Chieko Okazaki

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Chieko Okazaki, Mormon Women's leader
Chieko Okazaki, Mormon Women's Leader

Chieko Nisimura Okazaki was the first non-Caucasion woman to serve in the general Relief Society presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church. Okazaki was also a best-selling author.

Okazaki served as first counselor to Elaine L. Jack in the church’s General Relief Society Presidency from 1990 to 1997. She was one of the first speakers to address, in a church setting, the question of sexual abuse, and to discuss balancing work and family; homosexuality; blended families; and coping — as she had — with racism. [1]

Okazaki was one of the most-read authors of books aimed to a Latter-day Saint audience. Her first book was a collection of speeches called Lighten Up. The book sold more than 100,000 copies. She went on to publish at least five more volumes, including Cat's Cradle, Aloha!, and Sanctuary.

Okazaki was born into a Buddhist family on October 21, 1926, on a plantation on the big island of Hawaii. She converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after starting a class on Mormonism at her school at age 11. She was baptized at age 15. Okazaki's parents worked extra hours in the fields, and made slippers to finance her education at the University of Hawaii. She met her future husband, Ed, there, and married him even though he was a member of the Congregationalist faith. Ed joined the Mormon Church within a year of their marriage. The couple moved to Salt Lake City in 1951 so he could pursue graduate studies in social work at the University of Utah. Okazaki worked at Uintah Elementary on the city’s east side. There was still much racial discrimination against the Japanese on the mainland United States at the time, a spill-over from World War II. Okazaki emphasized her Hawaiian roots by wearing bright colors and flowers in her hair. Her happy demeanor and optimism overcame the prejudices of the parents whose children she taught.

Because of medical conditions, Okazaki had only two children, Kenneth and Robert. She continued to teach school in Utah and later Colorado, eventually becoming a principal. In 1961, she became the first non-Caucasian to be on the Church’s Young Women’s Board. Seven years later, she joined her husband when he served for three years as an LDS mission president in Okinawa, Japan. [2]

A few years later, she was asked to work on the LDS Church Primary Board, which oversees the religious education of Mormon children. She served in that calling until her appointment in 1990 to the Relief Society Presidency. In her position in the Relief Society presidency, Okazaki was called upon to speak often in the general conferences of the Church. General conference is held semi-annually, and is broadcast to millions. Okazaki worked on her discourses for weeks before delivering them, fine-tuning over and over. Thus, her talks were masterpieces. Okazaki had a subtle humor, and her stories were well-chosen to make her point.

Ed died in 1997, and Okazaki expanded her realm of service. "She visited mobile homes and nursing homes; she spoke in tiny branches in Africa and big conferences in Australia; she found women who felt lost or alone. Her reach was global, even as her approach remained individual." [3] Okazaki's challenges, on top of infertility, prejudice, and the loss of her husband, included cancer. She was ever an example of spiritual strength. Okazaki died at the age of 84 in Salt Lake City of congestive heart failure, in August 2011.