Sunday, February 7, 2016

Researching Japanese-American Family History

Example of koseki
(Japanese family registry)
A few years ago I volunteered and worked with a group that was bringing genealogy into schools and social agency programs, trying to interest the younger generation in researching family history.  The outreach during the first couple of years focused on the black community.  It was then decided that we expand our outreach to other groups.  One suggestion was the Japanese-American community, but we ended up not pursuing that, primarily because Japanese family history research can be difficult and we knew of no good resources for beginners.

Well, Japanese family history is still difficult to research, but now I know about a very handy reference for people who are getting started.  Linda Harms Okazaki has created a six-page guide, Finding Your Japanese Roots, in a laminated trifold layout.  It is focused on Japanese-American research, finding records in the United States, and then working back to finding records in japan.

The guide provides a quick overview of important history to keep in mind when conducting your research, types of records to look for in the U.S. and Japan, a glossary, a comprehensive list of online resources, and several short tips.  Most of the information is clear and to the point, but some items would benefit from a little clarity, due in part to the need to be very concise because of the limited space.

The short introduction explains circumstances and records specific to Japanese-American research.  In particular, the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, while a heinous tragedy, created records that can be extremely detailed and informative.

The timeline Linda has created fits an amazing number of important dates into a small space, but a critical fact was omitted.  She included the 1952 Immigration and Naturalization Act that allowed Asian immigrants to become citizens but did not mention that laws enacted at various earlier times (usually during wartime) allowed Asians who served in the U.S. military to naturalize prior to that.

The records discussed are divided into conventional U.S. records, records unique to Japanese-Americans, and conventional Japanese records, and the lists appear to give a good overview.  One record type for those unique to Japanese-Americans seems to have accidentally been left out, however.  There are two references to "Evacuee Case Files" in the descriptions of other records, but there's no entry for the Evacuee Case Files themselves.

Some phrasing is misleading.  A reference to delayed birth certificates as a resource suggests that these exist only for Hawai'i and pre-1906 San Francisco.  Certainly, the majority of Japanese immigrants in the United States were probably in California and Hawai'i, but some were in other locations that either required vital records registration at later dates or simply didn't come near complete compliance for many years.  Delayed birth registration is something to consider through the early 1940's for anywhere in the U.S.  Another statement that would benefit from rephrasing is in the introduction, which states that "American-born women who married Japanese immigrants lost their citizenship until 1931", implying that this was always the case.  It only began in 1907, however.

As Linda is producing and distributing her guide on her own, she makes it in small batches and updates it on an ongoing basis.  Some of the minor problems I have mentioned here will undoubtedly be corrected in an upcoming print run.  If you would like to talk to her about getting a copy, she can be reached at

Full disclosure:  The copy of Finding Your Japanese Roots that I used for this review was given to me by Linda.

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