FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Who was George Masa? 

(What should you do when your genealogy hits the proverbial brick wall?)

Genealogists often use the term “brick wall” when they hit a roadblock in their research. It happens to all of us. What do you do when you can’t find any more information? Have you exhausted all obvious resources? If so, then be sure to re-evaluate all your documents.

Did you miss a clue in some conventional record? Maybe you overlooked the informant on a death certificate or the beneficiary of a life insurance policy?

Did you forget to order an obvious birth certificate, or did you skip one of the censuses?

Have you given enough attention to names?

• Did your ancestor use multiple names?
• Unconventional spelling?
• An alias?
• For women, did they have multiple surnames with multiple spouses?
• Was your ancestor a yōshi, changing his name with adoption and marriage?
• Did your Issei use both a Japanese and a western call name?
• Did your ancestor create an entirely new identity, perhaps to avoid past transgressions?

George Masa. photo courtesy Paul Bonesteel and the Pack Library Collection, Asheville NC

Have you created a timeline of your elusive ancestor? Timelines can help you identify holes in your research.

If you have already looked for the obvious records such as birth/marriage/death, census, court, immigration, land, military, naturalization, newspapers and probate, have you considered less conventional records?

• Life insurance policies
• School records in the U.S. and in Japan
• Minutes from the Boards of Special Inquiry
• Alien files, Certificate Files, Visa files, or Registry Files at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
• Passport applications in Japan
• Diaries and letters
• Village histories
• And don’t forget to explore collateral relatives, friends, colleagues and neighbors

At some point you will run into a true brick wall. Take the case of George Masa, an Issei photographer who lived in North Carolina, sometimes called the “Ansel Adams of the Great Smoky Mountains.” Who was he? What was his given name? When was he born? Who were his parents? What few documents survive contain conflicting data.

What Is Known
• He was  probably born Jan. 18, 1889 or 1890, though maybe 1880
• He may possibly have roots in Osaka
• He possibly lived in Tokyo before immigrating to the U.S.
• He immigrated before June 5, 1917, when he registered for the World War I draft
• He has not been found in U.S. passenger manifests
• His life insurance policy application indicated that his father was a jeweler in Osaka
• He probably had a brother born about 1886 and a sister born about 1888
• His father was probably born about 1855 and died in 1913
• His mother was probably born about 1869 and died in 1904
• George died from tuberculosis in 1933 in North Carolina
• His given name may have been Masaharu
• His surname may have been Iizuka or Honma/Homma
• His probate file named no beneficiaries
• He apparently never married and never had children
• No jewelers with the surname of Iizuka or Honma/Homma were found in Osaka
• He may have attended a school of mining and metallurgy in Japan
• He has not been located in alumni directories of various universities throughout Japan that offered classes in those subjects
• He converted to the Methodist faith while living in Japan
• He has not been found in passport applications at the Diplomatic Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1904-1917
• Names of some of his Japanese acquaintances include: Shoji Endo of Nagano prefecture; lived briefly in Seattle; Hajime Endo of Nagano prefecture; Motomi Miyasaka of Nagano prefecture; lived in Seattle; Akira Watanabe
• Who was George Masa? What would you do to start chipping away at that brick wall?
• For additional information about George Masa aka Masaharu Iizuka/Homma, be sure to see the 2002 film by Paul Bonesteel, “The Mystery of George Masa.” It can be viewed on Vimeo for a small fee: https://vimeo.com/channels/753067/94659550.

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 of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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