FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Once Upon a Time — Preserve your family history through storytelling


DOCUMENTING FAMILY HISTORY — Intergenerational storytelling with the Okazaki family.
photo courtesy of Linda Harms Okazaki

Family stories are just as important to your family history as names, dates and places. Perhaps they are even more important because the stories are what connect past generations to future ones. According to Aaron Holt, an archives technician at the National Archives in Fort Worth, Texas, “it only takes three generations to lose a piece of oral family history… it must be purposely and accurately repeated over and over again through the generations to be preserved for a genealogist today.”

Will your family gather over a Christmas breakfast? Or will you visit everyone for Oshogatsu? Regardless of how you celebrate, take the opportunity to talk. And more importantly, to listen. This doesn’t have to be a formal interview, but rather it should be fun and casual. For those of you with roots in Hawai‘i, think of this as “talk story.” Academics might think of this as an “oral history” project. But the bottom line is to start the conversation. Talk to the oldest family members first. Ask them to tell you a story from their childhood. Ask about family and friends who have passed on. Have your auntie sing a song or read a poem. Have obāchan tell you about her hometown, her parents or her grandparents.

Most of us regret not asking questions of those relatives who are now gone. And once they have passed, you no longer have that chance to share the stories. With the holiday season upon us, the time is right to begin those conversations.

As you prepare for these conversations, don’t forget the smartphone. There’s no need to bring fancy video equipment. Simply pull out your phone and begin recording. Have the younger family members join the conversation. Teens can help with the technology. Younger children can ask questions. Consider pulling out old photos or showing home movies to help start the conversation and spur memories.

Sometimes the stories have errors or exaggerations, but that doesn’t diminish their importance. Perhaps your family has a legend of a samurai ancestor. That may be difficult, if not impossible, to prove. But the story is important, and passing it along preserves a piece of your history that otherwise would be lost.

If you are unsure about how to begin, there are a variety of apps available to help you record family stories. has a free app for recording oral histories. Keep Life Stories is a fee-based app, but a personal favorite because of the simplicity involved. While these tools are helpful, always remember that it’s the interpersonal connection that best preserves the story.

After the holidays, be sure to share the recorded conversations. Sharing is one more way to preserve the history.

It’s hard to believe that a new decade is nearly here and there is no time like the present to plan your family history goals. Happy searching everyone, and happy 2020!

Tips for starting family history conversations:
• Think about what questions you want to ask
• Give people the opportunity to speak from the heart
• Ask open ended questions
• Ask about relatives who have passed away
• Avoid interrupting the story teller
• Focus on listening

For further reading:
Rifkin, Rachael, “We’re Losing Generations of Family History Because We Don’t Share Our Stories,” Nov. 13, 2019, Good Housekeeping.

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 The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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