January 20, 2011 by Valerie Elkins
If you have searched for your ancestor from Japan on any online database (like Ancestry.com), you have already discovered that searching for your Japanese ancestors cannot be done the same way you would research for someone, say from Sweden. The main reason being is that Japan has very strict privacy laws and access to Vital Records is carefully protected. There is no book, online site or microfilm that will have the vital records information your are looking for.
That being said, the Japanese are wonderful record-keepers. In the 1870′s it became law in Japan for everyone to register with their honseki or city hall. This record is called a koseki or Household Register. Here’s what information you can find on the koseki: Name and birthdates of the husband or head of the household, the wife, the children, parents and grandparents of the head of household (if living in the household) and the those of his wife. In some koseki, the children, grandchildren, brothers, and sisters of the head of household are also listed, with their birthdates and places. A child is listed on his or her parent’s koseki until they create their own. If your ancestor was listed on a koseki, you can obtain a copy of the record. This record is a rich source of genealogical information.
Women are found on koseki under the male head of household. Usually on a father’s koseki until she is married. If her father dies before her marriage it will be under his male heir’s name. Searching for female Japanese ancestors is much easier in many ways than most other countries. Even after emigrating to another country, families often sent information of marriages and births back to their city hall (honseki) to be recorded on their family’s koseki. In 1878, legal status was given to the broader sense of household. The household is made up of all the individuals within the family who were legally under the head of the household (koshu) who was charged with the upkeep of all the family members. After 1947, this was changed and only the nuclear family (the husband, wife and children) was then recorded on the koseki.
The Japanese are meticulous record keepers and while they do protect access to these records, it is well worth the effort in obtaining them. Many descendants of Japanese immigrants have a copy of their family’s koseki and because they do not read Japanese, do not realize the valuable document that they already have. Older copies of the koseki was printed on tissue-type paper and have a lots of boxes – some of which might of been crossed out. If you have such a document – first do a happy-dance. Then make a good photocopy and find someone who can translate old Japanese and is also familiar with how Japanese genealogy works. The koseki records are filled out chronologically as the events happened and takes some understanding to decipher the family ties.
Advantage Genealogy offers the service of tracing your first generation Japanese ancestor back to Japan and obtaining your family’s koseki on your behalf. We also translate koseki and other documents that you may possess and as well as the ones we obtain for you. We then put the all the family and ancestral information into family history reports and input into a genealogy file for you to access and share with your family.