A centennial of gathering and worship: First Buddhist temple in Utah celebrates 100th birthday

Published: Friday, Sept. 14 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Congregation poses outside of the original Salt Lake Buddhist Temple in 1937, the primary gathering place for Japanese Americans. Chiyoko Terashima (second row, second from right) was about 22 years old and newly married at the time the photo was taken

Salt Lake Buddhist Temple

SALT LAKE CITY — Chiyoko Terashima's constant smile disappeared as she stared at the floor, contemplating what her long life would have been like without a local Buddhist temple.

The temple was where she worshipped, met her friends, danced, met her husband and married, brought her children for cultural and religious instruction, saw them married, attended funerals of her friends and family, and until last year helped organize the distinctive festivals and celebrations that attracted local Japanese Americans and others.

"Life would have been very lonesome because there would have been no place to meet everyone," said Terashima, who at 97 years is the oldest member of Utah's oldest Buddhist congregation, which celebrates its centennial on Saturday.

The Salt Lake temple, which sits in the shadow of the Salt Palace in what is left of old Japantown, has been the gathering place for generations of Japanese Americans here and largely the birthplace of Buddhism in Utah. Since the first Jodo Shinshu Buddhist congregation was organized 100 years ago, more than 20 Buddhist congregations practicing various forms of the Asian religion now exist in Utah, contributing to the state's increasingly diverse religious landscape.

"The significance of this centennial celebration is to let people in Utah know there has been a diverse religious community here for quite a long time," said Rev. Jerry Hirano, a native Utahn who now heads the Jodo Shinshu congregations in Utah. "People are usually surprised to hear that Buddhist temples have been here and in Ogden and Honeyville for 100 years."

Culture clash

The seeds of today's Buddhist community were planted by Japanese immigrants who came in large numbers to United States following federal restrictions on Chinese immigration in the late 1800s. Those who made their way to Utah were attracted by mining, railroad and agricultural jobs, and by the business opportunities that naturally sprang up to serve the growing Asian communities.

Sekizo and Masayo Terashima arrived from Hiroshima in 1912 and opened a noodle house for Japanese clientele who settled near Magna to work at Kennecott's Garfield smelter. That same year, a Buddhist minister was dispatched to Ogden from San Francisco to conduct a memorial service for deceased Japanese immigrants and organize the first Buddhist temple in Utah, according to two histories of the church in Utah.

Chiyoko, born in Magna, was 5 years old when her family moved to Salt Lake. The temple had relocated to the capital city, as well, and was just a few blocks from the West Side Hotel, which the Terashimas operated.

"I remember my father walking to the temple with his hammer to help with the repairs," Terashima recalls.

While other Buddhist branches operated in Ogden, Syracuse, Honeyville, Corrine and Carbon County, the temple in Salt Lake served as the hub of Japanese culture and the heart of the city's active Japantown. Across the street from the temple was Eagle Laundry, a reliable source of employment for newly arrived immigrants and those out of work, until they got on their feet financially.

Organizations for women and youth were set up through the temple. The temple sponsored baseball, bowling and basketball leagues, Boy Scout troops for boys and a Campfire Girls charter. A school was established where the second generation, or Nisei (pronounced NEE-say), could learn the Japanese language, history and culture.

While the Nisei respected their elders and the sacrifices they made to build the community, the younger set were Americans and embraced western culture, sparking occasional generational clashes.

"We wanted to have dances, but some of the elders objected to the close dancing," Terashima recalled.

The dispute was settled when the leaders acknowledged the youth were going to go dancing anyway at someplace in town, so they might as well support it and rent out halls for the dances.

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