Select a primary language to get the most out of our Journal pages:
English 日本語 Español Português

We have made a lot of improvements to our Journal section pages. Please send your feedback to!

Enduring Communities

Japanese Americans in Utah

From earliest human habitation, the area now called Utah exhibited diversity. The prehistoric Fremont and Anasazi built villages and cultivated crops. Goshuite, Paiute, Navajo (Dine’), Shoshone, and Ute cultures replaced them, the last of whom gave its name to the state. Subsequent groups squeezed Native Americans to marginal lands where they remain today.

First, in the 1700s, the Spanish (then the Mexicans) forged the Old Spanish Trail, which bisects Utah. They brought the gift of horses, but also enslaved native people and encouraged an inter-Indian slave trade.

Next, other people of European (and a few of African) descent from the eastern United States sought religious sanctuary in Utah. In 1847, the vanguard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) arrived. They established a theocracy that would mellow into the state’s dominant force in all aspects of life. To be non-Mormon in Utah is to be a minority. Hence, the Japanese in Utah – definite late-comers – were originally both a racial and a religious exception to the rule.

Prior to Japanese arrival, other racial and ethnic groups, usually recruited as contract labor, came in Utah in the late nineteenth century. They also belonged to minority religions – Taoist or Confucian, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish, primarily – and called themselves Chinese, Finns, Italians, Irish, Yugoslavs, and later, Greeks, Syro-Lebanese, and others.

Initially, Utahns saw Japanese either as exotic or expendable. Exotics included representatives of the newly-westernized Meiji government. Despite a gracious reception in 1872, they made no lasting impact. In the 1880s, Japanese contract labor arrived: female prostitutes and men for railroad gangs. They didn’t stay, for the 1890 census reported only 5 Japanese in Utah. Numbers rose to 417 in 1900; 2,110 in 1910 and a pre-World War II high of 2,936 in 1920. (For comparison, the 2005 total of all Asians was approximately 48,000, including over 10,000 of Japanese descent.)

Labor agents, themselves Japanese immigrants, recruited many of these workers. For example, Edward Daigoro Hashimoto in 1902 established a labor agency in Salt Lake City and shortly provided strikebreaking miners during the great Carbon County coal strike of 1903-04. Competing contractor Kyutaro Abiko opened an Ogden office in 1905 to provide Utah’s sugar beet harvesters. US-Japanese agreements of 1907-1908, which prevented laborers from leaving Japan for the US mainland, accompanied the flight of another of Utah’s Japanese labor contractor and forced Abiko to recruit workers from Hawaii, some for the Western Pacific Railroad in 1906. Another rival, Hayao Oda, procured workers for Utah’s Bingham Canyon copper mine after 1909. Some Japanese immigrants also secured jobs as "houseboys" for Salt Lake City’s society matrons, replacing servant girls. Soon, Hashimoto became Utah’s leading Japanese labor contractor, supplying sugar-beet harvesters; establishing the Clearfield Canning Company; opening a sugar beet center in Delta, Utah; importing Japanese food and supplies; providing banking services, and helping others with government forms and legal problems.

A growing number of economically independent Japanese developed new businesses and institutions. Japanese-run newspapers knit the community beginning in 1907, when the Japanese-language Rocky Mountain Times began publication. Seven years later, the Terazawa family began publishing the rival Utah Nippo, still in existence today. Fish markets, restaurants, and variety stores provided specialized goods in the Japanese enclaves of Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Helper. Based on traditional Japanese respect for farmers, Utah’s Japanese raised specialty crops, particularly nationally acclaimed celeries and strawberries. Touring Kabuki troupes sometimes performed traditional Japanese drama. The first Japanese school in Salt Lake City opened in 1919 to teach children Japanese language and culture. Later, other communities did likewise.

The Japanese also built churches. In 1912 a memorial service 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 at the Salt Lake Buddhist Church, which became the headquarters. In 1918 both churches established a Fujinkai, a women's organization originally created to help young Japanese brides adapt to American life. That same year, Japanese Christians founded the Japanese Church of Christ in Salt Lake City.

During the 1920s, increased racism helped foster Japanese community cohesion and self-help. In 1922, the United States Congress passed the Cable Act that deprived American-born Japanese (Nisei, pronounced NEE-say) women of citizenship if they married Issei (EE-say, or immigrant) men, a law abolished only in 1931. The federal Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924 prohibited the immigration of all Japanese. When local schools started excluding Nisei children from extracurricular activities, concerned parents formed a Young Buddhist Association (YBA) at the Salt Lake Buddhist Church in 1923. Adult Japanese also organized a variety of fraternal and benevolent societies. For example, the Carbon County Kyo Ai Kai, still in existence, established its own, segregated cemetery and provided pensions in the event of a disabling coal mining accident. Salt Lake's Hiroshima Ken Jin Kai, based on a particular area of origin in Japan, provided similar services, as did organizations in Sego, Eureka, Bingham, Elberta, and Payson.

Conditions worsened in the mid-twentieth century for Utah’s American Japanese, now including a third generation, the Sansei (SON-say). During the Great Depression, jobs for non-whites disappeared and over a thousand Japanese left Utah. Among them, LDS convert Mike Masaoka moved to San Francisco to accept the position of national secretary and field director of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League), making him the organization’s main spokesperson and bringing national awareness to the American Japanese community outside the West Coast. His chief responsibility was to try to head off the growing national hysteria as Japan attacked China. When Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US joined World War II and Utah’s American Japanese faced increased prejudice, including cemetery vandalism, an unsuccessful internment attempt by Utah’s legislature, and an alien land law that restricted Issei only to a yearly lease on land.

Three months later, the federal government ignored the constitutional rights of its citizens of Japanese descent in an act later blamed on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, forcing the exclusion of all American Japanese from all of California, western Oregon and Washington, and southern Arizona into concentration camps in the interior. Voluntary exclusion from the West Coast remained open until March 30, 1942, allowing Oakland resident Fred Isamu Wada, whose wife Masako was from Ogden, to negotiate a lease of almost 4,000 acres near Keetley, Wasatch County. Soon ninety relocated American Japanese grew food there for the war effort. Another group of forty families leased 1,500 acres to raise sugar beets near Green River despite anti-Japanese protests by Emery County residents.

Some businesses welcomed American Japanese employees; others were fired and some had radios, cameras, and hunting rifles confiscated by municipal authorities. Senator Elbert D. Thomas, formerly a Mormon missionary in Japan and a mentor to Mike Masaoka, tried to mitigate the effects of wartime hysteria.

At the same time, more American Japanese were forcibly moved to Utah. When voluntary exclusion ended, the War Relocation Authority (WRA) detained approximately 8,000 evacuees from the San Francisco Bay area at Topaz, just outside Delta. Three other WRA locations utilized old Civilian Conservation Corps centers: Antelope Springs, as a Topaz recreation center; Dalton Wells near Moab, as a temporary isolation center for "troublemakers" in early 1943; and Dog Valley, south of Emery, where inmates mined coal for Topaz from the nearby mine. Despite its dreadful drawbacks, detention made one positive impact: the circulation of the long-lived Utah Nippo rose from 600 per issue to about 10,000 during the war years.

This influx also brought new institutions to Utah. The incarcerated Topaz population included the Reverend Kenryo Kumata, the head of the Buddhist Churches of America, who directed his church from Utah despite government restrictions. Released from Topaz in 1943, he worked with the Ogden Buddhist Church and founded branches at Honeyville, Deweyville, Garland, and Corinne before returning church offices to San Francisco in 1945. The JACL headquarters also relocated from San Francisco to Utah during the war, bringing its newspaper, the Pacific Citizen. In 1943, its leaders, including Shigeki “Shake” Ushio, organized the National JACL Credit Union, still headquartered in Salt Lake City. Ushio initially helped Japanese Americans whose assets had been frozen or restricted when the war began, and continued serving as chairman of the board for over thirty years. The Credit Union also provided financial assistance to those who left detention camps, including members of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated military unit for its size and length of service in US history.

War's end brought many changes as Utah adapted more to the Americans and vice versa. For example, in 1947, the Utah legislature repealed the Alien Land Law, allowing Issei to buy land. That same year, Utah’s Wataru “Wat” Misaka, in the initial National Basketball Association draft, was picked first in the first round by the New York Knicks, breaking the professional color barrier in basketball at the same time that Jackie Robinson did in baseball. Meanwhile, Mike Masaoka spearheaded intensive lobbying for redress, resulting in the 1948 Evacuation Indemnity Claims Act, which paid out only $38 million of an estimated $400 million loss. (In the late twentieth century, renewed lobbying resulted in the federal government paying $20,000 to each surviving World War II inmate.) During wartime, Alice Kasai, the wife of detained leader Henry Y. Kasai, continued his work in establishing a Utah JACL. When the war ended and Henry returned, the two of them helped form the Salt Lake Chapter. (Utah now has three chapters.) The Kasais also became active in the World Peace Study Mission, and Alice helped create the Japanese Peace Garden in Jordan Park in 1949. Mary and Charlie Kawakami, driven out of Spring Canyon (a Carbon County mining camp) during the war, had relocated to Provo, where Mary cut hair during the week to support her disabled husband and family. On weekends, she took the bus to Los Angeles to study beauty care from the professionals, leading to her recognition as "One of the World's Ten Best" in Hollywood in 1954. In addition, she founded a beauty college in Provo that operated until 1999. Given Utah’s improving climate of acceptance, several West Coast Japanese Americans who had lost everything in their removal to the state decided to stay, thereby increasing Utah’s 1950 census count to 1,183 ethnic Japanese.

The national JACL has brought many Utahns recognition. In 1950, Mike Masaoka became the very first “J.A. of the Biennium,” the organization’s highest honor for Japanese Americans who have succeeded in their chosen field. The most recent Utahn so honored, Credit Union Chairman “Shake” Ushio, won the award in 1998. Before that, Henry Y. Kasai received “J.A. of the Biennium” in 1964, and in 1974 the award went to Judge Raymond Uno, who had broken the color barrier in the Utah court system, initially in the juvenile court. He became Utah’s first minority in increasingly important legal positions, and, in 1985, was elected to Utah’s Third Judicial District court, the first minority to hold that honor. Judge Uno worked hard to encourage all minorities to study the law, and in 2005 he was among the first fifty honored by the Utah Minority Bar Association, a group including African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and one Pacific Islander. A year later, Utah native and LDS Church member S. Floyd Mori became the interim director of the national JACL, after long service in the Mount Olympus chapter and at the national level including national president (2000-04) and director of public policy in Washington D.C. since 2005.

Despite this measure of increasing acceptance, Utah’s recent appreciation of Japanese culture has been spotty. Since 1958, Salt Lake City and Japan’s Matsumoto City have been sister cities. Yet in 1967 officials destroyed all of Salt Lake City’s "Japan Town" except the Japanese Church of Christ and the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple to make way for the Salt Palace Convention Center. Adaptations shall continue. Utah’s minority population now exceeds 15 percent, and its people of Japanese descent exemplify the positive potential of a challenging history.

* * * * *

Timeline for Japanese Americans in Utah

1776: Old Spanish Trail established

1847: Members of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) arrive

1872: Japanese Meiji government officials visit Utah

1880s: Japanese contract labor first arrives

1890: Utah census counts 5 Japanese

1900: Utah census counts 417 Japanese

1902-1906: Several Japanese labor agents open firms in Salt Lake City

1907: Japanese newspaper, Rocky Mountain Times, established

1907: Gentlemen’s Agreement forbids emigration of Japanese laborers from Japan

1908: Root-Takahira Treaty formalizes restrictions of Gentlemen’s Agreement, allowing only diplomats, merchants, and students to leave Japan for the USA (not including Hawaii)

1910: Utah census counts 2,110 Japanese

1912: Formation of the Intermountain Buddhist Church

1914: Terazawa family establishes Utah Nippo newspaper, still in existence

1919: The first Japanese school in Salt Lake City was established.

1918: Fujinkai (women’s organization) formed by combined Salt Lake and Ogden Buddhist churches

1920: Utah census counts 2,936 Japanese

1922: Cable Act: Nisei women who marry Issei men lose their US citizenship (abolished 1931)

1923: Young Buddhist Association established for Japanese American children

1924: Japanese Exclusion Act

1941: Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Utah Legislature passes Alien Land Law restricting Issei to a yearly lease on land (repealed 1947)

1942: US War Relocation Authority imprisons American Japanese in Utah at Topaz, Dalton Wells and Dog Valley. Buddhist Church of America directed from Topaz. Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) headquarters moved to Utah, including Pacific Citizen newspaper

1943: JACL opens Credit Union, still located in Salt Lake City

1947: Wataru “Wat” Misaka breaks National Basketball Association color barrier

1948: Congress passes Evacuation Indemnity Claims Act

1949: Establishment of Jordan Japanese Peace Garden

1950: Utah census counts 1,183 ethnic Japanese

1954: Provo beauty salon owner Mary Kawakami selected as “One of World’s Ten Best” in Hollywood

1958: Salt Lake City and Japan’s Matsumoto City become sister cities

1967: Salt Lake City officials raze "Japan Town" to build Salt Palace Convention Center

1985: Judge Raymond Uno becomes first minority to sit on Utah’s Third Judicial District Court

1988: President Ronald Reagan signs Civil Liberties Act granting each surviving World War II inmate $20,000

1989: Congress appropriates funds for 1988 Civil Liberties Act; payments begin

2005: Utah census counts approximately 48,000 Asians, including over 10,000 of Japanese descent


* Nancy Taniguchi is one of the panelists in a presentation titled, "Enduring Communities: An Overview of Japanese Americans in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah" at the Enduring Communities National Conference on July 3-6, 2008 in Denver, CO. Enduring Communities is a project of the Japanese American National Museum. -ed.

© 2008 Nancy J. Taniguchi

About this series

Enduring Communities: The Japanese American Experience in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah is an ambitious three-year project dedicated to re-examining an often-neglected chapter in U.S. history and connecting it with current issues of today. These articles stem from that project and detail the Japanese American experiences from different perspectives.