FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Researching ‘war brides’

Reprinted with permission, Yayoi Winfrey Family Archives

Every family story is worth sharing and no two stories are exactly alike. Not all Nikkei immigrated to the U.S. before World War II and not all Nikkei have incarceration camps in their history.

In December 1945, the War Brides Act was put into place. This allowed U.S. military personnel to bring foreign-born wives, fiancées, and their children into the U.S. outside of immigration quotas. Initially, most of these women were from Australia, Canada and Europe. By 1947, the bill was amended to include Korean and Japanese spouses. Brides came in smaller numbers from other countries, such as the Philippines.

As a result, thousands of GIs stationed (or on leave) in Japan, both during and after the occupation, returned home with Japanese wives. Some of these men were Nisei soldiers. There were many reasons why Japanese women married American men. Obviously, many of the couples married for love. But some of the women may have been trying to escape a life of uncertainty in postwar Japan. For some, the allure of a perceived exotic life in a land of riches beckoned them. Others were looking for adventure. Regardless of the reasoning, their stories are interesting and worth documenting.

Family historians should always begin their research at home. If the bride is still living, be sure to interview her. Ask questions about her life in Japan, her relatives, the struggles and the joys she faced as a new bride in a cross-cultural and often interracial marriage. Try to record the interview. Be sure to search for memorabilia such as letters, photos, ephemera, jewelry, clothing and documents. Each item should be photographed or scanned, then stored in an archivally safe manner.

Documenting the lives of these women can be challenging. Fortunately, many of these women kept their koseki shohon (family register) with them when coming to the U.S. This abbreviated legal document often included an English translation. If you have one of these among your family possessions, it’s often worth the effort to have the entire document re-translated, just in case some details were omitted from the original version. Details should include the address of the family in Japan, the head of household, plus the names and birthdates of her relatives registered within the same document.

If the couple married in Japan, rather than the U.S., be sure to look for a marriage certificate at the U.S Department of State — Bureau of Consular Affairs. Likewise, if children were born to the couple while in Japan, the birth certificates can also be ordered from the State Department.

Other records to look for include naturalization documents, passenger manifests (on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch.org), and passports. Additionally, each ‘war bride’ should have a “Visa File,” which can be ordered through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The Red Cross operated “Brides Schools” in Japan to help women adapt to life as a 1950s American housewife. These schools were sponsored by the military and the instructors were reportedly the American wives of U.S. officers stationed in Japan. While not all brides attended these schools, those who did may still have paperwork and handbooks among their possessions.

Life certainly couldn’t have been easy for these women once they arrived in the U.S., or the other countries where their husbands served in the military (e.g. Germany). Interracial marriage was still banned in many states until 1967 and even in communities where there were no anti-miscegenation laws, acceptance was a challenge. Many of the women were isolated, had difficulty assimilating into communities, and struggled with language and culture. But their stories deserve to be uncovered and shared.

For more information:
‘Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides’ (film)
www.fallsevengetupeight.com

‘The Japanese Women who Married the Enemy’
www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33857059

‘The Stories of War Brides of Japan Needs to be Told’
www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2016/8/1/war-brides

‘The Untold Stories of Japanese War Brides’
www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2016/09/22/from-hiroko-to-susie-the-untold-stories-of-japanese-war-brides/?utm_term=.253bd79d5502

Records of the American National Red Cross, Central Decimal Files, NARA College Park, Md.
www.archives.gov/research

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
https://www.uscis.gov

U.S Department of State – Bureau of Consular Affairs
https://jp.usembassy.gov/u-s-citizen-services/citizenship-services/obtaining-vital-records

‘War Brides of Japan’ (film) — www.warbridesofjapan.com

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is 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, send an e-mail to LindasOrchard@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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