Genealogist helps Nikkei trace their roots

A group of 30 people assembled Sept. 28 at the California Genealogical Society in Oakland, Calif. to learn about conducting genealogical research on their Japanese American ancestors. The sold out class featured people coming from as far as Santa Barbara, Calif.

“Finding Your Japanese Roots in the U.S. and Japan” explored research venues for those interested in finding records of Nikkei ancestors through immigration records and wartime incarceration documents and also explained the historical context behind the files. Linda Harms Okazaki, a genealogist volunteering with the society, taught the class and was pleased with the turnout. “Normally, when we have these classes, we get maybe 20 to 24 people,” she said. “This class actually had a waiting list.”

Susanne Mori, who came from Santa Barbara, said she has been interested in genealogy for more than 40 years. “I signed up before realizing it was in Oakland,” she said. “But I’m really glad I came. … I’d like her to come down to present in Santa Barbara too.” While Harms Okazaki is unable to speak or read Japanese herself, she said she has been particularly interested in researching her husband’s family’s roots.

“The first thing you do is talk to the oldest living relative,” she said. “Ask about documentation … birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates, anything with Japanese writing.” Using names, dates and anything else gleaned from these documents, Harms Okazaki said the search for more information begins. Websites such as Ancestry.com have ship rosters and immigration records available, but Harms Okazaki prefers to search for documents at their sources, such as the National Archives.

“You might not easily find who you’re looking for, but they are there,” she said. While a preliminary search might not turn up any hits, anyone immigrating to the United States legally from Japan had to have a paper trail of some kind. “Japan didn’t allow people to leave the country without the ability to sign their name in cursive.” While there is a wealth of information to be mined online, Harms Okazaki said some work is required for certain records, including records for land sales. To obtain these, Harms Okazaki said a trip to the county where the records are kept is required. She also noted that many Issei were forbidden from owning land due to racist land laws, so deeds may be registered to children born on American soil.

The mass incarceration of people of Japanese decent during World War II also provides a wealth of resources. Harms Okazaki said the U.S. military kept paperwork on every inmate, which allows descendants today to piece together their ancestor’s wartime experience. Records include arrest warrants issued to many community leaders following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the path prisoners took from their homes to assembly centers to concentration camps and wherever else they may have gone after that.

For families seeking information about the wartime incarceration, the National Archives maintains a database of each inmate through the Access to Archival Databases (http://aad.archives.gov/aad). The reports there contain information on each prisoner that was entered into a punch card.

“This electronically generated report will contain information that will help you cross reference other documents you find,” Harms Okazaki said. Requests to have copies of a complete report can be made by mail or online, but Harms Okazaki advised personally visiting the archives where the files are located. Harms Okazaki said she would conduct a preliminary search online to see where certain files are stored at the archives, and from there she would either personally visit or hire another genealogist to look up the relevant files.

Aside from the National Archives, Alien Files (www.archives.gov/research/immigration/aliens) on immigrants are also available through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. While researchers cannot search for names themselves due to privacy laws, the USCIS will search and retrieve an Alien File for $20 per name if it is not yet available at the National Archives.

Renunciants’ files, however, are not readily available in an index search from the USCIS and may require a little more work, Harms Okazaki said.

“They might come through if you send a written request to have them perform the search by hand,” she said. Finally, retrieving documents associated with redress from the U.S. government from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 can be tricky. The documents are available at the National Archives in College Park, Md., but are difficult to obtain since some of the documents pertaining to redress also includes sensitive information including banking information and require consent forms before they are released.

Koseki: Family Registry in Japan

Another challenge in researching Japanese American ancestors is finding or requesting a copy of the koseki from Japan, Harms Okazaki said. The koseki is a document that records the head of a family and its history and is kept by the Japanese government. The document includes records of marriage, places of residence and deaths.

The document can sometimes offer insight into some of the more interesting pieces of family history.

“You’ll see someone get crossed off the koseki because they married off to another family, but then they later get readded in because of a divorce,” she said. Harms Okazaki warned that researchers should secure their koseki as soon as possible. “The Japanese government is currently digitizing many of the older koseki,” she said. She warned that the Japanese government is not converting old koseki in their entirety. “You might get your koseki, but you don’t know what information, if any, was omitted.” Harms Okazaki said family members can request a koseki from the Japanese government as long as the requestor proves they are related to the family. Requests must be made to the local government offices where the ancestor is from. “Before you get to Japan, find the kanji spelling for your relative’s name. Kanji can be read many different ways,” Harms Okazaki said. She also warned that some smaller villages or cities could have been destroyed during the war or consolidated into larger cities years later. In those cases, Harms Okazaki said requests should be sent to the local government office that’s closest to the old hometown. “Find all you can get and get the look right, notarize documents with Japanese if you can. Make it easier for whoever is doing the work to make sure they can process your request quickly.”

Harms Okazaki, however, had managed to find a koseki among the documents her grandfather-in-law had submitted to the U.S. government while requesting redress. “I was lucky in the Okazakis’ case … You’ll never know what you’ll find,” she said. Once the koseki is acquired, Harms Okazaki said translating the document is the next challenge. “Hire an older translator if you can,” she said. “Language changes over time, especially for Japanese. … Also, have the translator include all possible readings for kanji.”

Piecing it All Together
With all the research done, the final step for genealogical research is piecing together the records into a narrative. Harms Okazaki said she pieced together how her husband’s ancestors traveled from Japan to the United States and had published a report on the Genealogical Society’s biannual journal. She found that her husband’s great grandfather, Sasanji Okazaki, left for British Columbia in 1898 and later crossed the border into the United States via Vancouver.

She also learned through U.S. immigration papers that Sasanji Okazaki had gone back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, and cross referencing with the koseki,  found various reasons why he had likely gone home to visit his family, including after his brother’s death.
Harms Okazaki also managed to find her husband’s family in Japan and visited them to share photos and stories to further flesh out their family histories.

“I highly recommend going to Japan. It’s something to follow in your ancestor’s footsteps,” she said. Harms Okazaki found that, despite language barriers, the Okazakis were forthcoming with her. “With Japan being a patrilineal society, the women were especially forthcoming since they aren’t talked about that much.”

Following the class, participants had an opportunity to use the California Genealogical Society and Library’s computers to search for their ancestors on Ancestry.com, which is a subscription-based service. Seeing the interest expressed by potential students, Harms Okazaki said she hopes to teach the class again in a larger venue in the future. The California Genealogical Society  is a membership based organization offering classes and resources on genealogical research.

For more information, visit www.californiaancestors.org. Linda Harms Okazaki is a genealogist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her Website is www.lindasorchard.com.

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