Changing Racial Perceptions of the Japanese: LDS Rhetoric between 1901-1930 (Part II)

This is continued from my post on changing racial perceptions of the Chinese in LDS rhetoric at the turn of the 20th century.  Both sections here are adapted from research I conducted as a fellow during the Joseph Smith Seminar in 2007.

In 1890 there were only four documented “persons of Japanese ancestry” in the entire territory of Utah.[1] Contrasted with the Chinese, Utahns had no contact whatsoever with a significant Japanese population. Subsequently, the Japanese were easily romanticized, especially in light of the glowing reports from national newspapers about Japan’s westernization and generous trade agreements. After Admiral Perry’s opening of Japan in 1854, the United States quickly recognized that the Japanese were apparently an enlightened race to so willingly and expeditiously adopt principles of modernization into their nation. Soon, trade ambassadors from Tokyo were traveling to Washington, D.C. along the transcontinental railroad to further solidify political relations between both countries. Along the way, delegations stopped in Salt Lake City.[2] The Japanese politicians were dazzling to the Mormons. They wore fine western clothing, spoke English, and were obviously gentlemen.

The immigrant Chinese, on the other hand, seemed to stubbornly insist on keeping their braids, traditional clothing, and native language. As lower class, male laborers with few marriageable prospects, the Chinese also seemed dangerously out of place in their family un-friendly bachelors’ apartments. Opium dens, gambling, and even accusations of prostitution rings constantly reemphasized that the Chinese were obviously not the Japanese. Of course, this comparison was enormously flawed, pitting low-income immigrant communities against a handful of an educated elite. Yet, regardless of its bias, these first impressions pervaded LDS publications and entrenched a racial hierarchy.

Reverand Hata, pastor of the Church of Christ in Salt Lake City at the turn of the 20th Century (Courtesy Marriot Library Photo Archives)

By 1890, the Japanese were clearly distinguished in the Mormon mind from their Chinese, or “Mongolian,” neighbors. In 1893, The Contributor ran an article specifically discussing the many physical differences between the two and noted that “though the majority of [the Chinese and Japanese] have slanting eyes and all possess swarthy complexions, in no other trait is there a semblance.”[3] Furthermore, in contrast to the beggarly Chinese, traveling Mormon journalist G.H. Snell reported that the Japanese were more patient and uncomplaining than any people “beneath the sun.”[4] Modernization, westernization, free trade, and a political stability in Japan all promoted the Japanese while demoting the Chinese in an increasingly dogmatic hierarchy. Gradually a doctrinal explanation began to emerge within the Mormon conscience, described as “believing blood.”

“Believing blood” postulated that only those with direct biological lineage to the House of Israel retained the capacity to truly accept the gospel. In response to this idea, missionary efforts focused on Northern European countries, Canada, and the United States as areas where the “believing blood” was prevalent. The widespread success of missionary efforts in Hawaii and the South Pacific eventually qualified those areas as centers of “believing blood” as well, its presence explained through the oceanic migration of the Book of Mormon Israelites.[5] As Utahns increasingly distanced the Japanese from the pagan Chinese, theories of Book of Mormon bloodlines spread from the South Pacific and began to encompass parts of the Far East.

By 1901, the concept of “believing blood” in relation to the hierarchy of Asian races reached its zenith. After more than two decades developing prejudices against the Chinese and romanticizing the Japanese, the rhetoric moved from the newspapers and magazines and into the pulpit. At the April 1901 Conference, Ephraim H. Nye referred to a group of Chinese laborers in California and declared, “Why, if we could baptize [the] whole lot, they are not worth having.”[6] In contrast, on the day previous, the Deseret Evening News reported the planned opening of a mission to Japan, noting that “The Japanese are a wonderfully progressive people…Of the oriental races they are without doubt the most enterprising and intelligent…and when it comes to absorbing knowledge, they eclipse any people in the world today.”[7]

Four months later Elder Heber J. Grant and three other missionaries departed from Salt Lake City for Yokohama and their arrival, one of the accompanying missionaries, Alma O. Taylor, recorded his memories of the dedicatory prayer given by Grant. In it, he referred to the generally accepted belief “that the blood of Lehi and Nephi had been transmitted unto the people of this land, many of whom have the features and manners of the American Indians.”[8] Israel was in Asia. The optimism overflowed into the following year when Charles Penrose declared his whole-hearted belief “that the opening of the Japanese mission [would] prove the key to the entrance of the Gospel in the Orient.” According to his construct, the Japanese would serve as the “Jews” of Asia, with a glorious future of missionary work to their “Gentile” Chinese neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Japanese were not exactly shouting “Hosanna” and as baptisms remained in the single digits, the “descendents of Lehi” thesis rapidly dropped from the general Mormon conscience. By 1903, Heber J. Grant, original spokesman of the “Lehi-lineage” theology, reported dismal impressions of a money-obsessed, insincere Japanese people.[9] The rejection of “believing blood” theology continued through the decade. In 1905, another early missionary, Horace S. Ensign, conceded in General Conference that “the Japanese themselves are not of a spiritual nature” and Anthon H. Lund followed up in 1907 with the concession that “to convert such a people as the Japanese is, of course, a hard task.”[10] Granted, there were a few exceptions to the decline of the “believing blood” theory. Alma O. Taylor continued to insist through 1910 that the Blood of Israel was present in Japan and even David O. McKay included “scientific evidence” of Japanese descent from Polynesians in his 1921 world-tour diary.[11] However, they are the outliers and only a few years after the optimistic opening of the Japanese mission, the culturally developed theology of Asian “believing blood” and hierarchy had largely disappeared.

The downfall of the idealized Japanese race in a Mormon mentality cannot only be explained by low baptismal numbers in the mission, however. The mission was barely established when the concept of Japanese superiority in Asia already began to dwindle. By the time Ensign declared the Japanese an unspiritual people, the first missionaries were only just reaching spoken let alone written fluency in the language. The Book of Mormon was not even translated into Japanese until 1909, years after the demise of “believing blood.” Logically, then, the negative turn in racial rhetoric could not have been based solely off of mission statistics. The mission had not even truly begun. Considering this, why was Japanese superiority in LDS racial rhetoric eradicated so early?

The answer lay in changing cultural perceptions in Utah and the United States. Between 1890 and 1910, the number of Japanese in the United States rocketed from roughly 2,000 to nearly 72, 000.[12] In Utah specifically, the immigration boom peaked between 1900 and 1915, coinciding precisely with the disappearance of Asian hierarchy rhetoric favoring the Japanese over the immigrant Chinese.[13] After the Exclusion Act of 1882 and as Chinese numbers dwindled in the oncoming decades, Japanese laborers rose to fill the need for cheap labor, most arriving from the agricultural fields of Hawaii. As native Utahns came into contact with laboring Japanese, the glamour of the romanticized delegations from Tokyo was replaced with simply another immigrant “threat.” Telegraphed articles from newspapers around the country accused the Japanese of similar cultural transgressions accorded to the Chinese decades before. Terms like “Unhygienic,” “shack dwellers,” “clannish” and “unassimilable” (sic) provide just a taste of the praise reserved for the previously infallible Japanese.[14] What was worse, the Japanese acted like they wanted to settle! In 1907, Salt Lake City’s Japanese population began printing the Rocky Mountain Times, a tri-weekly publication, and seven years later added the Utah Nippon to its circulated publications. [15] The “yellow peril” was here to stay, and it made Utah nervous. In 1907, the Miscegenation statute was renewed in the Utah legislature with the word “Mongolian” understood now to mean both the Japanese and the Chinese.

By the mid-teens, the national and state-based cultural forces shaping Asian racial perceptions were firmly entrenched in the Mormon mind. Even the Japanese in Japan had forgotten their previous status as presumed descendents of Lehi and heirs of a “believing blood.” In an 1918 article in the Improvement Era, G. Inouye, a Japanese convert in Osaka, marveled that even he, “a Japanese,” could struggle for the favor of God.[16] And, in 1921, David O. McKay simply wrote his perceived cultural truth when he wrote in his Travel Journal that the “most reliable thing in Japan” was “failure to keep a promise.”[17] Three years later, the United States Federal Government passed the Japanese Exclusion Act, definitively equalizing the ostracized Chinese with the newer Japanese population as both equally Asian and both equally unequal to the Caucasian race.

Just as developments in racial concepts at the turn of the century necessitated theological explanation, the changes to these concepts demanded a similar solution. In 1901, the theological explanation proposed by Heber J. Grant was the extension of “believing blood” into the Far East. When that postulation failed, a new theology of race and lineage rose to explain changing cultural attitudes toward the Japanese and Chinese and to redefine precisely who the Asians were and where they fit into a Mormon world-view.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the Asian hierarchy was obsolete in the new cultural context of “yellow peril” America. Immigration tensions and federal and state law equalized the Japanese and the Chinese into an indistinguishable sameness of “Mongolian,” the race, as Mormon theology came to explain, descended from Noah’s son Japheth. The most straightforward explanation of the idea can be found in the Sunday School lessons of the Relief Society Magazine. In the lesson designated for the third week in December, 1919, the theology could not be more direct. “The Chinese [and] Japanese … are all descended from Japheth and they themselves declare this.”[18] The magazine then continues to rationally explain that the bloodlines of Japheth naturally turn toward paganism. “The sons of Japheth lost the true gospel and multiplied idols to themselves” because the ability to worship a more abstract God was impossible to these “underdeveloped intelligences.”[19] The Japheth theory explained away the Japanese mission’s perceived failure, the physical similarities between the Japanese and Chinese, and reaffirmed a racial inferiority. And though China was dedicated for missionary work in 1922, a mission was never established and in 1924 the church closed the mission home in Tokyo.

Of course, LDS racial constructs continued to change and develop beyond our period of study, particularly in the years leading up to and during World War II. But, I choose to end my analysis here to instead explore a few personal contemplations on what a historical analysis such as this implies for Mormonism in general. My paper analyzes how a wider culture eventually defined changing LDS racial theologies, and that is the crux of it all.
For Mormonism changes. It changes over time. It changes with culture. Every presentation given at this symposium attests to the fact. And perhaps here, in this august gathering of intellectuals, to point out the fact that “Mormonism changes” is simplistic bordering on the academically suicidal.

Yet, I feel it is a fact worth reexamining. In a church that constantly emphasizes its “fullness” (generally misinterpreted as “completeness” and “infallibility”), members who then confront Mormonism’s inconsistent past are dismayed and often disillusioned. As historians or theologians we may shrug at the statement “Mormonism changes,” but to many who equate alterations in religion to fallibility in doctrine, it is a fulcrum of faith. I posit, however, that these changes are evidence of a sublime good, for they imply a God’s trust in our divine human capacity to reason. Of course, this same good can be at times a potential weakness since in our mortality we are exactly that; mortal and imperfect.

Between 1880 and 1930, no scriptural or prophetic declarations explicitly described the place of Asians in an LDS world-view and so Mormonism relied on the American cultural milieu to construct explanations that, over time, became generally accepted theologies. As cultural perceptions changed, as they always do, the theologies shifted as well. These shifts therefore do not represent the fallibility of God, but rather the preeminent place human intelligence has in the fundamental foundations of Mormonism. Yes, there are mistakes. Yes, some of the attitudes expressed during this era may grate on our politically correct twenty-first century ears. Yes, Mormonism changes. Yet, I still glory in our rather human religion (as opposed to a divine gospel) for it allows us to make mistakes so we may learn from them. It entrusts us with the responsibility to improve. Perhaps, along with man, God has also entrusted Mormonism itself with a certain amount of agency to facilitate its own progression to a greater perfection.

It is our responsibility then to recognize the prospects we have in a religion so devoted to deifying humanity, but at the same time to be wary that this confidence in ourselves can potentially lead to misunderstanding and even mistakes. Basic gospel truths may remain constant, but Mormonism changes and it is nothing to be afraid of. Rather let us embrace the opportunity and encouragement we have in our religion to exercise our minds and then as described in the Doctrine and Covenants, ask God “if it be right,”[20] while all the time realizing that sometimes our theological castles made from a cultural sand are sometimes just that; castles in the sand.
________________________________________
[1] Elmer R. Smith, “The Japanese in Utah,” Utah Humanities Review 2 (April 1948), 133.
[2] Of particular note is the visit of Ito Hirobumi in 1870 who traveled from the Meiji court to study “American currency, politics, and business practices” as well as his return trip to the United States in 1872 with a larger delegation called the Iwakura Mission staying a total of nineteen days touring Northern Utah. More information can be found in Reid Nielson, The Japanese Missionary Journals of Elder Alma O. Taylor (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2001), 8-9.
[3] G. H. Snell, “Ramblings Around the World,” The Contributor 14:8 (June 1893), 369-370
[4] G. H. Snell, “Ramblings Around the World,” The Contributor 14:9 (July 1893), 418.
[5] Robert E. Parsons. “Hagoth and the Polynesians,” Alma: The Testimony of the Word compiled by Monte S. Nyman, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1992), 249-250. For a more in-depth sociological analysis of the concept of “believing blood,” though lacking in an analysis of Asian race specifically, refer to Armand L. Mauss, All Abraham’s Children (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 31-34.
[6] Ephraim H. Nye, Conference Report (April 1901), accessed through Gospelink.com, August 2, 2007.
[7] “Opening of a Mission in Japan,” Deseret Evening News, (April 6, 1901), 9.
[8] Alma O. Taylor, Missionary Journals (1 September 1901) reprinted and edited in Reid Nielson, The Missionary Journals of Alma O. Taylor (Provo, Utah: BYU Studies, 2001), 49.
[9] Heber J. Grant. Conference Report (April 1903). Accessed through Gospelink.com, August 2, 2007.
[10] Horace S. Ensign, Conference Report (October 1905). Anthon H. Lund, Conference Report (April 1907).
[11] Alma O. Taylor, “Japan, The Ideal Mission Field,” Improvement Era 13:9 (July 1910), 783. David O. McKay, “Section Two: World Tour Diary. McKay’s Summary of Japan (Good and Notably Negative)” Home Memories of President David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Co., 1956), 52.
[12] Helen Z. Papanikolas And Alice Kasai, “Japanese Life in Utah,” Peoples of Utah. Articles accessed on 25 July 2007, http://historytogo.utah.gov/people/ethnic_cultures/the_peoples_of_utah/japaneselifeinutah.html.
[13] Elmer R. Smith, “The Japanese in Utah” Utah Humanities Review 2 (1948), 131.
[14] Papanikolas and Kasai, “Japanese Life,” 2007.
[15] Ibid.
[16] G. Inouye, “Testimony of a Japanese Member of the Church” Improvement Era 11:9 (July 1918), 817.
[17] David O. McKay, “Section Two: World Tour Diary. McKay’s Summary of Japan (Good and Notably Negative),” Home Memories of President David O. McKay (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Co., 1956), 46.
[18] “Lesson Three: Genealogy,” Relief Society Magazine 6:12 (Dec 1919), 674.
[19] Mary Foster Gibbs, “Temples,” Relief Society Magazine 6:11 (November 1919), 624.
[20] Doctrine and Covenants 9:8.

  • Cynthia L.

    Again, excellent work.

  • Manuel

    Thank you for these posts. They were both incredibly educational.

    Mormonism has practiced quite a bit of theology by “trial and error,” and many theological ideas in Mormonism continue to evolve; therefore, I couldn’t agree more with your closing paragraph. Let’s all learn from these lessons.

  • Stirling Adams

    Hi, thanks for the post. Have you published elsewhere any of your research on this topic or on perceptions of the Chinese in Utah?


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