Finding Obaachan’s Family
by Linda Okazaki
Researching the lives of women in a patrilineal society is challenging. Tradition in Japan dictates that property is passed from eldest son to eldest son. When no male heir exists, one is adopted. Although current laws have changed, farming communities still practice this pattern. So what is a genealogist to do?
The current heir to the Okazaki ancestral farm was adopted into the family in 1958. He was the second son in his own family, ineligible to inherit property. These adoptions are fairly common in traditional Japanese farming communities and can be the key to discovering maternal lines.
Motomu was born a “Maihara” in the remote mountain village of Ota. His brother, the eldest son, still lives in the original family home. We drove along narrow winding roads cut through deep canyons until we arrived. Twelve families still live in the village and six of those are from the Maihara Clan.
We were warmly greeted by Satoshi and Mitsuko Maihara. After cursory bows and formalities we entered the home through the front door where there was a dirt floor, tightly compacted from generations of visitors. From there we removed our shoes and walked into a tatami room, probably the most formal part of the home. The four surrounding walls were composed of handcrafted sliding doors, the beams and ceiling were nearly black, the walls were traditional yellowish clay. There were mysterious sliding panels on the ceiling. We learned that years ago (but within the lifetime of our hosts) most families raised silkworms; charcoal was burned in the center of the room to keep the worms warm and the ceiling panels were opened to act like chimneys for the smoke to escape through the steep roof. This also explained the rich darkness of the wood.
Mistuko stood barely 4’ 8”, stooped from decades of farm work. Her smile was far bigger than her stature. She brought us tea and manju, bean filled mochi wrapped in leaves, while Satoshi told us about the family history. He showed us a document which was the equivalent of a deed, a written family history passed down through the generations which accompanied the inheritance of the land. He also gave us a handwritten genealogy going back several generations earlier than the civil records.
Once we understood the pedigree, Satoshi and his brother shared family stories. Kinichi Maihara and his wife, Iku, had six children. Eldest son, Hisao, inherited the family farm which was then passed to his son, Satoshi (our host). The next two children died young. The surviving children were renamed so that the spirits would be confused and not take away any more children. Hamako, the eldest of the surviving daughters was then called Yoshiko. Youngest daughter Isoe was renamed Yasuko. Hamako married Ichimaru Okazaki. When their American born sons chose not to live on the farm, Satoshi’s younger brother (and Hamako’s nephew) was adopted. He changed his surname to Okazaki, but remained close to his Maihara family.
After visiting for several hours, we paid our respects to the ancestors. We hiked up the mountainside through a bamboo and cedar forest. All of the gravestones belonged to various Maihara clan members. Satoshi showed us which ones belonged to his direct lineage. There were hundreds of “ohaka” along the trail. He explained that the small stones belonged to children who died. Larger stones were heirs and their wives. Most of the engravings had worn down over the years and were illegible. Others only had the “kaimyo” (Buddhist name given at death) and since those were created before the time of civil records, there was no way to know their birth names.
Our hosts were gracious and seemed to enjoy our interest in the Maihara family history. Satoshi shook our hands but Mistsuko grabbed us both and embraced us as if we were family. She kissed us goodbye and made us feel not only welcome, but glad that we were able to experience this adventure.