When snow delayed a Japanese delegation in Salt Lake City in February 1872, a bond was forged between the Church and the Asian island that had some influence on events in following years.
In honor of those bonds, a plaque was unveiled during the 2002 Olympics commemorating the visit and its significance. The plaque will soon be placed permanently on a wall of the Union Pacific Railway Station at 400 West South Temple near the place where the Japanese officials arrived.
Known as the Iwakura Mission headed by Sionii Tomomi Iwakura, Japan's deputy prime minister the 1872 delegation spent nearly three weeks in Utah in the midst of a worldwide journey of discovery. The island nation of Japan was going through a process of modernization at the time and was scouring the globe searching for methods to position itself among the most powerful nations. One of the government leaders in the group was Hirobumi Ito who later became instrumental in drafting the first constitution of Japan and was prime minister for many years, including in 1901 when LDS missionary work began there.
During the unscheduled extended stay in Salt Lake City, the Japanese government officials, students and others, numbering more than 100, became acquainted with the Church and some of its prominent leaders. President Brigham Young was visited by some of the mission members. Lorenzo Snow was the president of the Territorial Legislature, which was in session at the time and, as a host, was of particular interest to the Japanese because of his involvement in government.
It was President Snow who, in 1901, decided to send missionaries to Japan.
One of those original missionaries was Heber J. Grant. In April 1922 general conference, as the leader of the Church, President Grant shared the following recollection:
"I am reminded . . . that fifty years ago, February, 1872, a large delegation from Japan, headed by Prince Sionii Tomomi Iwakura, Marquis Ito, and other eminent Japanese officials, were snow-bound in our great city. We have here today a delegation from Japan, and we welcome them with another snow storm, which is rather unusual. The above embassy was detained here for about three weeks. The Territorial Legislature was in session at the time and they were extended many courtesies by the Mayor, City Council, the Territorial and military officials, and they visited this tabernacle and heard the great organ played upon by Elder Ridges, its builder. Here they had their first glimpse of the pioneer work accomplished by the people of Utah, and the great West in twenty-five years. They obtained statistics regarding the development and colonization of our beloved country, and studied its government in our city. It fell to my lot to have the honor of being called upon a mission to Japan and open the way there for the spread of the gospel, as believed in by the Latter-day Saints. I am very glad, indeed, upon this occasion, to welcome some of my friends from Japan."
Elder L. Edward Brown of the Seventy, a former president of the Asia North Area that includes Japan, participated in the ceremonies when the plaque was unveiled at the University of Utah on Feb. 10, 2002. Later, in a Church News interview, he said he was impressed with the account of the 1872 visit and the response of the Salt Lake hosts.
"They found, as we have since found through our own experience, that these representatives from Japan were highly cultured, and well mannered in every way. Typically, that is the conclusion of most people as they associate with people of Japan today."
He added: "From a Church point of view, the placing of this plaque at the entrance of the refurbished Union Pacific Station has long-term implications for good relationships for Utah and the Church with the country of Japan. It would be our impression that virtually every Japanese tour group that comes through Salt Lake City will visit that location and be informed as to this early visit by Japanese government officials, and particularly impressive will be the fact that both President Brigham Young and President Lorenzo Snow are depicted on the plaque."
Very little was known about the Iwakura Mission for more than a century. Dean Collinwood, who served a mission in Japan and is head of the U.S.-Japan Center in Utah, shared two reasons he believes caused the obscurity. First, the pride of the United States was shaken when its relatively new transcontinental railroad failed the international visitors due to bad weather. Second, the country was generally irked that the failure had left the Japanese stranded in Mormon-dominated Utah; negative feelings about the Church were pervasive in the U.S. at that time.
Because of those two things, Brother Collinwood said, the Japanese stop in Utah was mostly ignored in the national media, and what attention it did get was negative and forgettable.
Recently, details of the mission became available in English. Brother Collinwood, with assistance from Ryoichi Yamamoto and Kazue Matsui-Haag, translated from a journal compiled by Kunitake Kume the portion dealing with the Utah stop and published it in the book Samurais in Salt Lake.
Added to the book is an extensive background of 1872 Salt Lake gleaned from historical records.
Among the activities recorded in the book is a visit by the delegation to a Church meeting. It reports under the date Feb. 11: "At 2 p.m. we went to the Mormon Chapel to listen to the sermon. . . . Music started playing from the back of the hall, and all those sitting sang a hymn. A memorial prayer was said, and a preacher (Elder Orson Pratt) ascended the pulpit and preached a sermon. The sermon was given from a chapter of the New Testament wherein is explained that we are all brothers and sisters in this world. The outline of the service was similar to other Protestant church services, simple and pure."
The book records of Feb. 21, the day the delegation expected to leave Salt Lake: "Received telegraph in the morning that the permanent snow fields had melted in the Rocky Mountain basin, overflowed the rivers, covered the railway tracks, and destroyed them. So once again we postponed our departure. Due to the tremendous snowfall in the Rocky Mountains, we have been confined for seventeen days in this remote place of Salt Lake. There are no more places of interest for us to see here."
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