanese Americans because it’s always in the news, you know, during the wartime. And they were really impressed with the message we brought them. And I think that–that helped in creating a climate that’s of acceptance for us. [3]

It would be nice to have speakers on racial acceptance in Sacrament Meetings today.

I have my own opinions about the above statements, but I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks.

[1] Alice Kasai, interviewed by Sandra Fuller, 25 October 1984, Box 1, Folder 13, transcript, Interviews with Japanese in Utah Collection, Accn 1209, University of Utah Special Collections, Salt Lake City, 33-34.

[2] “Observation Post,” Utah Nippo, 29 March 1945, English Section.

[3] Shake Ushio, interviewed by Sandra Fuller, 7 February, 1984, Box 4, Folder 5, transcript, Interviews with Japanese in Utah Collection, Accn 1209, University of Utah Special Collections, Salt Lake City, 2:18-19


Comments

  1. Great stuff, Joel. This is an area I know so little about, but I’m fascinated by it all.

    The three quotes you provide are an interesting variety of expressions. Is any one of these more prominent than the others? I’d love to sit in on the sacrament meetings described in the third quotation.

    Comment by Christopher — March 27, 2008 @ 11:25 am

  2. Half-baked? That’s one I’ve never heard. This is an example of when “Holy Crap” seems appropriate.

    Comment by Ray — March 27, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  3. My wfie’s grandmother was half-Japanese. She anglicized her name and denied her heritage because of her fear of the camps. Partly to honor her, my wife goes by her (anglicized) Japanese middle name, rather than her Irish first name.

    Comment by CS Eric — March 27, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  4. Fascinating examples, Joel. Keep them coming.

    On Alice Kasai’s quote: Is there any literature on how Mormons applied their preexistence racial doctrines to groups in racial border lands?

    On the Utah Nippo quote: That is a fascinating use of Mormon history and application to a 20th century Japanese American context. The myth of the frontier/pioneer repackaged in a new context.

    On the Shake Ushio quote: I agree that is fascinating. I was thinking about how many churches around the country were trying to incorporate race into their Easter sermons (responding to Obama’s challenge), and how unfortunately I can’t see something similar happening in my own ward. We’ve got this historical albatross that will impede any progress toward racial justice until the church deals with it.

    Comment by David G. — March 27, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

  5. Interesting, Joel. Quite a range there.

    Comment by Chris — March 27, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  6. No, but I can tell you that they didn’t like the answer they got from their Mormon friends when they were told that they were yellow because they were really half-baked. Yes, that was a new one to me. That God and the Devil had a war and the white people were on God’s side and the black people were on the Devil’s side and the yellow people were half-baked because they were fence sitters.

    I haven’t heard this precise theory, but the oven metaphor reminds me of the description of black people published in the Juvenile Instructor (1868) (qtd. in Lester Bush, “Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine” [fn. 99]).

    Comment by Justin — March 27, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  7. I love the “also-unjustly persecuted” angle. As I recall the Utah camp was named Topaz because enough of the citizens of Delta, UT (yes, I’m assuming they were mostly LDS) objected to calling the camp “Delta” because they didn’t want the name of their fair city to be associated with unjust persecution and forced isolation. It would be fascinating to interview some of the Delta old-timers and see how true the story is.

    Comment by Chad Too — March 27, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

  8. Christopher,

    All three of these personalities were active second-generation leaders of the Japanese community in Salt Lake. Alice Kasai served as the secretary of the Salt Lake Chapter of the JACL during the war. You might have seen her name as one of the coordinators in the article about Japanese Americans on the Utah History website.

    The editorial is unattributed, so I cannot know exactly which person from the paper wrote it, but the Utah Nippo had one of the largest circulations of any Japanese language newspapers during the war because many of the other Japanese American editors were in the camps.

    Shake Ushio was president of the Salt Lake Chapter of the JACL during the war. As far as I can tell, he remained an active member all of his life.

    David,

    I really have no evidence that someone said this to her children–we are relying on hearsay. It is possible that Kasai is simply trying to express some bitterness toward the Mormon establishment or the racism that existed in Utah. My Grandmother still has some bitterness about the way her neighbors treated her during the war. Nevertheless, knowing Mormons penchant for inventing doctrinal explanations for questions that are not particularly cut-and-dry, I could see members extending the mythologies revolving around blacks and the priesthood to the much-hated Japanese during this time period. I am pretty sure, however, that Japanese brethren were always allowed to hold the priesthood. I think Heidi’s work is the closest thing I’ve seen to an examination of this question.

    Comment by Joel — March 27, 2008 @ 11:12 pm

  9. Thanks Joel. I actually didn’t mean which of the three speakers was most prominent person, but rather which mode of discourse was the most common. I’m sorry – I should have been more clear.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2008 @ 12:16 am

  10. “I was thinking about how many churches around the country were trying to incorporate race into their Easter sermons (responding to Obama’s challenge), and how unfortunately I can’t see something similar happening in my own ward. We’ve got this historical albatross that will impede any progress toward racial justice until the church deals with it.”

    Oh, give me a break! The Church has dealt with it. President Hinkley dealt with it. It is everyone else who continue to hold an outdated grudge who hasn’t.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 28, 2008 @ 7:58 am

  11. Christopher,

    I actually think that you can’t really separate any particular interpretation as being the most common belief among people of Japanese descent. The positive discourse expressed by Ushio and the Utah Nippo were probably the most common public assertions, but I think that there was a lot of underlying bitterness despite the happy words. I would think this was especially true among first-generation immigrants who often didn’t speak English and felt more isolated from the Mormon population. They always carried the stigma of speaking with an accent.

    Jetboy,

    I agree that President Hinckley addressed racism in a beautifully concise manner in his General Conference talk. Those were truly powerful words that touched my soul. Have you ever heard it quoted in sacrament meeting or Sunday School? I believe that racism has become a subject that no one wants to talk about–not just at church, but in society in general. On the other hand, I see small instances of racism around me all the time–especially toward immigrants. I would agree that people now don’t try to be consciously racist, but I don’t think that people try to be consciously selfish either. We hear sermons admonishing us to eliminate the sin of pride from our lives, why not a discussion of overcoming the sin of racism?

    I think that the priesthood ban is still a big issue for many people. It would be nice if the Church refuted or at least cleared up some of the folklore revolving around the question of African Americans and the priesthood. I wouldn’t even mind if they publicly stated that although some former leaders speculated about the reasons why Blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood, the church affirms that we don’t know why this was. We should be instructed not to believe any of the racist justifications that you might have heard about the ban because they aren’t doctrinal–the real doctrinal answer is we just don’t know. That being said, it seems that historians have made a compelling case that racist views undergirded the adoption of the policy.

    Comment by Joel — March 28, 2008 @ 8:33 am

  12. “I wouldn’t even mind if they publicly stated that although some former leaders speculated about the reasons why Blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood, the church affirms that we don’t know why this was.”

    Already happens time and time again. I have probably heard that in the very public General Conference; if not in Hinkley’s talk.

    “We should be instructed not to believe any of the racist justifications that you might have heard about the ban because they aren’t doctrinal–the real doctrinal answer is we just don’t know.”

    Two problems with this. First, these justifications are a generational rather than institutional viewpoint. Even before the ban it was clear that these “doctrines” were speculative and not revelatory or official. In fact, I have always understood those speculations not as racism per se, but trying to understand what seems to be an unfair practice. The only ones I hear using the old speculations are older members and those who would be racist no matter what. Second, it seems that most of the argument to have a public or institutional statement are PR work that will do little. The problem is that no matter what the LDS Church does or says, feelings it is racist will not subside with the general critics. If you read what they say the LDS Church “teaches” about race, you will find it is not even close to the actual speculations. For instance, it was not taught that Blacks were Devils or naturally unrepentant Sinners. Yet, that is time and again what the critics say the teachings were. I don’t think a statement will do anything to change people’s minds in or out of the Church; and might do the opposite. Just look at what one little word change in the Book of Mormon non-revelatory Book of Mormon has done.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 28, 2008 @ 8:59 am

  13. Just look at what one little word change to a work that was non-revelatory in the Book of Mormon had done. Very few said it was a good thing, other than as proof that Mormonism is a false religion or that wouldn’t change/need to change the introduction.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 28, 2008 @ 9:04 am

  14. Thanks Joel. I imagine you’re right that there was underlying bitterness in even the most positive expressions.

    Jettboy, please try and be a little more sensitive to the issues confronting racial minorities in the church today.

    Re: Even before the ban it was clear that these “doctrines” were speculative and not revelatory or official.

    I disagree. Is that based on personal anecdotal evidence or do you have something to back up that assertion?

    Re: In fact, I have always understood those speculations not as racism per se, but trying to understand what seems to be an unfair practice.

    Racism doesn’t have to be intentional to be racism.

    Re: The only ones I hear using the old speculations are older members and those who would be racist no matter what.

    Well, I constantly heard these ideas thrown around by missionaries on my mission, as well as numerous times by fellow university students, well-intentioned Sunday School teachers, BYU religion professors, high school students, and octogenarians (among others) since my return home. I’m thrilled that you rarely hear it expressed anymore. But that doesn’t mean the problem is as miniscule as you suggest.

    Re: Just look at what one little word change to a work that was non-revelatory in the Book of Mormon had done. Very few said it was a good thing, other than as proof that Mormonism is a false religion or that wouldn’t change/need to change the introduction.

    I actually have some anecdotal evidence to suggest that many members of the church who have been labeled as “lamanites” their entire lives are rather pleased that the change was made in the introduction (for a variety of reasons).

    Re: The problem is that no matter what the LDS Church does or says, feelings it is racist will not subside with the general critics.

    That may very well be true, but it might go a long way in helping race relations within the church, and although it might have little meaning to you, I imagine it would mean quite a bit to racial minorities in the church, especially African Americans. Jettboy, it’s easy for white American Mormons like you and I to only see the world through our white lens. The challenge, and the opportunity for progress, will only occur when we allow others to see the world through their own lens and accept that viewpoint as equally valid as ours.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  15. Jettboy: You’ve already made your own blog infamous for misinformed and naive rants based on poorly articulated conservative assumptions. If you want to continue painting this rosy picture of racial harmony in the church, you can continue to do so there.

    I really hope that you check out Margaret Young’s and Darius Gray’s Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons when it comes out on DVD. It’s people like you that really need to see it.

    I agree with everything said by Joel and Christopher above.

    Everyone, please get back to Joel’s post on Japanese Americans.

    Comment by David G. — March 28, 2008 @ 11:08 am

  16. Ditto to Joel, Christopher, and David’s #15.

    Comment by Jared T — March 28, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

  17. Well, David, unless I am deleted, I think I will continue my “misinformed and naive rants based on poorly articulated conservative assumptions” wherever I feel like it.

    “Is [the idea of speculation] based on personal anecdotal evidence or do you have something to back up that assertion?”

    Yes, its called the Scriptures. I don’t see these speculations about blacks in them. I have never seen them quoted in LDS Church lesson manuals. They might have been stated in General Conference, but I am not aware of any for at least 100 years. Certainly I have never seen them entertained in LDS Church magazines. They may have been popular, but never official doctrine.

    Comment by Jettboy — March 28, 2008 @ 1:16 pm

  18. Wow.

    Comment by Jared T — March 28, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

  19. Jettboy, I could refute every single one of your points. I could show you numerous speculations regarding the status of racial minorities in the scriptures, official church publications, and general conference addresses. In fact, if you would check back through JI’s archives, you would find many of those.

    Instead, I’ll save myself the headache and just ban you. Goodbye.

    Comment by Christopher — March 28, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

  20. #7, That’s a quaint reason for the name, would you mind recalling where you heard that? I served a portion of my mission in Delta and though I’ve never researched it, I always assumed the name of the camp was related to the area. There’s a mountain that’s called “Topaz Mountain” commonly, you guessed it, because of large deposits of the gemstone topaz. I suspect that the “we don’t want to sully our fair city’s reputation with injustice” idea is an afterthought. I suppose it would be easy to figure out why it was named that. Joel, any ideas?

    Comment by Jared T — March 28, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

  21. The name came from the mountain near Delta, but I seem to remember that the people of Delta did protest having the camp named after their city. This might be folklore though, most of the camps were named after geographic features and not cities. I do know that a fairly amiable relationship developed between Delta and the camp. They played football and baseball against each other. I also know that the Topaz camp became a labor source for the surrounding area and beyond. Those Japanese-Americans deemed “loyal” were “benevolently” allowed to leave the camps to work–mostly to make up for the labor shortage cause by American troop build-up. I don’t have time to look this up right now, but the landmark work on the Topaz camp is Jewel of the Desert by Sandra Taylor and I’m sure she has a nuanced treatment about the naming of the camp.

    Comment by Joel — March 28, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

  22. Jared T,
    Joel has backed me up, but you’re right, I could have been clearer. Topaz as a name does indeed comes from the surrounding mountains, but they had to go with something other than “Delta” because of the reputation thing.

    Your further point is why I brought it up, though. The old-timers are quickly fading and if there’s any hope of establishing a provenance regarding the story it has to be done while contemporaries of the camp are still around.

    Comment by Chad Too — March 28, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  23. I noticed that the University of Utah features digital copies of the Topaz Times, which I assume reflected the government’s viewpoint.

    Comment by Justin — March 28, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  24. To further clarify, I haven’t read Sandra Taylor’s book so she may have already done the research. I’m heading to my local library website next to request her book.

    Comment by Chad Too — March 28, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  25. #22, Chad, thanks. My question wasn’t so much why did you bring it up, but where did you hear that. I agree, time’s ticking to get any local input. I was just curious if you had read that or had heard that orally. Thanks.

    Comment by Jared T — March 28, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

  26. My grandmother and her father were both teased for LOOKING Japanese, although we are not at all Asian. My grandmother grew up in Provo between the wars and my great-grandfather was from elsewhere in UT. I have always found that odd–but there must have been significant discrimination even before the war.

    Incidentally, when my sister and I served missions in Japan, we were both asked regularly if we were part Japanese and other members of my family get this in the US from time to time. It really surprised me in Japan, though, and I assure you, it was not because of superb Japanese!

    Comment by ESO — March 28, 2008 @ 7:34 pm


Series

Recent Comments

Hannah N. on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Whoops! Realized it was an older book after I posted the comment. Thank you!”


Ben P on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Hannah: that's because we highlighted the book last year!”


Hannah N. on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Great selection! Thank you for writing this up. I was surprised to not see Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History on this list.…”


Gary Bergera on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “Thanks, Terry H. It looks like early next year--maybe February/March.”


Terry H on 2017 in Retrospect: An: “The Arrington Diaries were a highlight this year. Wait . . . they didn't come out yet. Well, Gary's work is always worth…”


Christopher on Mormon Immigrants and Fugitive: “Thanks, Joey. And Stapley - how could I forget about that post? Thanks for reminding me of it here!”

Topics


juvenileinstructor.org