Japanese Americans on the West Side

Salt Lake West Side Stories: Post Twenty-Seven
By Brad Westwood and Cassandra Clark

During the late nineteenth century, Japanese American immigrants arrived in Utah seeking employment opportunities. Initially, many worked for railroad companies that previously employed Chinese immigrants. Many Japanese Americans made their mark by opening businesses, worshiping in their temples and churches, and participating in Utah’s civic life.

Japanese migrants, like Irish, Chinese, and Italians, were willing to accept low-paying, hard work and dangerous occupations that most whites frequently refused to do. During the Progressive Era, farmers across the country embraced efforts to mechanize their farming processes, which resulted in a need for more manual labor. Farmers in Idaho and Utah not only expanded the number of acres with their new machinery, they also filled the demand for labor by hiring Japanese immigrants, who were also talented agriculturists and were willing to work long hours for low wages.

Japanese Americans were full participants in Utah’s economic, social, and political culture. One way that they left a lasting imprint in Utah was through business ownership. In 1887, the Salt Lake City Directory listed three Japanese business owners who sold goods and wares on Commercial Street located adjacent to Plum Alley. Japanese immigrants also contributed to Utah’s early twentieth century economy by taking hundreds of jobs in Utah’s expanding industries. For example, during the 1890s, Japanese labor agent Edward Hashimoto, negotiated with Utah business owners to fill open positions with Japanese men. In 1902, Edward Daigoro, a relative to Hashimoto, started the E. D. Hashimoto Company with offices at 163 West South Temple Street in Salt Lake City. Later the Hashimoto Company opened a second office in San Francisco. In all, these labor agents increased the number of Japanese immigrants in Utah.

Japanese pioneers also worked on the railroad and in Utah’s mining industry. The E. D. Hashimoto Company negotiated contracts between Japanese Americans and the Western Pacific and Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad companies. Between 1908 and 1910, Japanese Americans were the primary labor force that built the Bingham & Garfield Railroad. Labor agents brought in hundreds of Japanese to work in the Bingham Canyon Mine (later Kennecott Copper). During the early twentieth century, Japanese American Utahns along with Greek and Italian Americans, went on strike to demand better working conditions and more pay. In 1912, the Bingham Mine administrators recruited Mexican Americans living in New Mexico and Arizona as strikebreakers. Mine and other business leaders, with the support of the state government, allowed the company to shut down the strike by hiring out-of-state Latino laborers. Mine administrators also blackballed the same Japanese, Italian, and Greek Americans, by preventing them from finding work in other mines across the state.

A funeral gathering in front of the Japanese Buddhist Temple, between 200 and 300 West on 100 South, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 21, 1949, Shipler Commercial Photography. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Religious life was one of the key factors in keeping Japanese immigrants in Utah. In 1901, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (hereafter LDS Church) sent missionaries to Japan. As a result, newly baptized converts began immigrating to Utah. In turn, Japanese members answered the LDS Church’s call to grow or process sugar beets to add to the church’s already prosperous sugar beet enterprise, the Utah & Idaho Sugar Company. By 1910, Salt Lake City employed a vast number of Japanese immigrants who settled in the state because of their religious beliefs or desires for employment opportunities.

Utah’s Japanese Americans were also members of other religious communities. For instance, many attended Salt Lake City’s Buddhist Temple, while others joined the Japanese Church of Christ established in 1918 on the west side. The former church’s Gothic style chapel, built in 1924, was located on 135 South and 100 West. Today this church, and the adjacent Buddhist Temple, continue to serve this historical congregation.

In Utah, most Japanese Americans lived in what became known as Japan Town and/or Little Tokyo, which was located between North Temple and 200 South and Main Street and 400 West. The Salt Lake City Japanese American community was, until the 1960s, located between the railroad stations. To Utah’s Japanese community this area was “Nihonmachi or “Japan Street.” On any given day, people living in Japan Town could interact with those who resided or worked in Little Italy, Greek Town, Little Syria and other micro-communities which also flourished on the west side.

Japan Town consisted of a number of businesses and developments that served not only its residents but the extended Intermountain West’s Japanese American populations (across Utah, southern Idaho, eastern Nevada and southwest Wyoming). Businesses included Japanese boarding houses and hotels, a community bathhouse (in the vicinity of 100 South 200 West), pharmacies, a tofu bean cake factory, car mechanics and repair shops, barber shops, bakeries, cafes, noodle houses, fish markets, grocery stores, restaurants, and private dwellings (often above businesses, in alleyway apartment blocks and in extant pioneer adobe houses).

By 1910, over 800 people lived in Japan Town. In addition to these businesses, the newspaper Utah Nippo served Salt Lake City’s and the Intermountain West’s Japanese American communities from 1914 to 1990. Japan Town, like other immigrant micro-communities, offered inhabitants a place to conduct business and enjoy social interactions. For many Japanese Americans it was a regional hub, a place they could feel at home, safe, and at peace.

America’s involvement in World War II affected the United States’ Japanese American population in several ways. After the bombing of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that called for the forced relocation of Japanese American citizens to internment camps, placed strategically across the American West. Utah’s internment camp, named the Topaz War Relocation Center, was located in the desert sixteen miles from Delta, some 130 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The majority of the interred residents came from the San Francisco Bay area. Many Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens lived out most of the war behind Topaz’s barbed wire fences.

During World War II, the National Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) relocated its main office to Salt Lake City. The JACL advised Japanese Americans to comply with the internment rather than question the constitutionality of the order. JACL’s position regarding internment remained controversial throughout the war. While detention was a brutal system for forcibly detained Japanese Americans, Salt Lake City’s Japan Town remained a relatively out of the way place for the region’s Japanese Americans, who tried to continue their lives and businesses there. Residents remember being threatened and were constantly discriminated against; however, what they encountered was nothing like the Japanese Americans incarcerated in Utah’s Topaz War Relocation Center.

After World War II, Japanese Americans left the internment camps, many returned to the areas they once lived in, all struggled to find jobs and new homes. Most faced some form of discrimination in the ensuing years, including instances of vandalism of property, violence, and even the defacement of graves by those who continued to hold anti-Japanese sentiments. Despite the severe discrimination, many rebuilt their lives and re-established themselves in communities across the United States.

Despite the severe discrimination that Japanese Americans faced, many rebuilt their lives and re-established themselves in communities across the United States.

The year 2020 marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II. It is also the anniversary of the closure and dismantling of Utah’s Topaz War Relocation Center. The ten internment camps were born out of fear and unbridled ethnic discrimination. In 1983, a U.S. Government commission concluded this incarceration happened as a result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership.” More than 40 years after the last camp closed, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, and President George H.W. Bush issued a formal apology and monetary compensation to all living survivors (see Pres. Bush’s October 1990 letter to detainee survivors). While internment is a negative chapter in the nation’s history, we can now understand that this action had racist roots, and was clearly unconstitutional, and created many harmful short- and long-term consequences.

The Salt Lake City bowling team attending the Japanese American Citizen League (JACL) Holiday Bowl Bowling Tournament, Los Angeles, California, 1959, photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society.

Salt Lake City’s Japan Town continued to serve Japanese Americans after the war.  However, many Salt Lake City citizens viewed Japan Town as “blighted” in the city’s center blocks. In 1966, the city secured federal grants and loans to redevelop the area. With this funding, the city condemned and purchased two, and then three, blocks of Japan Town to build the Salt Palace Convention Center. While Salt Lake City managed to tear down and replace most of Japan Town, other construction campaigns were not so successful. For instance, Utah’s 1776–1976 Bicentennial Commission hoped to build a grassy two block long mall, like the malls in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, directly south of the Salt Palace. This included where the Church of Christ and Buddhist Temple are located. Utah’s Japanese Americans, along with other parties, successfully halted this project. 

Parts of Japan Town remain part of Salt Lake City’s contemporary urban landscape. Today, the Church of Christ and the Buddhist temple share a parking lot near a small Japanese memorial garden. The garden was designed by the city and the county in remembrance of Japan Town. Today, developers, aided by the state legislature and the city’s redevelopment agency, are in the middle of building a 6.75 acre residential, commercial, and parking development that will box-in what little remains of Japan Town. While urban development has almost completely replaced Japan Town, Salt Lake City’s Japanese American citizens have settled across Salt Lake Valley, and Utah more broadly, and remain a vital part of the state’s contemporary life. 

Join us for our next two posts of Salt Lake West Side Stories where we will explore the history of Utah’s Latinos/as who called the west side their home. 

Would you like to read the next post (Post 28)? Latinos/as and the West Side: Part One

Click here to return to the complete list of posts.

Related Activities: Browse the J. Willard Marriott Library’s Digital Collections that preserves the history of Japanese Americans in Utah. The digital archive, which honors Mitsugi M. Kasai, is committed to preserving the Japanese American experience in Utah and the Intermountain West.

Walk around what remains of Salt Lake City’s Japan Town and linger in the small memorial gardens located between 100 and 200 West and 100 South.

Examine the Salt Lake City Department of City & Metropolitan Planning’s digital poster on Japan Town entitled “Japanese People of Utah & Japan Town in Salt Lake City.”

Read this blog post regarding the April 22, 2022, reception for the Utah State Capitol exhibit “Topaz Stories,” entitled “Topaz Stories: Voices Rise from the Dust” by Wendy Ogata, then take a field trip to the Topaz Museum located at 955 West Main, in Delta, Utah. To learn more, go to the Topaz Museum’s website.

Learn more about the first person of color Wat Misaka, who was drafted by the NBA (National Basketball Association), see New York Daily NewsUtah Blitz Kids: NCAA’s original Cinderella story.

Contributors: A special thanks to Dr. Haruko Moriyasu and Lorraine M. Crouse for contributing to the content of this post.

This post was researched and written by Brad Westwood and Dr. Cassandra Clark, with a whole lot of help from friends. Thanks to our sound engineer and recording engineer Jason T. Powers, and to his supervisor Lisa Nelson, both at the Utah State Library’s Reading for the Blind program. Thanks also to yours truly, David Toranto, for narrating this post.

Selected Readings:

Leonard J. Arrington, Beet Sugar in the West; a History of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1891–1966 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966).

Did You Know? Everything About JA History in Utah, March 22, 2019,” Pacific Citizen.

“Executive Order 9066: Resulting in the Relocation of Japanese (1942),” https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=74

Sarah Fassmann, “‘Super Salesmen’ for the Toughest Sales Job: The Utah Nippo, Salt Lake City’s Japanese Americans, and Proving Group Loyalty, 1941-1946,” (Master’s Thesis, Utah State University, 2012).

Joel S. Franks, Asian American Basketball: A Century of Sports, Community and Culture (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2016), 152-154, 177-178.

Matthew C. Godfrey, Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907–1921 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2007).

David J. O’Brian and Stephen S. Fugita, Japanese American Experience (Bloomingdale: Indiana University Press, 1991), 36. 

Alice Kasai and Helen Papanikolas, “Japanese Life in Utah,” The People of Utah, Helen Z. Papanikolas, ed., (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1976), 353-362.

Salt Lake City Directories, 1885-1886.

Paul R. Spickard, “The Nisei Assume Power: The Japanese Citizens League, 1941-1942.” Pacific Historical Review 52, no. 2 (1983): 147-74.

Nancy J. Taniguchi, “Japanese Community,” in Missing Stories: An Oral History of Ethnic and Minority Groups in Utah, Leslie G. Kelen and Eileen Hallet Stone, Eds., (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2002), 309-367.

US Congress, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, Committee on Immigration, Document No. 633; Japanese and Other Immigrant Races in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain States: Japanese and East Indians; U.S. Government Printing Office, 1911 – Foreign workers, 95, 313-15.

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