How Mormon was He?

By May 9, 2008

I decided to take a little break from my weighty posts of the last few weeks and ask everyone if they find anything particularly Mormon in the following passage:

I am proud that I am an American citizen of Japanese ancestry, for my background makes me appreciate more fully the wonderful advantages of this nation. I believe in her institutions, ideals, and traditions; I glory in her heritage; I boast of her history; I trust in her future. She had granted me liberties and opportunities such as no individual enjoys in this world today. She had given me an education befitting kings. She has entrusted me with the responsibilities of the franchise. She has permitted me to build a home, to earn a livelihood, to worship, think, speak, and act as I please-as a free man equal to every other man.

Although some individuals may discriminate against me, I shall never become bitter or lose faith, for I know that such persons are not representative of the majority of American people. True, I shall do all in my power to discourage such practices, but I shall do it in the American way: aboveboard, in the open, through courts of law, by education, by proving myself worthy of equal treatment and consideration. I am firm in my belief that American sportsmanship and attitude of fair play will judge citizenship and patriotism on the basis of action and achievement, and not on the basis of physical characteristics.

Because I believe in America, and I trust she believes in me, and because I received innumerable benefits from her, I pledge myself to do honor to her at all times and in all places; to support her Constitution; to obey her laws; to respect her flag; to defend her against all enemies foreign and domestic; to actively assume my duties and obligations as a citizen, cheerfully and without reservations whatsoever, in the hope that I may become a better American in a greater America.

This passage is known as the Japanese American Creed and was written by Mike Masaoka in 1941 for a meeting of the Intermountain Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in Salt Lake City. He wrote it to fill a blank page in the meeting’s program. After Pearl Harbor, the JACL embraced the creed’s rhetoric in order to show their commitment to the United States. Senator Elbert Thomas from Utah entered the creed into the Congressional Record in 1942 as a demonstration of Japanese American loyalty. The message was powerful enough that my blind great uncle was able to quote it in its entirety in an oral interview he gave in the 1980s. More recently, the creed played a more controversial role as Japanese Americans debated for and against its inclusion on the National Japanese American Monument to Patriotism in Washington D.C. This privately funded monument was built to honor Japanese American soldiers in 2001. Masaoka’s collaboration in the internment process has continued to polarize the Japanese American community across generations and political affiliations.

My biggest question for the JI is if there is anything identifiably Mormon about the statement? Do you know of any examples of similar statements by church leaders at the time? I am still grappling with the question of how much Masaoka’s Mormon background affected his thoughts and actions, and would be grateful for your insights.


Comments

  1. whoa–Masaoka was Mormon?

    Comment by Johnna — May 9, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  2. Yes, he was baptized as a child in Salt Lake City.

    Comment by Joel — May 9, 2008 @ 11:07 am

  3. Johnna, Joel is being modest. Check his archive out (e.g., here).

    As to the question of the post. I don’t really see to much Mormon in there, except to say that the Mormons also went through an uber-patriotic nationalism in their course of assimilation.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 9, 2008 @ 11:12 am

  4. It doesn’t scream Mormonism to me… though jingoism may not be far off.

    Comment by Chad Too — May 9, 2008 @ 11:35 am

  5. I agree with what J. said in terms of a possible imbibement of the Mormon commitment to patriotism.

    So did the statement get included in the monument?

    Comment by David G. — May 9, 2008 @ 11:52 am

  6. Joel,

    A few questions: Why was the League accused in October 1941 of raising money for Japan? Did the President and Congress respond to Masaoka’s letters in and provide the League with a congressional inquiry to clear up the question of its loyalty? How much did it help the League when the California legislature announced in late October 1941 that it had found no evidence of subversive activities in the League? How possible is it that Masaoka put together the creed in early 1941 in response to these kinds of accusations of espionage and disloyalty?

    Comment by Sterling — May 9, 2008 @ 11:59 am

  7. Sterling,

    I’m not sure I understand all of your questions. Masaoka had definitely raised money for Japan in 1937 prior to the war. He never acknowledged this in his own writings, but the historical record is pretty clear. Such fund raising occurred on the Coast as well, but stopped well before 1941.Historian Yuji Ichioka has argued that increasing tensions with Japan led to Nisei-baiting in 1940–this meant that hostile whites began to link the Nisei to the Japanese Empire and hold them responsible for these actions. In June of 1940 Congress passed the Smith Act which required all Japanese nationals to register with the government. Public opinion became increasingly hostile as the Japanese continued to expand their position in Asia and the Pacific. The arrest of a Japanese spy in June of 1941 didn’t help the situation.

    Masaoka was definitely reacting to this sense of hostility as were other leaders in the JACL at the time. I simply am wondering if his Mormon identity and Mountain West location equipped him with certain rhetorical tools that would be discernible in statements like this.

    I don’t know exactly to which letter to Congress written by Masaoka you are referring. Masaoka and the JACL cooperated with several government officials prior to the war–especially Lieutenant Commander Kenneth Ringle and Presidential examiner Curtis Munson. Both of which affirmed the loyalty of the Nikkei after the attack on Pearl Harbor. As far as I know there was never a Congressional investigation before the war. These few voices of reason mattered little against the cacophony of bigotry that followed the Pearl Harbor attack.

    David,

    Masaoka’s statements were included after much protest and can be found on the monument.

    Comment by Joel — May 9, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

  8. Joel,

    Thanks for the additional context. I have a few more questions. If public opinion and the views of Congressional representatives were turning against the Nisei by the early summer of 1940, then why did Masaoka join the Japanese government in presenting a mural to the state of Utah in late July 1940 (Ogden Standard-Examiner, 19 July 1940, Page 18)?

    Here is some information on the letters to Washington: “Masaoka said letters asking that the league be cleared through a congressional inquiry had been dispatched to President Roosevelt, all United States senators and other Federal officials” (Oakland Tribune, 17 October 1941, Page 9). Do you think this means there is material on the National Archives on Masaoka?

    If the bigotry against Japanese Americans became so intense and widespread during the war, then why was Masaoka singled out in accusations made in 1944? Here is an example: “Dr. John R. Lechner, a representative of the American Education league of Los Angeles, spoke at a meeting, sponsored by the Salt Lake Federation of Labor. He asserted that Japanese organizations in this country are promoting espionage and disloyalty, particularly in the west. Salt Lake City was designated as a propaganda center for Japanese-Americans two months after Pearl Harbor, he claimed. Lechner accused Mike Masaoka, a former Salt Lake City resident, now in the U.S. armed forces, of being a leader in this movement” (Ogden Standard-Examiner, 22 February 1944, Page 3).

    Comment by Sterling — May 9, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

  9. Sterling,

    Are you doing a project on Masaoka?

    I am going out of town today and will be away from my computer . I will answer your questions as soon as I can. Sorry.

    Comment by Joel — May 9, 2008 @ 2:15 pm

  10. No. His story sounded interesting. So I did a few searches in a newspaper database. Answer when you can. I hope they lead to some useful information.

    Comment by Sterling — May 9, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  11. If Masaoka’s Mormonism inclined him to be more patriotic, I wonder if his Mormonism also inclined some other Americans to view him as less patriotic? California and SLC have always been two hotbeds of anti-Mormon sentiment, and I note groups from both locations appearing in comment 8 as mobilizing against him.

    Going back a generation or two earlier, note how Sun Yat-sen was lionized by the American media, at least in part because he was Christian. There must be a reverse effect as well.

    Comment by Dave — May 10, 2008 @ 7:51 am

  12. Sterling,

    If you don’t mind me asking, which database did you use to search for Masaoka?

    Not knowing the complete context from which the articles were written, I can only speculate to what they mean. There was definite bigotry toward the Japanese in the years leading up to the war, yet there were also many that took a more liberal and paternalistic view toward the Asian immigrants. I would imagine that Masaoka’s actions in combination with the Japanese nation were futile attempts to demonstrate reconciliation and good faith in reaching out to those with more paternalistic view about race. Eiichiro Azuma in Between Two Empires has successfully argued that the Nisei initially saw themselves as a bridge between Japan and the United States and only moved to more substantive jingoism because of increasing racial prejudice. The centers of bigotry were usually located in areas where large numbers of Japanese Americans lived and often held an economic component as well. Compared to California, the prejudice in Utah was much more tame and controlled and it kicked into gear later than on the coast.

    As far as material in the national archives on Masaoka, I’m sure that much exists. He was the primary spokesman for Japanese-American issues in Washington D.C. during the war. At some level, I’m sure that the JACL’s petitions mentioned in the Oakland Tribune article received the same hearing that Mormon petitions received almost a century earlier. Congress isn’t famous for its work on behalf of racial minorities. Greg Robinson in his book, By Order of the President, ably postulates that Roosevelt utilized the Japanese Americans as a scapegoat for American unpreparedness. He knew there was little substance to the argument of military necessity for Japanese American internment, but the racist jingoism took the heat off of his administration.

    Finally, Masaoka was singled out because he was the most visible spokesman for the JACL during the war. He worked intimately with Dillon Myer, head of the WRA and many other Washington politicians. To those making racist associations between ethnicity and loyalty such as General
    John DeWitt’s infamous statement that a “Jap’s a Jap,” such interactions were inundated with intrigue and subversive motives. Masaoka was and is often singled out because he was the point man in the political efforts of the Japanese during and after the war.

    Comment by Joel — May 20, 2008 @ 10:16 am

  13. Joel,

    Thanks for the additional info. I was using newspaperarchive.com. Good luck with your research.

    Comment by Sterling — June 3, 2008 @ 11:47 pm


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