FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Remembering those who were incarcerated, and honoring their legacy

Alien File of Ichinojo Osuga
photo courtesy of Linda Harms Okazaki

February is a time for contemplation in the Nikkei community as we reflect upon the signing of EO9066. This was the order that paved the way for tens of thousands of Nikkei to be unjustly incarcerated, for our loved ones to be detained, for our family members to lose their homes and possessions, and for their lives to be forever changed.

One way to honor the legacy of these individuals is to order their camp files from the National Archives. Each individual incarcerated should have her or his own file, though children’s records were often combined with those of their parents. Going about obtaining these is not difficult. Reading through the files of your grandparents, parents, or even yourself, brings the tragic history of this experience to light. Plenty of books and articles have been written about the wartime incarceration, but reading about your own family member makes the history much more real.

Your first step should be reviewing the U.S. Final Accountability Roster for your family. This document is searchable by name at Ancestry.com, or can be browsed at Densho.org. The Final Accountability Roster is organized by camp, and alphabetically by surname. Most camps organized individuals by family groups (the exception is Tule Lake, which is strictly alphabetical). You will find names, family numbers, birthdates, marital status, citizenship status, Alien Registration numbers, name of the assembly center (when applicable), date of entry into the camp, town or city of the previous residence, barrack number, date of departure from camp, and the post-incarceration destination. In some cases, you will see that the individual or family was transferred to another camp, joined the military, or repatriated to Japan.

If you or your family were incarcerated in one of the 10 War Relocation Authority camps, you will want to obtain the “Evacuee Case Files” from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There are three options:

  1. You can contact an archivist at https://www.archives.gov/contact and, for a modest fee, obtain paper copies of the files;
  2. You can hire a researcher to obtain color digital copies of the files (check the Association of Professional Genealogists for a list of researchers: www.apgen.org); or
  3. You can visit the Archives in person.

Regardless of which method you choose, be sure to provide the full name of the individual you are researching, the birthdate, and the name of the WRA camp or camps. If the individual is deceased, you must provide proof of death, such as a death certificate, obituary, or image of the grave. If you are ordering the file for a living individual or for yourself, you need to provide a notarized letter of authorization (this is to protect the privacy of living individuals).

The camp files contain a wealth of information. Adults completed a four-page questionnaire with colorful details, sometimes including the names of family members in Japan. There may be letters, photographs, medical information, and more. Each file is a treasure, waiting to be discovered.

If your family member was held in a Department of Justice Camp, such as Lordsburg or Crystal City, the process is a bit different. Those files are held at the National Archives in College Park, Md. Begin by searching the “WWII Alien Enemy Detention and Internment Case Files Index” at archives.gov. Enter the name of your relative in the search box and look for an item called “Japanese Internee Card.” This “card” is from Record Group 60, the Department of Justice. There you will find a 12-digit number called the Agency-Assigned Identifier (also known as the Department of Justice Case File number). Use this number, along with your ancestor’s name and birthdate, to order both the Internee Card and the Alien Enemy Case File. As with the WRA files, you can order them through the National Archives at Archives2reference@nara.gov, hire a researcher, or go in person.

The index card serves as a timeline of events for your ancestor. The case file holds much more. Usually the file contains a 23-page questionnaire and documentation of the individual while incarcerated. There may be letters from family or community members, an arrest warrant, or mug shot and finger prints. Each file is unique and gives a glimpse into your ancestor’s life during a difficult time.

For the serious researcher, there are many more records to explore beyond the case files. For the family historian, these records will not only bring your family members’ personal history to light, these also serve to honor their memory.

For additional information on obtaining these records, please read the information on the National Archives Website: https://www.archives.gov/research/japanese-americans/order.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist and past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, please send an email to LindasOrchard@gmail.com.

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