FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Census data helps bring family history to life


Okazaki family photo, early 1930s.
photo by/courtesy of Linda Okazaki

Most of us have fond memories of our childhood homes. We remember playing in the backyard, listening for mom to call us in for dinner or doing homework at the kitchen table. We might remember visiting our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Did you help your ojiichan in the garden? Or help your obaachan rinse the rice or hang the laundry? As we think about our families and reminisce about our childhood homes, do you wonder where your grandparents or great-grandparents lived? Have you considered creating a timeline of their residences, from your immigrant ancestor to the present?

Writing down your memories helps bring your family history to life. But your family history journey also requires some research. If you are looking to document the homes and addresses of your family members, the U. S. federal census is a good place to begin.

The federal government has been gathering population statistics every 10 years since 1790. The most recent federal census available to the public is from 1940. Start your census search there. These records are easiest to access through, which is free, or, which requires payment. Many public libraries, as well as Family History Centers and branches of the National Archives, provide free access to

The 1940 census contains a wealth of information. After locating your family members, pay attention to their addresses. Where did they live in 1940? Were they renters? Or, in the case of the Nisei or Sansei, did they own their homes or farms? Who else lived in the neighborhood? The 1940 census provides information about the relationships between the head of the household and other residents, gender, age, race, marital status, years of education, birthplace, citizenship, occupation, and income. It also indicates their residence in 1935. This can be very useful information when looking for those elusive relatives.

Continue to track your ancestors in every census, going back to your immigrants. Each census contains slightly different information. Some states conducted their own census surveys. Check with the U.S. Census Bureau to see if the states where your ancestors lived had separate census’. Unfortunately, the only state census in California took place in 1852, predating the immigration of most Nikkei.

The 1930 census has information similar to 1940. Of particular importance in the 1930 census is determining whether or not the adult Nisei women in your family lost their American citizenship through marriage to Issei men. According to U.S. laws of the time, American-born women who married Asian immigrants lost their citizenship. That particular law was amended in 1931.

Continue to look for your family members in the 1920, 1910, and 1900 census records. The 1900 to 1930 documents include the year of immigration. The 1910 census includes the number of children born to a mother. If you can’t find someone in a particular census, look for immigration records. Issei weren’t allowed to become U.S. citizens until 1952, so it’s possible that your relatives traveled to Japan to visit family, attend school, or to check on property when that particular census was enumerated.

Due to a fire in 1921, very little is left of the 1890 census. The fragments which survive can be found on Relatively few Nikkei lived in the U.S. in 1870 and 1880, but those census records are valuable if your family had already immigrated.

Keep in mind the fact that the information on any given census record may be incorrect. A neighbor or a child may have reported the information. An immigrant may have had difficulty with the language. And the census enumerator may have made errors.

As you work your way back, decade by decade, create a timeline of every family residence. Use other records to fill in the locations of their homes during the intermediary years. Vital records (birth, marriage, death), immigration records, social security applications, city directories, passenger manifests, and internment camp files, are all sources for filling in the ever-changing residences of your ancestors.

After you have pinned down the dates and locations, use Google Maps to determine whether or not those homes still exist. Consider writing a letter to the current residents or owner, or take a road trip and view or photograph the homes in person. You might want to create a map documenting the changing residences of your family members. FamilySearch even has a free app for that.

Locating the residences of our ancestors can sometimes be a challenge, but doing so helps us to better understand their lives as we document our family histories.

Linda Harms Okazaki, a professional genealogist, is past president of the California Genealogical Society, specializing in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, please send an e-mail to Views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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