FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Visiting cemeteries


Okazaki family cemetery in the village of Tabara, Okayama, Japan.
courtesy of Linda Harms Okazaki

Whether your ancestors were Christian, Buddhist, or perhaps not religious at all, visiting their graves can make you feel connected to your own family history. Obon is the traditional Buddhist event when families visit the graves of their ancestors, but any time is right for paying your respects to those who came before us.

When visiting your deceased family members, there are a few things to remember. In Japan, there are customs for washing the stones, burning incense, and offering food to the ancestors. Even if your ancestors’ remains are in the U.S., there are some tips to remember.

Be gentle when washing the gravestones. Fresh water, a spritz bottle, and a soft brush or rag usually won’t cause any damage. Stay away from cleaning products which might harm the stones. Pressure washers, soaps, and abrasive brushes should be avoided at all costs. And if the stone is flaking or otherwise damaged, just leave it alone.

Please don’t use shaving cream, baby powder or chalk. These products might make it easier to read the inscriptions, but will also contribute to the deterioration of the stone. In this case, it’s simply best to get a good digital image. Then, use photo editing software to improve the legibility of the writing.

Photographing gravestones isn’t difficult, but you need to take advantage of the best lighting. Try photographing the stones at different times of day, or bring a piece of tin foil or a photographer’s reflector to enhance the light and make the inscriptions easier to read. Be sure to take pictures from different angles as well as all sides, and record the GPS, so that others can find the stones after you. Don’t forget to look for other deceased family members while you are in the cemetery.

Gravestones of Japanese individuals often contain quite a bit of information. Sometimes the kanji includes the village in Japan and names of other family members. Other times, only a posthumous name is inscribed. Often, the kamon is included.

If you aren’t sure where your ancestors remains are located in the U.S., start by ordering their death certificates or looking for obituaries in community newspapers.

There are a number of online sites that maintain cemetery data, such as Find a Grave and BillionGraves, which are supported by volunteers. Think of these organizations as crowdsourcing for cemeteries. One frequent contributor to Find A Grave is Tilden Osako. He regularly transcribes and translates the inscriptions of Japanese ohaka (graves) on the mainland and in Hawai‘i.

As you participate in the various Bon Odori events this summer, take time to remember your ancestors. Visit them in the cemetery. Better yet, pack a “cemetery bag” with all of the tools you need to photograph and preserve the stones. In addition to the rags, soft brush, spritz bottle, water, camera, and reflector, consider bringing grass clippers to clear weeds around the base of the stones, a trash bag, sunscreen and bug spray.

After you’ve visited the graves of your own family members, consider participating in a cemetery clean-up, such as the annual May event hosted by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California. Or better yet, volunteer to photograph and transcribe inscriptions on Find-a-Grave or Billion Graves. Finding your ancestors is rewarding. Sharing your findings, and giving back to the family history community is even better.

For additional information about visiting cemeteries:

Linda Harms Okazaki is a genealogist who currently serves as 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

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