Preserving family histories for the future: Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage

Although Japanese Americans now thrive across the United States, approximately 85,000 of them first stepped foot on the U.S. mainland after stopping at the U.S. Immigration Station on Angel Island. In an effort to reclaim that part of Nikkei history, the Nichi Bei Foundation held its fourth Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage Oct. 13 on the island located in the San Francisco Bay.

According to organizers, some 300 attendees registered for the program held in partnership with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, National Japanese American Historical Society and the California Genealogical Society.

HONORING THE PAST — The Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage honored those who passed through the Immigration Station with a Bon Odori, led by Reiko Iwanaga (L), followed by Brenda Wong Aoki, Mark Izu and 50 others.

The formal program began with Masayuki Koga on shakuhachi, accompanied by dancer Ranko Ogura. The Rev. Hiroko Suzuki read a Japanese poem published in the prewar Nichi Bei Shimbun describing the bitter experience on the island, with Judy Hamaguchi reading an English translation by San Francisco State University Professor Charles Egan. The program ended with Reiko Iwanaga and the Rev. Keisuke Lee-Miyaki of the Buddhist Church of San Francisco leading a Bon Odori.

The event also recognized Grant Din, a former Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation staff member, for his efforts in researching and preserving the stories of Nikkei who passed through the island.

Researcher Grant Din (R) received an Appreciation Award for his work. photo by William Lee

The Rev. Grace Suzuki of Christ United Presbyterian Church, representing the Japanese American Religious Federation, gave a blessing.

“Today, we honor the paths of our ancestors, who came here as strangers from a different shore and took a bold step in rebuilding their lives in a foreign land,” Nichi Bei Foundation President Kenji G. Taguma said. “They would give birth to new Japanese American communities and now we are spread all across the country.”

Setting Foot In America

Japanese immigrants were the second largest group to pass through the Immigration Station during its years of operation from 1910 to 1940, Din said. Among them were the grandmothers of Sonoma State University President Judy K. Sakaki. The first Japanese American woman to lead a four-year university in the nation, Sakaki served as the program’s keynote speaker. She spoke about the hardships her picture bride grandmothers faced, and reflected on her own experiences with loss, having survived the 2017 Tubbs Fire where she and her husband lost almost everything they owned when their home in the Fountaingrove neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Calif., burned down.

Sakaki said the story of her maternal grandmother, Konoe Hirota, especially filled her with hope. Hirota arrived on Angel Island in 1917. Sakaki said her grandmother came to America after her older sister begged her to go in her place.

“My baachan was dutiful and she did what was asked. She took her older sister’s suitcase, full of clothes that were not her own, and boarded the ship bound for San Francisco, clutching the picture of her husband to be,” Sakaki said. “Last fall, when my husband Patrick and I had to run, quite literally, for our lives in the North Bay fires, we lost our home and all of our possessions. … Even then, I still took strength from my baachan’s story.”

Speaking about her grandmother’s resilience and optimism throughout her life, including during the wartime incarceration, Sakaki said she too could survive even the worst fire.

Preserving Stories For Future Generations
Sakaki said she lamented losing her Japanese things the most after the fire. “It felt like losing my past and my connections to my parents and grandparents. My grandma’s teapot, the imari plates, the kokeshi dolls, my grandmother’s — my mother’s kimonos, my kabuto, samurai helmet, that my father gave to my sons, and losing all of my family history, through artifacts from Tanforan, and Topaz and Tule Lake, the very tags that they wore.”

Her only surviving family artifacts are several items that she had loaned to Sonoma State University for an exhibit on her family’s history after she assumed her role as president.

Sonoma State University President Judy K. Sakaki. photo by William Lee

“I got very lucky, so that’s really all that I own right now,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. The artifacts from the exhibit were initially slated to have been delivered back to her house, but a delay spared them. Among the items saved include Sakaki’s grandfather’s suitcase, which he used to immigrate to America. She added, however, that this was only about one-fifteenth of her family’s total collection.

“I think the hardest thing is losing all the photographs that weren’t scanned. I learned a lot about that, I wish I scanned things or took them out of the old photo albums,” she said. “And I’ve asked cousins to look for things to see what they have, but I tended to be the keeper of a lot of that information.”

Linda Harms Okazaki, past president of the California Genealogical Society and Nichi Bei Foundation board member, encouraged attendees to get started on researching family history. Touching on Sakaki’s story of loss, Harms Okazaki also told the story of Yutao Roy Hirai, a Nisei born in Utah who was detained at Angel Island after his U.S. citizenship was questioned upon his return from Japan. She said Hirai went on to become a war hero, fighting for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and received a Purple Heart.

“He moved to Concord, (Calif.) to be with his daughter and three months before Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act (of 1988), Yutao Roy Hirai passed away,” Harms Okazaki said. “In 1991, his daughter moved to Oakland and, like Dr. Sakaki, she suffered tremendous loss. She lost everything in the Oakland firestorm of 1991: Her possessions, her photos, her father’s uniform, her father’s purple heart.”

However, while the physical materials tied to Hirai and Sakaki’s ancestors were lost, Harms Okazaki said they live on through their documents.

“Through adversity, Roy Hirai persevered. And through his documents, I feel as though I know him. Family history can help us learn more about ourselves. It can help us heal. It can help us connect to our ancestors,” she said.

Beginning the Search
During the pilgrimage, 14 volunteer genealogists from the California Genealogical Society were on hand to help attendees look for records and discuss DNA analyses. The event also gave away 100 free DNA kits from Ancestry.com to the first hundred consultations.

James Russell, one of the genealogists, said there was tremendous enthusiasm from attendees. While the consultations were only for 15 minutes each, Russell said his hope was to inspire attendees to think more about family history by introducing them to the resources they have at their disposal.

Sasaki said she was surprised with the amount of information available about her family online after her consultation during the pilgrimage. Among the files were records of where her grandmother was born in Japan, as well as census data about where she lived. She also found names of brothers and sisters. She said she was thankful this information is available for the future generations of her family.

Since the fire, Sakaki said she had been encouraged to take what she knows and put it in writing. “While I can’t give the physical thing to my granddaughter, my grandchildren, I can write about what was special, and why a certain table or certain artifact from the internment camp held meaning for me and in that way pass it to the next generation, even though I don’t have the physical object,” she said.

Filmmaker Tina Takemoto said she attended the pilgrimage in hopes of learning more about her paternal grandmother. “I knew that she and my grandfather were both from (Wakayama Prefecture), and I had heard that he had come from the U.S. … got married and they came back together,” she said. “But there were stories, one that she was a picture bride in a more conventional sense.”

Following her session, Takemoto said she confirmed that her grandfather had traveled back to Japan and came back to the United States with her grandmother in May of 1913. The discovery, however, raised another question. While her grandmother had passed through Angel Island, she discovered that her grandfather instead came through Seattle. Takemoto said she was eager to look for more files at the National Archives in San Bruno, Calif.

Context for the Future
While the pilgrimage preceded President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would try to end birthright citizenship in the country, it coincided amid rising concerns for the right of people to immigrate to the United States.

“How appropriate it is that we are here today in the midst of our current social climate, which includes heated conversations about present day immigration issues, and what immigration justice does or does not look like,” Rev. Grace Suzuki said at the event’s opening. “…I pray that we are able to find … (the) moral and spiritual significance that leads us to empathize … with the many immigrants today who struggle with similar harassment, denigration and discrimination.”

“My baachans’ stories are as inspiring to young people as their ancestors’ stories are inspiring to me. And especially in times like this. When many immigrant and minority communities in our country feel worried and afraid, I believe we share a responsibility to tell the stories, to remember the stories and to draw strength from the stories we celebrate here today,” Sakaki said.

Casey Dexter-Lee, state park interpreter, explained how Angel Island was different from Ellis Island in New York. “The people who worked here actually called this place ‘The Guardian of the Western Gate,’” she said. “Its job was very different from Ellis Island, which mostly quickly processed immigrants.”

Lee encouraged attendees to use the pilgrimage to “come to a better understanding of where we are today and to become an active participant in our immigration future.”

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