Samurai visiting Salt Lake in 1872 launched interactions between Japanese and Mormons

Published: Sunday, July 13 2014 12:41 p.m. MDT

Updated: Sunday, July 13 2014 12:41 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY - There is a little-known episode from early Utah history that has an important message for today.

Almost a quarter-century after the pioneers settled in Utah, Salt Lake City received an unexpected visit from 102 of Japan’s leading government officials. On Feb. 3, 1872, Price Iwakura Tomomi and the bulk of the group that had effected the Meiji Restoration stepped off a train in Odgen. Traveling on the new transcontinental railroad from San Francisco to Washington, the leaders had originally intended to bypass Salt Lake City. Kume Kunitake, the official journal-keeper for the group, wrote: “Because of the great snowfall in the Rocky Mountains, the rail lines are buried in snow. The railroad company sent several thousand men to clear it, but it is still not clear. We took the Utah Central Railroad to Salt Lake City.”

In 1868, this elite group of samurai who would come to Salt Lake had overthrown the Tokugawa Shogunate that endeavored to keep Japan isolated from the West. Restoring the political supremacy of the emperor, these Meiji Restorationists abolished their own samurai status group. They sought to transform Japan into a major industrial, military and modern nation-state. Leaving Japan in the hands of a caretaker government, the Iwakura Mission traveled to America and Europe to gather information about Western modernization, and to renegotiate unequal treaties with Western powers.

“They wanted to learn everything they could from the West,” said Aaron Skabelund, a professor of Japanese history at BYU. “They believed in an Eastern or Japanese ethic, but in Western technology.”

Prince Iwakura — cousin of the emperor and regarded as the effective leader of Japan — stated at the outset: “Our mission being one of investigation, we shall inspect with pleasure your manufacturers and machinery, your colleges and schools, and your system of justice, as these are to become the guide of our nation in the future.”

In Salt Lake, the events of the Iwakura Mission were widely documented in the pages of the city’s three newspapers: Deseret News, the Salt Lake Tribune and the Daily Herald. The Japanese met repeatedly with Utah’s political and church leaders, from Brigham Young and Salt Lake City Mayor Daniel Wells to Deseret News business manager Angus Cannon (who formed a close friendship with Ito Hirobumi, later a prime minister of Japan) and Lorenzo Snow, then president of the Council of the Territorial Legislature.

In a speech on Feb. 16, 1872, Snow reciprocated Prince Iwakura: “We would ask at your hands some lessons in civil polity, in jurisprudence, in the art of science of government that we may be enabled to perpetuate principles conductive to the best interests of humanity on this vast continent.”

But the story of the Iwakura Mission and its interaction with the Mormons doesn’t end when the Japanese left Salt Lake City on Feb. 22, 1872. As the Meiji leaders returned to Japan and implemented sweeping liberalizations, they also considered the safety of Hokkaido, the northern-most and least densely populated of the four major Japanese islands. With imperial Russia increasingly active, the Japanese wanted a more tangible buffer.

These leaders considered a rather audacious plan to re-settle the Mormons on the island of Hokkaido.

In Utah, the territorial government faced increased persecution at the hands of federal officials in Washington and from the federal judges appointed for the territory. That might have leant interest in the re-settlement proposal, spelled out in a confidential 1875 memorandum to the Japanese Home Office by the French-American diplomat Charles LeGendre. Working in the employ of the Japanese government, LeGendre’s thinking closely aligned with the Western-focused Meiji.

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