A Reasonably Exhaustive Search. In Japan.
by Linda Okazaki
Imagine one civil document that included birth, adoption, marriage, divorce and death information for every member of a household. That’s the beauty of a koseki. The good news lies in the rich biographical information. The bad news? First, due to strict privacy laws, the data is only available to those who can prove their descendancy. Second, language and geography restrict the ease with which most Japanese Americans can access these documents.
Once lineage is established and the first koseki obtained, additional information is available. From the original Okazaki koseki, we were able to learn the maiden names and addresses of Ted’s grandmother and great grandmothers. And then we obtained those koseki. Same for the Miyake side. The process takes time. Koseki are located in the municipality of a particular family group. Each time the household changed, so did the Koseki. Time is needed to translate key pieces of information, but also to travel from one government office to another. Most application forms are available online. Finding a person to help with reading and filling out the forms who is both young enough to be comfortable with computers and old enough to decipher dated writing styles is a challenge. Equipped with translations and addresses, it is possible to locate the original property of the family.
How far back can a genealogist go? Civil record keeping didn’t begin until the Meiji period, (about 1870). If you can locate direct descendants currently living on ancestral property you may be able to find new details. The Japanese equivalent of a deed passing land from father to son over many generations may still exist. The family may also possess a kakocho, or Buddhist death record, somewhat like a family bible. A family cemetery may have rich biographical information engraved on the ohaka (gravestones). Older stones may not be legible or only have the kaimyo listed (death name). The last stop would be identifying the local temple. Sometimes finding which temple can be a challenge. Yokoyama-sensei from Temple Daianzi mentioned research he is doing for a family who said they “might be” affiliated with that location. This is not so different from figuring out which church a family may have attended in the US or Europe. And like some traditional European cultures, Japan is a patrilineal society. Land and surnames are passed from father to son. Cemeteries typically only include first-born sons, their wives and children who died before marriage.
The koseki is the first step in finding your Japanese ancestors. Collecting and translating all available koseki, visiting the ancestral farm and cemetery, contacting living desendants, viewing the ohaka, researching documents at the temple? Now that’s what I call a “reasonably exhaustive search.”