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Discovering Utah history by preserving Japanese headstones

Posted at 3:16 PM, May 29, 2023

OGDEN, Utah — Thinking back on the experiences of those that came before her, former State Sen. Jani Iwamoto recalled the rich history of Japanese in Utah, while also remembering her family's roots in Ogden.

"My grandfather, who I never met, had the Marilyn Cafe; he had a restaurant there known for its oxtail stew. Then my other grandfather immigrated directly here and started a Buddhist temple in Ogden," Iwamoto said. "It means a lot to me to share these stories and share them with everybody because our stories are so important, and our past is so important and sharing these real American stories is important."

Stories like the experiences of some of the first Japanese to immigrate to Utah in the late 1800s.

"After the Chinese Exclusion Act, a lot of Japanese came to work on the railroad or they did farming, and mining also," Iwamoto explained

Mining down in Carbon County and working on the Transcontinental Railroad were popular jobs for new immigrants. While some Japanese came to Utah willingly to build a better life for themselves and their families, others were forcibly relocated in World War II.

"We had people that were incarcerated in Topaz or the Moab isolation, but a lot of them stayed here as well. So it's a rich history," said Iwamoto. "We had some things that happened that were difficult with the incarcerations in these camps with Japanese,"

As time moves further away from the building of the railroad and the suffering of those at Topaz, the stories of those who experienced it are at risk of being forgotten. That's where Amy Barry with the Utah State Historic Preservation Office comes in as she works to do headstone assessments and repairs in the Japanese section of the Ogden and Salt Lake cemeteries.

"We want to make sure that we don't lose those voices and that we don't lose the information that we have represented today in our cemeteries; that we capture the information on these headstones as they get older, the information kind of disappears depending on the material of these stones," Barry said.

Headstone inscriptions often share details of a person's life and story, but as time passes, they can start to fade away due to the material of the stone, natural wear and tear, and even vandalism. Inscriptions are also a way researchers can learn more about specific communities like Utah's Japanese community.

"We're collecting information on the state and the condition of the headstones," said Barry. "There's a wealth of information on these stones, but often they're going to be in Mandarin, Congee, Hangul, and we can't read them. We want to be able to work with the communities to translate those."

The current effort is also close to Iwamoto's heart and the hearts of hundreds of Japanese-Utahns.

Barry and Iwamoto say hearing stories from the past can be uncomfortable, but they're also our greatest teachers.

"We want to make sure we don't lose that information, and then we capture it in a cultural report and then it becomes part of a public record," Barry said

"The past is rich and it's uncomfortable, but we need that to move forward with real change," said Iwamoto.

The current project is just the first part of a plan to tell the stories of all Utahns through headstone assessment and repairs. Those who have an area of cemetery for which they'd like to see among Barry's published documentation can go to the Utah Division of State History.