FAMILY REUNION: Third annual Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage reunites families with legacies

EVOKING THE SPIRIT OF THE ISSEI — Berkeley Genyukai and Friends featured (L to R) Misa Hayashi and Mao Sakurada Reich and Wesley Ueunten. photo by William Lee

EVOKING THE SPIRIT OF THE ISSEI — Berkeley Genyukai and Friends featured (L to R) Misa Hayashi and Mao Sakurada Reich and Wesley Ueunten. photo by William Lee

“Well Grandpa, we’re all here,” Terri Tamaru said to a carving located on the second floor of the former Angel Island Immigration Station barracks. Tamaru, along with her children and grandchildren, attended the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage Oct. 1 at the Angel Island Immigration Station in the San Francisco Bay.

The third annual event, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation in partnership with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and National Japanese American Historical Society, had some 250 attendees visiting the immigration station to learn more about the experience of immigrants who passed through the facility. The pilgrimage focused on a “family reunion.”

The program opened with a musical performance by Berkeley Genyukai with Sakura Ren, performing “Hole Hole Bushi” (immigrant plantation songs), followed by a blessing by Rev. Debra Low-Skinner of Christ Episcopal Church-Sei Ko Kai on behalf of the Japanese American Religious Federation. The program closed with a performance by Cal Raijin Taiko. The pilgrimage also featured readings of poetry and writings by those who had passed through the island performed by Pearl Wong and Wesley Ueunten inside the immigration station, which now serves as a museum, and exhibits on Nikkei detainees produced by the Angel Island Immigration Station  Foundation.

“‘Family reunion’ has many different meanings,” said Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, explaining the pilgrimage offers an opportunity for families to physically gather together to attend, but also offers the opportunity for attendees to get back in touch with their family’s ancestors.

“I can’t think of a better place to celebrate our own families than here on Angel Island,” Linda Harms Okazaki, president of the California Genealogical Society said. “What is family history? It’s simply your own story. You can each discover your own story.”

Okazaki, along with other volunteers from the California Genealogical Society, helped attendees learn more about their family legacies and look up documents to get started on researching family history.

The Hokodas Reunited
The pilgrimage recognized the Hokoda/Miyamoto family along with Charles Egan, professor of the Chinese language at San Francisco State University. Masaru Miyamoto is credited as the author of the oldest identifiable wall carving in the immigration station barracks. Egan translated the carvings and used what he called “reverse genealogy” to track down his descendants.

The family and Egan visited the Angel Island Immigration Station last year to see the carvings and returned this year to be recognized by the nonprofit organizations.

“It’s pretty widely known to the public that the immigration barracks building here at Angel Island contains dozens of Chinese wall inscriptions in poetry. Chinese immigrants used poetry to express their homesickness, anger and frustration, hope and despair,” Egan said. “It’s now just starting to become widely known that Chinese were not the only detainees on Angel Island, but passengers entering the port of San Francisco from any country were subject to detention here, either for immigration investigation or medical examinations.”

Among the carvings on the wall, Egan said there are inscriptions in more than half a dozen languages, some of them including the writer’s names and birthplaces. Egan said he has so far identified a dozen inscriptions and contacted five families, two of Japanese descent and three of Russian descent.

FAMILY REUNION — The Nichi Bei Foundation and presenting partners Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and National Japanese American Historical Society recognized the Hokoda/Miyamoto family — whose ancestor authored the oldest-known writing in the Immigration Station barracks — and San Francisco State University Professor Charles Egan, who helped to “reunite” the family with the carving. The eight members of the Hokoda family was led by 91-year-old matriarch Terri Tamaru. photo by William Lee

FAMILY REUNION — The Nichi Bei Foundation and presenting partners Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and National Japanese American Historical Society recognized the Hokoda/Miyamoto family — whose ancestor authored the oldest-known writing in the Immigration Station barracks — and San Francisco State University Professor Charles Egan, who helped to “reunite” the family with the carving. The eight members of the Hokoda family was led by 91-year-old matriarch Terri Tamaru. photo by William Lee

Based on a 1912 inscription reading “Miyamoto, Nukui Community, Kawauchi Village, Asa District, Hiroshima Prefecture, 45th year (of Meiji),” Egan shared what he found out about the Miyamoto family. Egan said Masaru Miyamoto’s father borrowed the Hokoda family name from a friend in a nearby village to immigrate to Hawai‘i without having to go through a waiting period. He was thus born and raised as Masaru Miyamoto and left Hawai‘i with his mother to join other family members in Fresno, Calif. under that name, but his name officially was “Hokoda” in state records.

“In 1920, Masaru … traveled to Hawai‘i to search for his birth records because the Alien Land Laws were then in effect in California and he wanted to prove his U.S. citizenship in order to buy land. In Hawai‘i, however, he found his birth certificate was in the name of Masaru Hokoda,” he said. “Rather than to fight city hall and have his name formally changed, he adopted the Hokoda surname and kept it the rest of his life. He added an American given name and became known as Masaru George Hokoda.”

“It was something I didn’t know about until just recently,” the 91-year-old Tamaru said. The third child of four siblings, Tamaru now lives in Seal Beach in Orange County and is Hokoda’s last surviving daughter.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t have too much emotion reading the carvings, only that I knew my dad was there,” she said. “But the whole thing is, he never talked about it. Maybe he just didn’t want us to know or was ashamed of it or, I don’t know what his reasoning was for not talking about it.”

Tamaru said she similarly has blanked out her experiences of the wartime incarceration as a teenager and wondered aloud if her father had done the same. Egan said Hokoda was held at the immigration station for several weeks while undergoing treatment for hookworm with his mother.

Egan, on being lauded for his work, said, “the real honor for me though is being able to, through my research, make contact with families like the Hokodas and then also a few of these other Russian families,” he said.

INSIDE THE MUSEUM — Carvings in the walls or writings can be found throughout the Immigration Station museum, as well as recreation of various living quarters. photo by William Lee

INSIDE THE MUSEUM — Carvings in the walls or writings can be found throughout the Immigration Station museum, as well as recreation of various living quarters. photo by William Lee

Nikkei at Angel Island
Also at the pilgrimage, Christen Sasaki, assistant professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, spoke about Nikkei who passed through Angel Island.

“The history of the Angel Island Immigration Station tells a story both of America’s welcome to immigrants, but also the history of immigration restriction,” she said. “I want to reinforce here that Angel Island Immigration Station often times is compared to be the ‘Ellis Island of the West,’ but it really wasn’t. Angel Island Immigration Station was largely built to keep out Asians, specifically Chinese immigrants out of the United States, in other words it was built to enforce Asian exclusion.”

According to Sasaki, some 300,000 immigrants passed through the immigration station from when it opened in 1910 to when it closed in 1940. The majority of those who came through were of Chinese descent, but the second largest group, at 85,000 people, were Nikkei. Sasaki went on to say that 10,000 of them were picture brides, who entered the country between 1910 and 1920, and another 20,000 Kibei Nisei (Japanese Americans who were born in the United States but educated in Japan), who passed through after the Immigration Act of 1924 barred entry to any new immigrants from Japan until the station’s closure in 1940.

Taguma said the pilgrimage was started to remember the sizable number of Nikkei that passed through the island. “Over the years, that Japanese American community connection to the immigration station at Angel Island has been nearly lost within the larger context of the Chinese immigrant experience,” he said. “The idea of the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage was launched to reconnect to our rich legacy on the island.”

Several families were able to reconnect with their roots.

For the Ikedas of Stockton, Calif., the pilgrimage did not uncover any new information about their family, but it did give them an opportunity to see where Steve Ikeda’s family once passed through. “Both sides of my family came through Angel Island, my (Chinese) mother’s side, some members of my family were held here for several months. We don’t know that much about my dad’s side, the Japanese side, as they traveled through Angel Island — how long they were detained here, if they were detained here at all,” he said. “It was an opportunity to fill in some of that puzzle.”

Kathy Ikeda, his wife, said she had conducted some extensive research on her husband’s family over the last two decades, but the visit was still meaningful to them and their daughter, Andrea Ikeda.

For Andea Ikeda, who studied the wartime experience of Japanese Americans in the Tule Lake, Calif. concentration camp, she was interested in learning more about the wartime experience of some 700 Nikkei who passed through Angel Island during the war. “I didn’t realize until relatively recently that Angel Island was part of the wartime incarceration story,” she said.

Pat Shiono made the pilgrimage to honor Kiku Murakami, her grandmother, who came to the United States as a picture bride in 1914.

“She was a replacement picture bride,” she said. “Her older sister was ill and got rejected and sent back to Japan, so the family had to send her as a replacement.” Murakami first settled in Oakland and later moved to San Francisco in the 1920 where she operated the Issei-Ya sweet shop and worked as a midwife. She would later help to found Kimochi Kai and was also involved with the Hamilton Recreation Center.

For Grant Din, community relations director at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, stories such as those from the Ikedas and Shiono are what he hopes to incorporate into the larger narrative of the immigration station’s history. “Of course the Chinese poetry on the walls is what saved the (immigration station barracks) and what people know Angel Island for … but we also want to tell the stories of the people coming from the other countries that came through,” said Din. “For Nichi Bei to have a rebirth in that is fantastic because we probably had about a thousand people in the past three years come.”

 

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