Chieko Nishimuri Okazaki was born on the island of Hawaii in 1926. As a girl, she spoke broken Japanese with her immigrant grandparents but preferred to speak Hawai‘i’s Pidgin English. After school, she attended classes to study Japanese language and stories. “Many times I had tears in my eyes after I read these stories because they touched me so much,” Chieko remembered.
When Chieko was 11, she began attending a religious class taught by Latter-day Saint missionaries and then eventually attended the Māhukona Branch. “I loved Sunday School,” she recalled. “I loved singing the hymns with those wonderful Hawaiian members who were so good to me.” Although her parents did not share her interest, they didn’t mind Chieko attending church as well as their Buddhist temple.
Many gospel teachings resonated with what Chieko already knew. Whenever the Nishimuris received a gift, Cheiko’s mother, Hatsuko, would say “on gaeshi,” meaning they should honor the obligation by offering a small return gift. King Benjamin’s teachings about God and giving (see Mosiah 4:19–21) reminded her of this principle. Hatsuko also taught Chieko to be a “kigatsuku girl”—to grab the dustpan for her when she swept or to dry the dishes as Hatsuko washed them. This principle of kigatsuku—acting without being told and “seeking out good to do”—was one Chieko recognized in the Lord’s call to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27). After four years of living as “both a Buddhist and a Mormon,” Chieko was baptized. Her parents accepted her decision. “They already knew that I could be a good Mormon and a good daughter,” Chieko explained.
When Chieko was 15, Japan’s military attacked Pearl Harbor. Terrified at what this would mean for Japanese Americans, the Nishimuris gathered possessions from Japan and burned them. When they finished, Chieko looked in the mirror. “My eyes, my skin, and my hair are Japanese,” she thought. “I will always be Japanese.” During the war, many Japanese Americans were targeted because of their ethnicity. Chieko’s uncle was among those sent to government-mandated internment camps.
During this time, Japanese American Latter-day Saints reached out in service. In O‘ahu, Japanese congregations organized a fundraising drive to help U.S. soldiers. Members invited servicemen to events where they socialized, served, and worshipped together—some Latter-day Saint servicemen, such as a young Boyd K. Packer, who became President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, later helped share the gospel in Japan.
Through her wartime experiences, Chieko discovered a new role. “I would build a bridge between the two cultures,” she resolved, “finding a way to accept both parts of myself.” For her it was a spiritual endeavor. “My Japaneseness is something I consecrate to the Lord along with other talents, abilities, and desires,” she noted. In 1961 when Chieko Okazaki was called to serve on the Young Women general board, she became the first person without European ancestry to serve in the Church at the general level. “I felt that I represented people of color from all over the world in that assignment,” she said. In 1990, when Chieko was called to serve in the Relief Society General Presidency, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley said she would be a blessing to Church members worldwide. “They will see in you,” he said, “a representation of their oneness with the Church.”