Book Review-The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan 1901-1968

By August 3, 2017

Shinji Takagi, The Trek East: Mormonism Meets Japan, 1901-1968 (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2016)

Most Mormon history books fill the gaps within an overarching narrative that has already been told. Under rare and exciting circumstances, a few books take the chance to establish a broad narrative that provides a framework for future studies to debate, confirm, and clarify. The latter, in my opinion, is the case with The Trek East, winner of the Mormon History Association’s “Best Book on International Mormon History” award. Shinji Takagi, Professor Emeritus of Economics at Osaka University, presents an ambitious work that focuses on a “macro” and “analytical” approach to Mormonism’s historical presence in Japan from 1901 to 1968.

This is not a book from the ground up. Instead, it takes the Church’s institutional efforts as its measure of periodization. It begins with the first Japanese converts in Hawaii and the arrival of missionaries on Japanese soil in 1901. Japanese newspapers met these missionaries with ambivalent disdain and respect. As with other Mormon missions, these newspapers focused on debates over the continued practice of polygamy and whether Mormonism counted as a Christian sect. Japanese religion in the early decades of the twentieth century, as Takagi portrays it, was in a triangle of tension between populous forms of Buddhism, state-supported Shinto, and minority Christians. These three broad groups of religionists competed for proselytes, printed presence, and political power while an increasingly nationalist government dealt with a progressively modernized and pluralized Japan.

Mormon missionaries had trouble converting Japanese citizens despite a growing print culture. Mission tracts made their way into Japanese from English, and in 1909 Alma O. Taylor along with a host of Japanese editors translated the Book of Mormon into classical Japanese. Nevertheless, by 1924 the Church closed its Japanese Mission. Takagi argues that while previous historians have ascribed this closing to the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act which officially barred Japanese immigrants from entering America, other factors likely contributed to the mission’s closing. Events and trends like the Great Kanto Earthquake, lack of successful conversions, economic downturn, and lack of institutional planning helped close the Japanese Mission.

The closing of the mission left converts in Japan without institutional support. In the interwar period, the Mormon Church focused its efforts on Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and the American West. It was not until the aftermath of World War II that the Church would reenter Japan through the ambition of a few missionaries. Military chaplains, in particular, successfully proselytized during American occupation and prompted the involvement of church funds to send additional missionaries and establish a mission home. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Church purchased land and expanded the mission’s geographic scope, leading to increased rates of conversion and the beginnings of modern Mormonism in Japan.

Mormon Studies scholars might find this narrative of Mormonism in Japan formulaic. Its institutional focus lends itself to the commonplace way that Mormons talk about a variety of international histories of Mormonism:

“In such-and-such a year, the first missionaries went from America to Country X. After _ number of years, there were only _ converts. In _ the Book of Mormon was translated into ___. Through missionaries’ hard work and the inspiring dedication of a few valiant members, the Church expanded, despite problems with Cross-Cultural Conflict X, Language Problem Y, and Logistical Difficulty Z. Now in the 21st century, there are _ members in _ stakes and the closest temple is _.”[1]

The Trek East roughly follows this narrative format which places Salt Lake at its agentive center and Japan at its periphery. While Takagi is careful to include Japanese historical contexts in his narrative of Mormonism, these contexts only act as limiting factors for the institution’s collective agency. Japanese Mormon identity is missing from the narrative. Mormon Studies scholars might ask: how did a Japanese Mormon experience their religion?

The institutional focus also carries a conversion-centric consequence. The periodization of the narrative follows the Japanese Mission’s failures and successes, which means that it hinges on the quantity of converts per year. Takagi deals with conversion by employing rational choice theory which talks about conversion in terms of supply and demand, a topic which we’ve previously covered here. But, the impersonal nature of using supply and demand to analyze conversion misses human experience as one of the most crucial factors in religious conversion. For example, Takagi notes that most converts between 1901 and 1924 came from Japanese citizens who were already Christian. He argues that this predisposition permitted those who were already part-of-the-way to Mormonism to religiously switch without much risk—without losing much religious capital. Did, as Takagi notes with Buddhism and Shinto, Mormon converts syncretize their new religious beliefs with their old ones? Or, as other rational choice theorists have noted, did the small cost of switching to Mormonism also facilitate switching out of Mormonism, since converts could switch again without losing much religious capital? In the 1950s and 60s, Takagi notes that successful conversions came from a younger generation who felt religiously apathetic and desired to partially assimilate to American culture. Rational choice fails to unify these two periods of conversion under one coherent theory. Instead, the institutional focus misses important personal accounts of religious conversion which might demonstrate that conversion traveled through social networks, or that space, memory, and gender were crucial for proselytizing “success.”[2]

Lastly, the institutional focus sometimes reveals Takagi’s personal biases. Take, for example, the passages that Mormonism filled converts’ “spiritual needs,” that “targeting a particular racial group to proselytize among was alien to the Mormon concept of universal brotherhood,” and that the “human eye did not see a transpacific scheme of divine origin.”[3] These reveal a slight bias that conflates Mormon success with historical progress. While these passages do not clutter the book, their presence appeals more to a Mormon audience than an academic one.

One of the book’s strengths is its focus on print culture. Takagi has mined printed sources on the Japanese Mission to ample extent, studied the language of translation, and provided more than enough sources for future scholars to come back and further study this mission print culture. Such extensive primary source compilation and analysis provides a way into understanding Japanese Mormon culture through projection and reception, what David J. Whittaker calls a “web of print.”[4]

Another strength is Takagi’s awareness of the limitations of his sources and his openness about them. He provides appendices and annexes with source information. He is careful to note when particular sources cannot provide accurate information, like his cross referencing of E. Wesley Smith’s account of visiting Hawaii and meeting Tokujiro Sato, one of the first Japanese converts to Mormonism, in order to assess the account’s inaccuracies.[5] Future scholars of Japanese Mormonism will likely turn to one of The Trek East’s appendices or annexes. Indeed, it should be a starting place for future scholars to do so. Takagi includes short biographies of “notable Japanese Mormons” as well as data on mission presidents, missionaries, newspapers, converts, buildings, and terms. Such compilation is commendable and should prove a fruitful resource for future studies.

In all, The Trek East should interest those studying Japanese Mormonism as well as lay readers interested in Mormon missions. The Trek East is a fine starting-point narrative which future scholars should refine and build from.

[1] Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, “The Oak and the Banyan: The ‘Glocalization’ of Mormon Studies,” in Mormon Studies Review, vol. 1, 2014, 72.

[2] Christopher M.B. Allison, “Layered Lives: Boston Mormons and the Spatial Contexts of Conversion,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 42, no. 2, 2016, 168-213.

[3] See pages 91, 266, and 285.

[4] David J. Whittaker, “The Web of Print: Toward a History of the Book in Early Mormon Culture,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 23, no. 1, 1997, 1-41.

[5] See page 33.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Thanks, Jeff! Looks like an interesting book.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 3, 2017 @ 11:59 am


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