The Hunt for Our Heritage

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By ELLEN ENDO
Rafu Contributing Writer

Mihara family circa. 1938 in San Francisco. Sam Mihara is the youngest in front.

There is no king who has not
had a slave among his ancestors
and no slave who has not
had a king among his.
— Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Between 1886 and 1911, more than 400,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States, seeking new opportunities. Those early immigrants, the Issei, were often reluctant to share with their young Nisei children the hardships, discrimination, and religious persecution they encountered.  With the aging Nisei passing away at the rate of almost two per day, renewed interest in ancestry and genealogy is emerging among Japanese Americans.

Adding to this renewed interest in genealogy is concern that the number of people in America identifying themselves as solely Japanese is declining. According to the 2010 Census, that number has dropped from 796,700 to 763,325, or 4.1 percent, in the last 10 years.

Meanwhile, Census 2010 respondents identifying themselves as bicultural and tricultural Japanese jumped from 352,232 to 540,961, or 34.8 percent, since Census 2000.

Browsing the Internet to find public records such as birth and death certificates, census rolls, and ship registries for the names of parents and other relatives is a logical first step. Individuals with enough time and energy to take on such a project can access free services such familysearch.org, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Additional free information may be obtained by visiting FamilySearch Centers located around the world. Six can be found in Southern California alone.

An online inquiry can kick-start a search, but a complete genealogical chart or family tree requires time, patience, and expert research skills. Meticulously maintained family ancestral information can be found in Japan, but officials will only release details to direct descendants or an intermediary who has been granted a power of attorney. Of course, it helps if the intermediary can speak, read, and write classic Japanese.

June Kim of Irvine started her search with a trip to Osaka and the city hall in Wakayama-ken. Even after Kim proved that she was a direct descendant of the Nakatani family, the language barrier and Japanese bureaucracy became daunting. She returned to America and applied for a koseki (family registry) through The Rafu Shimpo, and an intermediary with expertise in dealing with government officials and Japanese cultural practices streamlined the process.

Kim discovered that her grandmother had adopted a boy before immigrating to America. She later learned that the “adoption” was more of a formality than an actual addition. The practice ensured that the family name would be carried on.

“What was important was passing the family history along to our kids,” Kim stated. “They were really interested.”

Little Tokyo resident Ron Yamaguchi ordered his koseki a couple of years ago. What stands out in his mind is the researcher’s statement that, despite strict citizenship (naturalization) laws in Japan, Yamaguchi could become a Japanese citizen based on his lineage.

Ancestry.com, touted as the world’s largest family search site, announced last February it was adding more than 180,000 World War II records of Japanese Americans, covering 1942-45, from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Japanese American National Museum collaborated with Ancestry.com to help promote addition of the wartime data coinciding with observance of the 70th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

The move, according to the Ancestry.com press release, would “allow all Americans a chance to better understand the nation’s wartime mindset and the effect it had on Japanese Americans.”

Pay-per-view sites such as Ancestry.com tie into thousands of databases and documents worldwide, but recurring monthly fees can mount quickly.  As with all genealogical searches, there is no guarantee of satisfactory results. Records may have been destroyed because of wartime air raids or lost during natural disasters and fires.

Some War Relocation Authority (WRA) data is accessible online, but the bulk of NARA’s World War II data is maintained at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. These records are subject to privacy restrictions, says archivist Rebecca Sharp. “The subject of the file can view his or her own record. If you are not the subject of the file, you can view the record if you have the notarized written permission from the subject or proof of the subject’s death (such as a death certificate, Social Security Death Index listing, or obituary),” Sharp stated in addressing NARA’s eighth annual Genealogical Fair in April.

A case file number is required in order to request the record. The number can be obtained by searching the “Records About Japanese Americans Relocated During World War II…” database (for search tips, click here).

Retired Boeing executive and former Heart Mountain internee Sam Mihara recently obtained a complete set of his father’s and grandfather’s WRA files — a folder containing 258 pages. The original records are maintained by the U.S. National Archives in Washington.

Mihara discovered two significant items. One was a Declaration of Declination dated Jan. 30, 1943, and signed by his father, stating that he desires to remain in the United States and that he does not wish to be repatriated to Japan.

The other document was the loyalty questionnaire, titled War Relocation Authority Application for Leave Clearance. “On the critical questions 27 and 28, my father had some interesting responses,” says Mihara.  “On Question 27, it asked if he would be willing to serve in the Army Nurse Corps. His answer was ‘male.’

“On Question 28, he objected to the form of the loyalty question, which asked if he would ‘forswear allegiance to the Japanese Emperor.’” Mihara’s father, a prewar journalist from San Francisco, apparently crossed out the entire question. A second document amended Question 28 to read with no mention of Japan or the Emperor:  “Will you swear to abide by the laws of the United States and to take no action which would in any way interfere with the war effort of the United States?”His answer was “yes.”

According to Mihara, this was followed by an interrogation by the FBI into more details about his background. Other documents covered his complete medical history, including the diagnosis and treatment for blindness. Mihara believes his father’s condition was the result of inadequate medical care in camp.

Mihara has become a speaker on the JA wartime experience, addressing university students and community groups.

Personal historian Lynn Choy Uyeda explains that genealogy is a key component of a family’s history but is the “skeleton.” To paint a complete picture it’s important to speak to older members of the family. The stories, accomplishments, pivotal moments in a person’s life “are the meat and skin,” Uyeda notes.

A former official with Census 2000 and Census 2010, Uyeda links lives and legacies by recording interviews with older family members, documenting traditions and compiling a cultural history. “Wouldn’t it be nice to know where your great-grandparents came from, how Grandpa made his living?”

In her interviews, Uyeda usually talks in terms of five- or ten-year increments, asking where the interviewee was living, what was he/she was doing, what schools they attended, and what their first job after college was.

As she begins to piece together the cultural background, Uyeda often asks for old photo albums and other memorabilia. Sessions are recorded in any way that is comfortable for the subject — audio, video, or with notes.

“We often find that the life review can be very therapeutic, especially if there are family issues. Faded memories often come flowing back,” she adds. “And, of course, these family histories become priceless keepsakes for younger members of the family.”

Kim concurs with Uyeda. The younger family members enjoy learning about their ancestors. “It’s probably time to update it,” Kim considers with a hint of pride. “There have been new additions to the family.”

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