FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Where are you really from?


Eugene Penny Gibson’s ancestors come from Africa and Europe. ­image reproduced with permission by Eugene Penny Gibson

This column is all about teaching Nikkei to find their roots. For many of you, those roots are ethnically, racially or culturally mixed. Perhaps you are a Japanese American married to someone of eastern European ancestry. Perhaps you adopted multiracial children of unknown ancestry. Maybe your mother was a war bride married to an African American serviceman.

My own extended family includes recent immigrants from Japan, Vietnam and Scotland, a Sansei cousin married to a second-generation Chinese American, as well as early immigrants from England and Germany.

Each one of you has a different story to document, regardless of those origins. If you’ve taken a DNA test, you might have discovered that you have ancestors from unexpected locations. My own DNA is exclusively western European.

My husband’s is exclusively Japanese. But in the image accompanying this column, you can see that Penny Gibson’s DNA covers multiple continents. He has ancestors from Japan (his third great grandfather was Kuninosuke Masumizu of the Wakamatsu colony), as well as Africa and Europe. Each of his ancestors has a story to be uncovered.

DNA Estimates for Eugene Penny Gibson from

Eugene Penny Gibson with a photo of his ancestor Kuninosuke Masumizu. photo by Mark Shigenaga

The process of researching your family history is the same regardless of your origins. Whether you are 100 percent Japanese, biracial, multiracial or multiethnic, the steps are the same:
Decide what you want to learn
Write down what you already know
Interview your oldest living relatives
Preserve your family heirlooms and photos
Order records which will document the lives of your ancestors and …
Share, share, share!

Key documents to look for include:
Birth, marriage and death records (plus adoption and divorce)
City directories
Court and probate records
Immigration records
Land records
Military records
Naturalization records
Social Security applications

If you or your family members were adopted, the process will likely include DNA.

Eugene Penny Gibson’s ancestors come from Africa and Europe. ­image reproduced with permission by Eugene Penny Gibson

As you gather your data, you need to keep it organized. You also will need to resolve any conflicts that you uncover, correlate and interpret the data, and come to conclusions about your ancestors and their lives. After that, you will have to decide on a format for sharing: A book? A blog? A film? A family reunion?

Sometimes there are ethnic specific records to research. Not everyone and not every family member will have the same documents or history. Sometimes those documents might pertain to a particular racial, ethnic, or cultural group. Knowing what records to look for is key. For Nikkei, those records often include Evacuee Case Files and Alien Enemy Case Files pertaining to the World War II incarceration. A family with early African American roots may need to explore documents pertaining to slavery, slave owners and reconstruction era records. Someone with French Canadian roots may need to explore Catholic church records from Quebec.

Those with early American ancestors might look for military records from early conflicts, such as the Civil War, the War of 1812, the

Revolutionary War and possibly bounty land records.

Be sure to start your research with the FamilySearch “wiki” ( Think of this as Wikipedia for genealogy. Search by topic, region or ethnic group.

Your next stop should be Cyndi’s List (, “a categorized and cross-referenced index to genealogical resources on the Internet.” As with FamilySearch, you can search by topic, region, or ethnic group. Then, utilize the “Ethnic Heritage Links” ( at the National Archives Website.

Contact your local genealogical society, historical society, public library or university to flesh out the details of the lives of your ancestors and to add social history context. For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can follow the California Genealogical Society (, which hosts a variety of classes online. Look for ethnic specific genealogy classes, or simply general genealogy classes on methodology or writing.

Conference Keeper ( hosts the largest calendar of genealogy events, both virtual and in-person, in the U.S. and beyond.

Don’t forget social media. Facebook tends to have lots of resources for researching many different ethnic groups. In terms of Websites, Legacy Family Tree ( — scroll to the bottom of the page to find specific resources), the New England Historic Genealogical Society ( the National Genealogical Society ( each have a variety of online resources which can help you find those non-Japanese ancestors.

The categories listed below are NOT exhaustive. They are just the tip of the iceberg, but will give you some clues for starting your ethnic-specific genealogical research.

African American Genealogy
FamilySearch Wiki
National Archives

Chinese Genealogy
FamilySearch Wiki
Bay Area Chinese Genealogy Group
Chinese Family History Group of Southern California
FamilySearch Wiki
Philippine Genealogical Society
Filipino Genealogy Resources On-Line

French Canadian
FamilySearch Wiki
Genealogy Quebec

FamilySearch Wiki
Irish Genealogy

FamilySearch Wiki
Italian Genealogical Group

FamilySearch Wiki
Jewish Gen

Latin American
FamilySearch Wiki (be sure to also search by specific country)
Hispanic Genealogy Guide by Colleen Robledo Green

FamilySearch Wiki
Mexican Genealogy Guide by Colleen Robledo Greene
Mexican Genealogy

Native American Genealogy
FamilySearch Wiki
National Archives
National Indian Law Library

Eastern European
FamilySearch Wiki (be sure to also search by specific country)
East European Genealogical Society

Genealogy is not just for solitary ethnic groups. Many of our families are multiethnic, multiracial, and multicultural. There are family history resources for nearly every ethnic, geographic, racial, or religious group you can think of. Got Quakers? There’s plenty of information. Polish? Yep. Indigenous Canadians (First Nations)? Sure. When in doubt, do a Google search on your specific point of interest. Think creatively. Use the resources named in this article.
Now go out and document all of those ancestors.
If you have a question about your family history journey, feel free to “Ask the genealogist.” Others may have the same questions and we can all learn from each other. The answers will be posted in the next column.

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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