As the Churchâ€™s membership has become predominantly non-American and non-English speaking, the question of how to construct a Mormon ethnic identity within the wide variety of existing cultures worldwide has become a present concern for millions of Latter-day Saints. What of my old life as a non-Mormon in my native land should I carry over into my new life as a Latter-day Saint? What is inconsistent with my new life?
Of course, this is not saying that being all aspects of the American lifestyle are compatible with being LDS, but the points of conflict (e.g. the Word of Wisdom) are the subject of many of the sermons and lessons we receive in the normal course of our Church experience.
Others are better qualified to address this cultural issue in a broad perspective. I will offer my narrow slice. I served my mission in Japan (1969-1971). I was also born there, have a Japanese mother, and worked there three years with the US Air Force.
When I was growing up in Salt Lake, for several years my family attended the Dai Ichi (“First”) Branch, now a ward, which served first generation (Issei) Japanese immigrant converts as well as college students and families like my own of mixed parentage. A lot of returned missionaries have gone there for various lengths of time because they specifically like the cultural mix, where the pot luck food includes sushi along with the funeral potatoes. I still visit there occasionally when I am in town.
There are similar “ethnic” wards and branches in Salt Lake as well as places like San Francisco and Los Angeles (Quentin Cook’s stake in San Francisco had Tongan and Samoan wards). A big part of the ethnic bond is speaking a language other than English.
The Dai Ichi Ward has translation for sacrament meeting speakers (usually from English into Japanese), and a Gospel Doctrine class in Japanese, and therefore taught by Japanese members. That is one place where the cultural discourse comes through, as the teacher uses Japanese historical similes to get across the message, e.g. Mount Fuji subs for Timpanogos.
Japanese culture seems very westernized from a distance, but there are aspects of it that are hostile to living the gospel. The attitude toward sexual morality is very different; working in a revealing costume in Japan is not a moral infraction, but a “low class” thing that is done mainly by people who are too poor to avoid the indignity of it.
Japanese have historically treated Saturday as a work and school day, so Sunday is the only day in which one has the time to engage in an avocation with others, especially because travel involves hours that prevent more than one activity in a day. These Japanese avocations or “shumi” are taken much more seriously than “hobbies”. They are sources of individual identity (an auxiliary group, characteristically Japanese, rather than an individual activity). To illustrate: When I was at Strategic Air Command Headquarters in Omaha, I was asked to help translate for a visit by the Chief of Staff of the Japanese Air Self Defense Force. During lunch I joked that, while SAC’s motto was “Peace is Our Profession”, referring to the deterrence of nuclear conflict, I said that the corollary of that motto was, “War is our Hobby.” He gravely nodded his head. He would expect us to be using our free time to perfect the skills of war. The Church in Japan has to take on the social and emotional functions of the shumi for members to stay active.
Another serious conflict between Japanese culture and the gospel lifestyle is higher education. Japan does not have one or two national admission tests like the ACT and SAT. Every university has its own exam, which is given just once a year, and the best schools (which often include scholarships) have the toughest exams. One’s opportunities in life are largely determined by one’s diploma and the associations one acquires at college. Japanese students feel they have to devote ALL their free time to preparing for the exam, and if they fail they just start over. The five to seven hours it takes to attend church on Sunday (even with the 3 hour block, plus travel time and activities like home teaching and youth meetings and any callings) is seen as a conflict with this plan, especially if your parents are not church members, but sometimes even if they are.
Once you pass the college entrance exam, if you want to interrupt your education for two years to serve a mission, you have to either pay full tuition for the time away to hold your slot, or recompete to reenter (like the US military academies used to do, and West Point still does, with those who went on missions). BYU-Hawaii has been given the assignment to serve as an alternative means for college education for members in Japan. Besides flexibility, its tuition can actually be less than many Japanese universities, and acquiring fluency in written and (more rare in Japan) spoken English (including missionary service with Americans and sometimes outside Japan), and a degree from a US university, can sometimes have added cachet. It also helps to build relationships that fulfill the function of those in typical colleges, both in Japan and with other LDS around the Pacific Rim.
I remember going to a local matsuri (festival) held at a local Shinto shrine, the proceeds of which support the priests through the year, and seeing local LDS clapping their hands in “prayer” for good fortune before tossing in some coins to the donation box. The picture came to mind of how we Americans may wish on a star, or make a wish before blowing out birthday candles, or make a wish before pulling apart the turkey wishbone, or make a wish when we throw a coin in a fountain or a well. There are a lot of cultural artifacts that really have no eternal significance in the gospel. As long as we don’t take them or ourselves too seriously, I don’t see the harm in many of them, as long as we don’t fall into the syncretism that has some Japanese who think they can be Christian as well as Buddhist and Shinto (most Japanese are both of the latter, with marriage in Shinto and funerals in Buddhism).
In Salt Lake every summer there is a Bon Odori, a big circle dance for the Japanese community that involves wearing traditional clothes and dancing in a circle to folk music and drums. The origin of the festival is a Buddhist “Day of the Dead” celebration, with similarities to the Mexican festival, with the goal of remembering and honoring the dead, and, in the original Buddhist practice, making offerings to relieve the suffering of dead parents and ancestors in the afterlife. Though organized by the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple, it draws in other varieties of Buddhists, Japanese Presbyterians, and Japanese Mormons. There are all the festival aspects, including ethnic foods and fish ponds for kids, sale of trinkets, a couple of lectures in front of the Buddhist altar by the Reverend, and performances by the Ogden Buddhist Temple Taiko drummers (those big drums that show that Japanese have rhythm). It is not a religious festival for most of us, but it does hark back (as so many things do in our inherited culture) to concepts like the “round dance” that Hugh Nibley talks about as an apparent descendant of the prayer circle in First Century Christianity, and the Temple worship patterns of myriad cultures that seem to have common points, such as the circular walk around the Kaaba at the Haj and the circular path of ascent up the artificial mountain at Borobodur, which is echoed in the spiral ascent through the Salt Lake Temple during the Endowment.
So perhaps one of the ways to weigh the cultural interface of the Church with various cultures is to identify those aspects that may be echoes of the full gospel which Mormons, almost alone in Christianity, believe was taught to Adam, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. Any LDS missionary to Japan has heard about such intimations in aspects of Shinto, such as the three treasures that represent the legacy of the Imperial House, which literally runs back to the time of Moroni, which are the sword, the mirror, and the jewel, which have a suspicious parity to the sacred items which the Nephites passed on to denote kingship, and which were buried with the Book of Mormon plates. The warrior culture of Japan, and the vestiges of feudalism that infest all of Japanese cultural inheritance, have points of correlation with the prophet warriors of the Book of Mormon.
As someone 58 years old, I have witnessed repeated efforts by the Church to simplify its program so there is a core that can be more easily translated into other, new cultures, and operate in areas where all ward members are not a 5 minute walk from their meetinghouse. Thus, the block meeting schedule, the Liahona magazine, the centralization of finances that prevents rich wards from creating an expectation of ward youth excursions to Disney World, and the leveling of missionary costs around the world. The planting of temples worldwide democratizes temple worship, and is a point of local and national pride (of the good kind) for Mormons in each nation. The numerous missionary training centers allow the Church to draw on cultural resources and local experience for teaching each missionary.
The 13th Article of Faith is a call to us to be constantly weighing the culture around us and embracing what is good, and therefore leads to Christ. It is an explicit call to build a culture that is symbiotic with the gospel. That is one of the great functions of the BYU system, where the best of every culture can be preserved (think of the Polynesian Cultural Center) and transmitted, not just to members from that culture sphere but also to all other Mormons, so we all appreciate the many different ways in which one can be a good Latter-day Saint. The MTCs and language training, and the experience of missionaries living and teaching the gospel in cultures far different from their own, builds cross-cultural knowledge that breaks down barriers of misunderstanding and is growing a Mormon culture that is international in scope, with common touchstones and appreciation for what is necessary, what is hostile, and what is compatible with the gospel.
Even what looks like “white bread” Mormonism in a place like Idaho Falls is, on closer inspection, full of people like John Groberg, missionary to Tonga and Mongolia; parents whose sons serve in Russia, Latin America, Australia, Africa, and Britain; children adopted from Russia and from black communities in the east; and people like myself. Mormons from Mongolia and Kenya have proselyted in our ward, and members from Japan have attended BYU-Idaho and married local Mormons. One member of our ward is Elder Lynn Mickelson, a native of Idaho Falls and fluent Spanish speaker (he was involved in the translation of the LDS Spanish language Bible) who spends most of his time as Area President for Mexico, a true international Mormon.
Mormon culture is a growing thing. It is becoming international, and reaching back in history, as we try to match the scope of the gospel itself. The mission of the Church is driving cultural encounters at a far faster rate than any one of us would likely seek them on our own. Bringing the best parts of these diverse cultures into Mormondom is part of achieving the unity that is one of the defining attributes of Zion.