FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Traditions: A vital component of family history


NEW YEAR TRADITIONS — (From top): Kagami mochi, kadomatsu and Oshogatsu foods. photos courtesy of Samantha Okazaki

(From Merriam Webster):
Traditions are “the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction”

It’s that time of year when our family traditions are in full swing. While children particularly appreciate traditions, familiar rituals make all of us feel connected and secure through customs, stories, food, music, and actions. According to a 2010 study at Emory University, “Family stories provide a sense of identity through time, and help children understand who they are in the world.”

Traditions are just as much a part of your family history as names, dates, documents, and gravestones. When we pass down our traditions from generation to generation, we create a living family history which binds the past generations to the present. These customs give us a sense of comfort and familiarity in the world. Of course, traditions change over time. And with the prevalence of mixed marriages, we often see a commingling of cultural traditions. In my own family, we combine Japanese, German, English and American traditions all year long.

The new year celebrations are an opportunity to ensure that your traditions are passed down to your future descendants. Start by creating a journal or calendar of family events, keeping them organized chronologically. Do you celebrate Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year)? If so, how do you do that? My family puts out the kadomatsu (gate pine) and kagami mochi (mirror rice cake) while the Christmas tree is still decorated. We serve a familiar meal of sushi, chicken katsu, beef curry, and assorted osechi ryori (traditional New Year food). Perhaps your family enjoys throwing beans for Setsubun or attends the cherry blossom festival every spring. Maybe your traditions are as simple as removing your shoes before entering the home.

For most of us, our traditions revolve around food. Think about what foods you serve or like to eat for special days. Do you bake a pie instead of a cake for birthdays? Do you serve your mom’s stuffing recipe along with rice at Thanksgiving? Cooking utensils are also a link to traditions from the past. Do you still use your mom’s rice cooker, or your Obachan’s oroshigane (Japanese grater)?

As you document your family traditions, be sure to include both recipes and photos of traditional foods or meals. Perhaps you have a picture of your mom’s tattered “Joy of Cooking” next to that favorite recipe in her familiar handwriting. Maybe you have a photo of your younger brother watching Grandma baste the turkey, or Ojichan pounding mochi (rice cakes).

Preserving traditions through a written narrative is just as important to your family history as preserving the documents and photos. Once you have identified your traditions and written them down, think about how you will preserve these in a way for your family to remember. Perhaps you can create a calendar of traditional events, or include descriptions of your traditions within your written family history. No matter how you document these traditions, be sure to share you work with your extended family.

Traditions are a way for us to connect to the past and our ancestral heritage. They help us to maintain our family history, and pass that history on to our descendants. Are you ready to start documenting your own family history?

Obachan’s Chicken Katsu (always served on New Year’s Day)
Cut two whole skinless chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces
Marinate chicken for several hours in:
1/2 cup shoyu
1T fresh ginger
1T fresh lemon juice
2T sake
Roll marinated chicken in a mixture of 2 parts cornstarch/6 parts flour
Dip into beaten egg which has been thinned slightly with water
Roll in panko
Fry in 2” of vegetable oil heated to 375
Drain on a rack

In our next column we will look at the importance of using newspapers in your family history research.

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

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