Missionary work has been a central concern of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (whose members are commonly known as Latter-day Saints or Mormons – the latter name derives from the Book of Mormon, the Church’s key scriptural text).
The first “foreign” mission attempted was into Ontario, Canada. From 1832 on, individuals or groups of missionaries opened the British Mission, the next foreign mission attempted by the church.
From its small beginnings, the British Mission became the most successful foreign mission of the church in the nineteenth century. As early as 1844, Mormon missionaries were working among the Polynesians in Tahiti and surrounding islands
In the summer of 1850, in California, elder Charles C Rich called together more elders to establish a mission in the Sandwich Islands (Hawai‘i). They arrived December 12, 1850. Later, more came.
In 1901, Japan was opened as the twentieth foreign mission, while the older missions continued to grow. (BYU Library) But Japanese joined the Mormon faith well before the formal mission to Japan.
Frequent contacts between the Japanese and the Mormons prior to the opening of the mission in Japan in 1901 are well documented. Following the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Ogden, Utah, became an important railroad junction, where just about every Japanese traveler stopped on his way to much of the US and Europe. (Takagi)
Some of the Japanese people so contacted affiliated themselves with the Mormons well before 1901; however, Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i seem to be the first Japanese Mormons.
Several have suggested that Tomizo Katsunuma (1863–1950) and Tokujiro Sato (ca. 1851–1919) were the first Japanese Mormons.
In 1860, King Kamehameha IV met with the first delegation of Japanese people to visit the Hawaiian Islands. During this visit the king proposed a friendship treaty with Japan. This action, along with the rise of the sugar industry and the surrender of the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan, led to the first Japanese contract laborers being recruited to come to the Hawaiian Islands.
This unauthorized recruitment and shipment of laborers, known as the gannenmono (“first year men”,) marked the beginning of Japanese labor migration overseas. (JANM) This predated the government-sponsored Kanyaku Imin, Japanese immigrants arranged following the visit of King Kalakaua to Japan in 1881.
The exact number of people who immigrated in 1868 has varied (about 150 to Hawai‘i); an American businessman, Eugene M Van Reed sent them to work on sugar plantations (and another 40 to Guam).
A reported 51 men remained on O‘ahu, 71 were sent to Maui, 7 to Lanai, and 22 to Kauai (five women and an infant were also aboard). The sugar plantations and different individuals contracted them. (Hughes, Ke Ola) Tokujiro Sato was one of them.
Tokujiro, also known in Hawaii as Tokujiro Sato, Toko, Toku, or Sasaki, has a claim to being the first Japanese Mormon convert. E Wesley Smith, President of the Hawaiian Mission noted (in the November 1919 issue of the Improvement Era):
“During my recent visit, through the different conferences on the Islands of Maui and Hawaii, I had the privilege of meeting the first Japanese convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who is now living at Kukuihaele, Hawaii. We held an interesting meeting in his home and spent the night there.”
“Becoming interested in Brother Toko, I learned that he was born in Tokio, Japan, in the year 1849. At the age of seventeen he worked his way to Hawaii, arriving here in 1866. In 1879 he married a Hawaiian by the name of Kalala, and they have happily passed their ruby anniversary. He joined the Church in 1892, and has been and is still a faithful member.”
“He related to me many interesting incidents that took place here many years ago, among which was the Walter Murray Gibson trouble, and how he witnessed Gibson’s unlawful rise to power, and his dishonorable failure. An interesting sketch of the life and adventures of Walter M. Gibson, by Andrew Jenson, Assistant Historian of the Church, is found in Volume 4 of the Improvement Era.”
“Brother Toko is now seventy years of age, hale and hearty, and able to work six days a week raising Kalo (a Hawaiian vegetable used in making poi) for the market. In this way he earns an honest living. He has a large family of bright children.” (Smith, October 22, 1919)
Several have noted that there are some inconsistencies in Smith’s report, including some dating, but it does confirm that in Kukuihaele on the island of Hawaii there was a Japanese man who claimed to have arrived in Hawaii long before the government-supervised program of emigration began in 1885.
It likewise notes that there were Japanese whom a Church leader regarded as belonging to the Church, the man having been baptized before the opening of Mormon missionary work in Japan in 1901. (Takagi)
Some descendants suggest Tokujiro was a samurai; that is not confirmed. However, reportedly, he did have a samurai sword that was later presented to his employer, Samuel Parker. The sword apparently hung in the Mana Museum for some years before it was closed. (Hughes, Ke Ola)
Others note, that by the time he left home at the age of sixteen or seventeen, Tokujiro may well have already been an accomplished tatami maker in his own right. Family oral history has it that he was skilled in carpentry and helped build houses in the Waipio Valley on the northeastern coast of the island of Hawaii.
With the enactment in Japan of the Household Register Law in 1871, it may have been around this time that Tokujiro took the surname Sato.
Initially, when he arrived in Hawaii, he chose to be called Toku or Toko. Shortening of Japanese names to adapt to the Hawaiian manner of speech was an extremely common practice in those days. When the time came to pick a surname, he could have easily adopted the name chosen by his family in Tokyo. (Takagi)
Sometime after arriving on the island of Hawai‘i, Tokujiro married Kalala Keliihananui Kamekona, a Hawaiian with mixed Irish and Chinese lineage. According to family sources, Kalala Keliihananui Kamekona was the daughter of Kamekona (from the Waipio Valley) and Kaiahua (from the neighboring Waimanu Valley).
Tokujiro had become fluent in the Hawaiian language so that sometimes he was asked by a court of law to act as an interpreter. Such an assignment was not unusual for the gannenmono who stayed in the Hawaiian islands, because, with very few or even no other Japanese around, they had to assimilate into the Hawaiian community.
A story is told of Sentaro Kawashima, a young Japanese immigrant, who was taught by Tokujiro to speak Hawaiian and English, farm taro, and make poi and okolehao (homemade alcoholic spirit). (Takagi)
The Tokujiro Sato family was far from being the typical Mormon family of contemporary America. Their religious understanding and practice were constrained both by the cultural settings of the day and by the different expectations that the Church had of its members.
The descendants remember Kalala as fond of drinking okolehao and as being “cranky” most of the time, possibly because of her drinking habit.
In his later years, perhaps with the increasing population of Japanese, Tokujiro came to emphasize his Japanese identity. Although he exclusively spoke Hawaiian to his children, he spoke Japanese to some of the grandchildren as they developed proficiency in that language. (Takagi)
Tokujiro died in his home shortly after his meeting with E Wesley Smith in 1919, and after a funeral held presumably at a Latter-day Saint chapel, he was buried in a cemetery located on the Pacific shore. His grave no longer exists because it was washed away in a tidal wave.