I think it would be almost impossible to overstate Sister Okazaki’s impact on the Relief Society and the Church; there’s far more to say than we could say in a single post. This one is a guest post from my uncle, Bruce Haglund, who served as a missionary in Osaka under the Okazakis and enjoyed the gift of their lifelong friendship.
In paying tribute to “Chieko-mom,” as she signed her correspondence to me, I acknowledge that this kind of recognition is something she never would have sought – she sought only to be a devoted wife and mother, a doting grandmother, and a diligent disciple of Christ in all dimensions of her exemplary life.
Chieko’s quest to “search diligently in the light of Christ” and to “lay hold upon every good thing,” as the prophet Mormon exhorted us to do, started on the big island of Hawaii where she was raised a Buddhist by earnest, honest, hard working, Japanese parents. Introduced to Mormon missionaries as a teenager, Chieko embraced the Gospel. I think she knew intuitively that the values of her parents and her heritage would resonate with her new faith.
One of the most cherished Japanese values is perseverance, which Chieko personified in overcoming life’s hardships. Getting an education was one early challenge she navigated successfully, leaving home for high school at age 15 and somehow finding a way to pay for tuition, books, and board at the University of Hawaii where she earned a bachelor’s degree.
On campus, Chieko caught the attention of Ed Okazaki, recently returned from the European theater of World War II as a decorated member of the Fighting 442 Regiment of the Army, a unit comprised of second-generation Japanese-Americans and the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Their slogan, “Go for Broke,” symbolized their all out dedication to prove their patriotism to their country, and they became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.
As they dated, Ed learned that Chieko was serious about her faith, so he began the same investigation of the Mormon Church that she had made a few years earlier with the same result. He went for broke, won Chieko’s heart, they soon married, and Ed joined the Church. Rather than follow a traditional Japanese or American model for married life, their equal partnership was decades ahead of the time.
Growing up in Hawaii, they adopted the best of the Aloha spirit, fused that with the Japanese values learned in their homes, and overlaid that unusual combination of cultures with their love of the Lord and search for truth wherever it could be found. They both chose careers in which they could make a contribution to the improvement of individual lives. Ed chose social work; Chieko chose elementary education.
To advance Ed’s education, they agreed that he should pursue a master’s degree in social work at the University of Utah. Housing was difficult to find in Salt Lake City where, inexcusably, discrimination was real for this handsome, young couple. A place to live was finally located when one of my great aunts opened her home to them.
Discrimination is typically a product of ignorance about other people. As Chieko educated the children at Uintah Elementary, she also succeeded in teaching their parents that a Japanese-American teacher from Hawaii was one of the best things that ever happened to their children. The results were the same in Denver schools, where they later moved so Ed could advance his career.
From Denver they were called in 1968 to preside over the new Japan-Okinawa mission with headquarters in Kobe, where I first met them in 1970. When presiding over mission leadership councils Ed included Chieko in the meetings as his equal partner, which initially required some training of the Japanese Saints to help them understand the Celestial order of gender roles. As with her experience at Uintah Elementary, it didn’t take long for the Japanese priesthood leaders to recognize that Chieko was one of the best things that happened to the Church in western Japan. Her talks were as captivating then in Japanese as the worldwide Church would later learn they were in English.
As a result of their energetic, creative, and loving leadership, the Church was brought out of obscurity in Japan. As just one example, at the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, in six months over six million Japanese people were introduced to the Church through a new version of the film “Man’s Search for Happiness” in traditional Japanese settings with a Japanese cast – a film for which the Okazakis deserved credit as executive producers in pulling off what others said was impossible. Their devotion to their missionaries resulted in unmatched esprit d’ corps as we too learned to combine the Japanese work ethic with the spirit of Aloha and to love each other as the Okazakis loved us.
Twenty years after my mission, Chieko and Ed came to our stake for a Relief Society conference. While Chieko dazzled the women, Ed came home with me. When I asked what he would like to do, he said he’d be happy just playing with our young children. He spent the next two hours on the floor of our living room with five children climbing all over him, as naturally as if our kids were his own grandchildren. The following day they spoke in our Sacrament meeting. Chieko shared with our ward a 1971 entry in her journal about a testimony I shared in a meeting in Osaka. Ed said that he felt a father’s pride as he watched me with my family and as I conducted the Sacrament meeting as the ward’s bishop. Whenever we were in Denver and then later Salt Lake City, a stop at the Okazakis for a visit was on list of things to do. Our children loved the Okazakis as much as we did, especially enjoying Ed’s hand-dipped chocolate fortune cookies guests always received.
On the Friday before the sesquicentennial Relief Society broadcast in March 1992, I sent a fax to Chieko at the Relief Society offices that simply said, “Break a leg!” in anticipation of her talk the next day. Following her talk, Ed had a heart attack and passed away a few days after. The day of his funeral, Chieko, Elaine Jack, and I were walking together in the parking lot. Sister Jack, who had seen my fax to Chieko the day it arrived asked, “What did that fax mean?” Chieko squeezed my hand and said, “It means ‘I love you!’”
Mormon wrote, “charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” I felt that pure love the first time I met her. On our first day of missionary orientation in October 1970 in Kobe a photograph was taken of each new missionary standing in between President and Sister Okazaki, to be sent to our families as proof that we had arrived safely in that faraway land and were in good hands. President Okazaki put his arm around my shoulder. Chieko coaxed my arm around her waist, wrapped her arm around my waist, and then pulled me close. It’s been so ever since…for me and countless others.
The Japanese honor people of merit in their culture by designating them “Living National Treasures.” We certainly had a treasure in Chieko Okazaki. Thanks to Ed, Ken, and Bob for sharing her with all of us. Aloha ‘oe, Chieko-mom!