Mike Masaoka and the Mormon Process of Americanization

By March 22, 2008

I have been trying to figure out how to summarize some of my findings about the way that Mormon identity affected Japanese Americans in Utah and Idaho during World War II for this post, but I have been having some trouble extracting the Mormon aspect of the story from the greater argument while still maintaining nuance and a grasp of the larger picture. Thus, I have decided to focus in on Mike Masaoka as both an emblematic and exceptional example of the way that Mormon identity interacted with Japanese American identity in Utah. Most of the narrative I am going to present represents my reading of his somewhat presumptuously titled, They Call Me Moses Masaoka and much comes from a chapter entitled “Moses in Mormonland.” Because the process of autobiographical writing inherently involves the construction and reconstruction of memory, I mostly use this narrative as an example of how a prominent Mormon Nikkei wanted to frame his and others’ experiences with Mormons. [1]

Masaoka’s story began with his family’s migration to Utah in 1916. Masaoka’s parents had left California for the opportunity to own land in a state without an alien land law, but the white land speculators who sold them the deed had tricked them into buying a part of the Great Salt Lake. Rather than facing the shame of returning to California, Masaoka’s father decided to settle in Salt Lake City and founded a fish and produce business which sold these products to persons of Japanese ancestry in the surrounding region.

In 1924, Masaoka’s life was thrown out of sync when his father was found dead along the side of a rural Utah highway-the possible victim of a tragic hit-and-run accident. To the rescue came Judge James Wolfe who, besides being the person to have discovered Masaoka’s father, would be a future justice of the Utah Supreme Court. Judge Wolfe would become the first of many prominent Mormon patrons that would sponsor Masaoka’s education at West high school and later at the University of Utah. Masaoka talks about participating in the local Mormon scout troop and dreaming of one day serving a mission for the church in his ancestral Japan. As a successful debater, who utilized the theme of prejudice against Japanese Americans as his primary issue of concern, he came into contact with future Senator Elbert Thomas, who had served a mission years before in Japan. Masaoka would later serve as a volunteer for Thomas’s successful senatorial campaign against the Mormon Apostle Reed Smoot. Masaoka ultimately hoped to attend law school at the U, and worked to accumulate the money to attend.

In the years proceeding the war, Masaoka took a job as the editor of the English section of the Utah Nippo-a Japanese language paper that was printed out of Salt Lake City. In this newspaper, Masaoka began to form his identity as a spokesperson for the Japanese American population by calling for Japanese Americans to assimilate and Americanize. And, although Masaoka was initially skeptical of the Japanese American Citizens League’s (JACL’s) California and Seattle origins, his ideology of Americanism meshed well with the organization’s “100% American” message and eventually caused him to form four chapters of the JACL in Utah and Idaho.

Masaoka doesn’t talk much about his Mormon faith; he probably joined the church to find entrance into the gated world of Mormon culture. Although he points to his Mormon beliefs as the reasons for his alcohol-free lifestyle, he did not marry another member and never speaks about the church’s theology or sacraments. Nevertheless, he constantly points out how his Mormon connections in Utah offered him an entrance into political discussions. In the years preceding the war, he was appointed as the general secretary of the JACL primarily because of those connections. After his appointment, he traveled to California in an effort to try and understand the Japanese condition in that state, but at times was puzzled by the foreignness he found there. The California Nikkei had confronted bigotry and violence at a level that Masaoka could not even understand. Yet the attack on Pearl Harbor threw him in a position to have to speak for all persons of Japanese ancestry in the United States.

During the war, the JACL moved its headquarters to Salt Lake City mostly on a recommendation from Masaoka, while he traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby on the organization’s behalf. During the war, Nikkei that lived outside the relocation zone of California, Oregon, Washington, and part of Arizona were allowed to stay in their homes but were subject to the same curfews and confiscations imposed on their coastal co-ethnics. Thus, intermountain Japanese Americans faced the racial prejudice directed against the villains of Pearl Harbor without the racial separation forced upon other Nikkei from the coast. Japanese Americans in Utah and Idaho often pragmatically acted in ways that they hoped would keep them from sharing the fate of those in the internment camps.

Thus, I argue in my thesis that Japanese Americans in Utah and Idaho, in conversation with larger discourses generated from the coast, created a rhetoric of survival made up of three separate assertions. First, they embraced the JACL’s program of Americanization. I have often wondered if these Japanese Americans were influenced by the Mormon Americanization efforts in the first part of the 20th century. Shake Ushio, a local JACL leader and member of the church, argued in the pages of the Utah Nippo:

Face these trying days we must, so let us face them resolutely, undismayed, with infinite patience. We’ve got to learn to take a lot and take it without bitterness on our part. We must adjust our lives so that we can get along without many of the things we are accustomed to. [2]

The JACL also asked the intermountain Nikkei to put their money where their mouth was-the four intermountain chapters of the JACL provided the majority of funds to the organization during the war as most other Japanese Americans were imprisoned in camps.

Another rhetorical coping mechanism utilized by intermountain Japanese Americans was the creation of social distance between themselves and those Japanese Americans in the camps. They tried to portray themselves as “local” Japanese. [3] This often meant that Japanese Americans in Utah and Idaho opposed voluntary migrations of persons of Japanese ancestry to the inland states because they didn’t want these “new” Japanese to destroy the delicate social balance they had established there. One sample of this rhetoric can be found in a speech given by Masaoka to persons in the camps that wanted to work in the sugar beet fields of the intermountain West. He stated:

Many of these people [workers] are not aware that the people of this area [intermountain West] are not accustomed to seeing so many Japanese who smoke, and drink and conduct themselves in the manner so characteristic shall we say, of certain Los Angeles elements which we all know. [4]

Masaoka, like the other Japanese Americans of Utah and Idaho demonstrated his knowledge of Mormon culture and boundaries.

Finally, Masaoka and the Utah Nisei were powerful supporters of the formation of the 442nd segregated army battalion. One of his most infamous statements about this endeavor argued that

Somewhere on the field of battle, in a baptism of blood, we and our comrades must prove to all who question that we are ready and willing to die for the one country we know and pledge allegiance to. [5]

Such a rhetorical religious image of redemption through a “baptism of blood” strives to make military service into a sacrament of assimilation. I have often wondered if his own baptismal decision to assimilate into mainstream Mormon society might have inspired this suggestion that sacramental combat might help all Nikkei to assimilate into American society. After all, he still sees himself as a “Moses” to his people.

I probably should add as a coda to this already very long post that Masaoka is an extremely controversial figure in the world of Asian American Studies-think Malinche in Mexico. I think Mormonism, in some ways, actually plays a large role in helping us to understand why Masaoka might have done things that, in hindsight, appear detrimental for the Nikkei as a whole. Also, his life provides a window for understanding the ways that Japanese Americans interacted with Mormonism in the intermountain West.

[1] Mike Masaoka with Bill Hosakawa, They Call Me Moses Masaoka (New York: William, Murrow, and Company, 1987) Although I have to trust Masaoka for many of the details of his childhood, his construction of Utah Japanese Americans during the war is corroborated in various other period sources as well as oral interviews and sociological studies.

[2] Shake Ushio, “A Message,” Utah Nippo, December 10, 1941, English Section

[3] I take this formulation from Gail M. Nomura, “Becoming ‘Local’ Japanese: Issei Adaptive Strategies on the Yakima Indian Reservation, 1906-1923,” in Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century, eds. Louis Fiset and Gail Nomura (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), 65.

[4] Mike Masaoka, “Minutes,” JACL Special Emergency Conference, November 17-24, 1942, Salt Lake City, Supplement #6, “Beet Survey, ” by G.F. Inagaki and Scotty H. Tsuchiya, box 13, James Sakamoto Papers, Special Collections, Manuscripts, and University Archives Division, University of Washington Libraries, 98, quoted in Robert C. Sims, “The ‘Free Zone’ Nikkei: Japanese Americans in Idaho and Eastern Oregon in World War II,” in Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century, eds. Louis Fiset and Gail M. Nomura (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), 247.

[5] Minutes of the Special Emergency National Conference, Japanese American Citizens League, 36, 17-24 November 1942, Salt Lake City, UCLA Library, Department of Special Collections, Collection 2010, Box 296, quoted in Eric Muller, Free to Die for Their Country: The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 42-43.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Hey, Joel, can we keep you around? With this new post our reading level just jumped from College (postgrad) to Genius. Thank you.

    Thanks for this, Joel. I find Masaoka to be a fascinating figure and I think you?re right to use him as a window into this question. You mention that he did not marry in the church. I take it then that he did not pass on a Mormon identity to his children (assuming he had some)? When and where did he die? Did he have Japanese American friends that were also Mormon that speak of his faith?

    Comment by David G. — March 22, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  2. Fascinating post, Joel. I was especially struck by the reference to military service being a sacrament of assimilation. It serves as an interesting contrast to other ethnic and racial minorities in the U.S. who have used (in many cases, opposed) military service to establish/emphasize their identity as distinctly “other” from white America.

    Comment by Christopher — March 22, 2008 @ 2:11 pm

  3. Interesting study Joel.

    Oh btw David Banner is now at a high school level. Just so you are aware. 😉

    Comment by JonW — March 22, 2008 @ 2:22 pm

  4. I was struck by the same “sacrament of assimilation” concept as Christopher, but in my case I was reminded of gung-ho Mormon support for the Spanish-American War and World War I as a way of marking (or proving) that we were finally American.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 22, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  5. Hehe, good for you, Jon. I’ll have to take a closer look at the Burden of the Cross posts.

    Comment by David G. — March 22, 2008 @ 3:11 pm

  6. Great stuff. This is an area of history that I know very little about and appreciate this very much.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 22, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  7. David,

    As far as Mormon identity, I think Masaoka definitely felt a connection to the Mormon people. For him to claim Mormon identity in 1987 in an exercise of self-reflection proves to me that he still felt some kind of connection to the Mormons in Utah.That being said, I cannot find much evidence of activity in the church in his more mature life. After the war, Masaoka became a powerful Washington lobbyist–first working for the JACL and later for international Japanese companies. The only reference to later Mormonism that he makes within his autobiography is when he uses it as an excuse not to drink alcohol at Washington receptions.The only obviously LDS material in his papers at the U of U is an old MIA manual–that doesn’t mean he didn’t have any, it just means either he or the archivist didn’t find those materials important, or they are filed in some strange part of the collection.

    Both of Masaoka’s adopted children died young and under mysterious circumstances, but he never talks about the role that Mormonism played in their lives either. My impression is that he was never very active in the church after he grew up which would correlate with his very limited mention of the church in his adult life. I really don’t have any evidence for this conclusion accept for a lack of documentation in his writings. If someone knows more, please let me know. Most of the people that remembered him, remembered him for his political and humanitarian work and not his religious fervor. It may be that Mormonism allowed him one conduit for expressing American identity, and that its utility diminished after the war, but I don’t know if I am cynical enough to believe that. Many other Japanese Americans remained very faithful to the church. In fact they had a Japanese language unit in Salt Lake City for a long time.Jessie Embry has written some on those congregations.

    Nevertheless, Masaoka found his Mormon identity to be such an important point that he named one of his chapters “Moses in Mormonland.” I think his life presents a powerful example of the persistence of Mormon identity even if activity drifts away. He died in 1991 in Washington D.C. and was buried near his extended family in a California cemetery.

    I actually think that someday I would like to do some work on Masaoka’s later life–especially his connections with Japanese corporations.

    Comment by Joel — March 22, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

  8. Joel, I agree that a significant piece of evidence is the 1987 biography. As you mention near the beginning of the post, Masaoka chose to construct the memory of his life in that way, and apparently he found his Mormon upbringing to be signficant enough to construct a whole chapter around. I also find the identification with Moses to be interesting. What part(s) of the Moses identity did he find in himself?

    Comment by David G. — March 23, 2008 @ 11:15 pm

  9. David,

    Masaoka first presents the title of Moses as coming from a term that his critics have used to disparage his complicity during the internment. He says that they accuse him of willfully leading his people into the camps. He rhetorically shifts the meaning of the term to highlight his own accomplishments–especially his lobbying efforts to grant Japanese immigrants citizenship and to overturn racial restriction on immigration.

    I haven’t seen anyone else reference Masaoka as “Moses” so I think that its use by critics might really be a straw man–though he has come under great criticism. The most recent criticism occurred when Japanese Americans debated whether his words should be included on a national monument to Japanese American soldiers during WWII.

    The book is fascinating in one sense because Masaoka is quite aware of the historiography revolving around his legacy. They Call Me Moses at one level is Masaoka’s engagement with historical criticisms using the authority of first-hand experience as his greatest weapon against revision.

    Comment by Joel — March 24, 2008 @ 7:15 am

  10. Dear Joel,

    I am a MA candidate in American Studies of University of Hawaii. I am going to write a thesis about Masaoka. But I am having a hard time to clarify the influence of the Mormon on Masaoka’s Americanization. I believe that you can give me some useful suggestions about it. Will you contact me at akirah@hawaii.edu or akiraaloha@aol.com. Thank you very much.


    Comment by Akira Hirayama — April 14, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

  11. Joel, I’ve come across an article — Alma O. Taylor, “The Masaokas: A Brief Saga,” The Improvement Era, July 1945, 420-421, with some detail in the labors and migrations of Eijiro Masaoka that differs a bit from your post. The article stresses the World War II service of four Masaoka brothers and has a nice photo of Haruye Masaoka and what looks like a foggy reproduction of a newspaper photo of Ben, Mike, Tad and Ike Masaoka.

    Didn’t know if you had seen it — wanted to call it to your attention.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — July 25, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  12. […] Mike Masaoka and the Mormon Process of Americanization […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From The Archives: Posts You Might Have Missed, March-April 2008 — July 2, 2009 @ 1:51 am

  13. As a niece of Mike Masaoka and someone quite versed in the history of our family, I would just hope that all of you would look into things before you speculate so much about his life and his family.

    Comment by Jan Masaoka — December 13, 2009 @ 11:39 pm

  14. Jan, thanks for stopping by. Would you kindly point out examples of what you find speculative and articulate your perspective? I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d like to hear that. Thanks.

    Comment by Jared T — December 14, 2009 @ 12:01 am

  15. Jan,

    I would be happy to discuss any corrections you might have for the above post. There is always a certain degree of speculation when trying to reconstruct the past–this occurs because historians only do the best they can with the sources they have available to them. Please let me know where you think I went wrong, and thank you for visiting the blog. I think your uncle is an important historical figure and will probably always be a person whose legacy is up for discussion. I am trying to understand Masaoka in as unbiased a way as I can.

    Comment by Joel — December 14, 2009 @ 1:22 am


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