FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Finding your ancestors in passenger records


Cherry blossoms are the ubiquitous symbol of Japanese culture. They represent the fragility, beauty, and brevity of life. Cherry blossoms also symbolize the bond between the United States and Japan, and the connection between Japanese Americans and their ancestral heritage. Identifying that connection can be a challenge, especially if the language is no longer spoken in the home, or contact has been lost with extended family members in Japan.

For Nikkei, finding those immigrant ancestors on passenger records is a good way to begin reconnecting with the past. Do you know when your Issei ancestors arrived in the U.S.? Did they come first to Hawai‘i? Or did they arrive in another port, such as Vancouver, Canada; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles; or San Diego? Did your ancestors first immigrate to Latin America or Canada, and then travel to the U.S.?

Though the National Archives maintains most immigration records, it’s easier to begin searching through passenger records at or FamilySearch is a free site, and Ancestry can be accessed at many public libraries, or at any branch of the National Archives, without a subscription. Both sites have extensive passenger records. These lists were typically created at the point of departure rather than at the point of arrival.

Passenger records can contain a wealth of information. The oldest records may only contain the surname with a first initial and the ports of departure and arrival, if the records even survive. However, more recent passenger lists might contain first and last names, age at departure, occupation, literacy, nearest relatives in Japan, port of departure, final destination, previous years spent in the U.S., place of birth, and even a physical description. You even might hit the jackpot and find your ancestral address.

Though there were some early Japanese immigrants to Hawai‘i and the U.S. before the Meiji Restoration, large numbers of Nikkei didn’t begin to emigrate until the mid-1880s. Okinawans didn’t begin to emigrate until after the turn of the last century. The immigrants arrived via many different ports and settled in a variety of locations, including Canada and Latin America. Your immigrant ancestors may not have arrived in the port that you thought they did. Family lore may indicate that your ancestor immigrated directly to one port, while documents may prove otherwise.

Begin your search on one of the suggested databases. Enter names and dates into the search fields, but don’t enter everything you know. Expect creative spelling: Ichimaru may be indexed as Ihimam, or Maihara might be Mibar. Look for all potential ports of entry. Since many passenger lists are two pages in length, be sure to check the page preceding and following the initial record you review. Issei couldn’t own land in many states, and they couldn’t become citizens until 1952. As such they often traveled back and forth over the years. Nisei children may have been sent to be educated in Japan, as Kibei Nisei. Many Issei traveled back to Japan to find spouses, to check on relatives, or to maintain property. Sometimes you won’t find the original passenger records of your immigrant ancestors, but the identifying information in a later record, or that of a lateral relative, might provide enough information to continue your family story.

If you can’t identify the passenger record through a traditional search, try looking for information in different documents. Naturalization records, camp files, or A-files might identify the ship and date of arrival. The 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census records often include the year of immigration, which will help you look for the passenger record. But take this with a grain of salt, as the stated information may contain errors. Be sure to be creative when looking through indices of passenger records. Look for fathers, brothers, uncles, or cousins who may have immigrated with your ancestors. Expect creative spelling of names. Find every passenger record for your ancestors, not just the first one. Be sure to search for women with both their maiden and married names. The compiled data will help you to begin putting together the pieces of your family history.

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who currently serves as 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 e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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