FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Vital Records — A vitally important part of your family history research


Vital Records are legal documents of major life events. Typically, these are birth, marriage, and death records. Usually they contain critical clues that can help you document your family history. More importantly, these records connect one generation to the next. In order to receive documents in Japan, you must prove your lineage to someone on the koseki; usually this is your Issei ancestor. By gathering vital records, you can prove your lineage through each document that names a set of parents.

Birth certificates are typically created at or near the time of the birth. They usually include the names of the parents, and sometimes the mother’s maiden name. Other details might be the address of the family, the occupation of the parents, the location of the birth, the doctor or midwife who delivered the child, the number of previous pregnancies of the mother, as well as the actual date of the birth. If a certificate was not generated at the time of the birth, or perhaps was destroyed (fire, flood, etc.), a delayed birth certificate might be available. For example, all of the original vital records from pre-1906 San Francisco were destroyed in the earthquake and fire. In other situations, the parents may have been working long hours on sugar plantations or residing too far away from a government office in order to record the birth in a timely manner. A delayed birth certificate may have been issued when the individual traveled overseas and required a passport. These are seen frequently among Nisei born in Hawai‘i.

The information contained in marriage records varies with time frame and location. Similar to birth records, marriage records might include the names of the parents, the occupations and addresses of the bride and groom, and witnesses. These witnesses may or may not have had a relationship with the couple. Pay close attention to those marriages which took place near the time of immigration. A woman immigrating alone, using her husband’s surname on the passenger record, and who marries shortly after arrival, is quite possibly a picture bride.

Death certificates can be particularly revealing, but the information must be carefully analyzed. Although death certificates typically are issued immediately following the event, some of the information may be incorrect. It’s important to evaluate if or how the informant knew the deceased. A spouse, parent, or child may report inaccurate details due to emotional stress and grief. A doctor or coroner may not have known the individual. Be sure to double check details such as date and location of birth. Facts about the cause and location of death are more likely to be accurate. In addition to the death certificate, obituaries may contain details about the extended family. In the case of an accidental death or a crime, there may be a newspaper account of the incident.

Vital records can be ordered from the county where the event took place. In California, you can also contact the state for records of birth, marriage, and death. An informational copy (versus a certified copy) sometimes will have a stamp across the front indicating that it may not be used to establish identity. This is not a problem; just be sure that you can still read all of the critical information.

Once you gather your documents, you should be able to prove your lineage for a generation or two, perhaps more. Your birth certificate names your parents, their birth/marriage/death records name their parents, and so on. Continue gathering the records in the U.S. until you get to your immigrant. If you can do this, plus identify your ancestral village, you will have enough information to order your records in Japan.

For more information:
California County Registrars and Recorders
Hawaii State Department of Health
Family Search, United States Vital Records
URLs valid as of April 9, 2019

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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