Drew Clark: Samurai visiting Salt Lake in 1872 launched interactions between Japanese and Mormons
“Neither the Mormon ‘argument with the federal government’ nor the prejudice against the Mormons in the United States, [LeGendre] concluded, should predispose the Japanese government to view them with alarm or hostility,” wrote University of Utah scholar Sandra T. Caruthers in a 1969 journal article about the proposal.
Such a move would be a win-win for the Mormons and Japanese. Citing the economic achievements of Utah from the 1870 Census, LeGendre wrote, “If men of such energy, perseverance, and skill as the Mormons could be induced to seek upon the hospitable shores of Japan that ‘New Jerusalem’ which for so many years they have in vain been looking for the United States, my conviction is strong that they would not fail to confer great benefits upon this new country of their adoption.”
Japan would benefit, too, in blocking potential Russian expansion. Mormon re-settlement would “raise Japan’s standing so that an alliance with Russia can be effected. It will also improve Japan’s position vis-à-vis her greatest ultimate threat, England,” he wrote.
Ultimately, however, the Meiji made no offer to re-settle Mormons on Hokkaido. If they had offered, it would likely have been rejected by Brigham Young.
Utahns considered leaving on several occasions since 1847. California beckoned during the harsh winter of 1848-49. Some proposed that the Saints move to Vancouver Island, in the jurisdiction of Great Britain just north of the U.S. border.
Young sized up these proposals with skepticism. Responding to would-be California migrants in 1849, he said: “Here is the place God has appointed for His people. We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay. God has shown me that this is the spot to locate His people, and here is where they will prosper; He will temper the elements for the good of His Saints; He will rebuke the frost and the sterility of the soil, and the land shall become fruitful. Brethren, go to, now, and plant out your fruit seeds."
So what can be learned from a would-be proposal that might have had Mormons turning Japanese?
Conflict today is rarely resolved by in-migration or emigration. Physical distance no longer lends the protective barrier that it once seemed to provide. While a move to Hokkaido would have been dramatic, would it have been any less daunting than the pioneers’ journey into this dry Mexican desert? As commerce and information and ideas render national borders less significant, safety and peace among neighbors must be found not by erecting new walls, but by living civic and religious beliefs with integrity and with compassion.
Drew Clark is opinion editor of the Deseret News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.