Linda's Orchard

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Category: Japanese Surnames

A Reasonably Exhaustive Search. In Japan.

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.

Deed Held by Maihara Family

Deed Held by Maihara Family

Kayasuga Ancestral Home at Katsuo

Kayasuga Ancestral Home at Katsuo

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.”

I’m Confused. Are You My Cousin?

Lunch with Setsuko and Hiroko

Lunch with Setsuko and Hiroko

Last November, we met Hiroko, Ted’s second cousin. Yesterday she introduced us to her first cousin, Setsuko. The pedigree gets muddled with heir adoptions and marriages among family members. Ted, Hiroko and Setsuko share the same great grandfather, Sasanji Okazaki. But Sasanji’s second son, Namita, married his first cousin (daughter of Sasanji’s sister). Since civil records don’t exist before about 1870, it’s difficult to say how often adoptions and marriage among cousins occurred.

Hiroko and Setsuko took us to the ancestral farm of Namita who was born an Okazaki in the village of Tabara, but adopted into the Kayasuga family in the neighboring village of Katsuo. Second sons are frequently adopted as a means of continuing a surname when there are only daughters, or when the eldest son is unable to continue the line. Namita’s elder brother, Ichimaru, also adopted a “yoshi” from the Maihara family to carry on the Okazaki surname.

Namita had been living and working in California for a few years between about 1914-1918 but returned to Japan with his younger brother who succumbed to Spanish Influenza on that voyage. Namita then married Makio Kayasuga, had a daughter named Matsuko, and then returned to the US where he worked for approximately three years in the laundry business. Namita saved his money and when he came back to his wife and daughter around 1923, he was able to build a beautiful home. His son, Kazumasa was born about 1924 or 1925.

During World War II, while the Okazaki family was interned in the United States, the city of Okayama was nearly obliterated by bombs. The remote mountain villages, however, were spared. Kazumasa recalled many relatives staying in their home. They had space but their farm also provided much needed sustenance at a time when many Japanese were starving.

After the war, the Okazaki’s returned to their ancestral village of Tabara. With no food or money, Namita and the Kayasuga clan helped the Okazaki’s by offering them a bag of rice  when they first arrived, something more valuable than money at the time.

Today Kazumasa, son of Namita, lives alone on the farm. Many of the villagers have abandoned their land and homes for economic reasons. But even as an octogenarian, Kazumasa operates his tractor, plants his rice and visits with friends. His daughter, sons and grandchildren visit him often as they all live nearby. The view from the  mountaintop is spectacular. Cool breezes provide relief from the humidity. Wildflowers are in full bloom. The fields are ready to be planted with rice. Traveling to Katsuo has really been a step back in time.

Ted and Great Uncle Kazumasa

Ted and Great Uncle Kazumasa

Setsuko, Hiroko and Linda in Front of the Home Built by Namita

Setsuko, Hiroko and Linda in Front of the Namita’s Home

Mountaintop View

Mountaintop View

Ohaka of Namita and Makio

Ohaka of Namita and Makio