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How Do I find my Japanese Ancestors?


April 30, 2012 by Valerie Elkins

Most of the people I help locate their Japanese ancestors are 3rd, 4th and even 5th generation Japanese. Some of those I assist are only part Japanese, but many are  still a 100% Japanese by blood. All desire to know more about their Japanese ancestors, but are baffled on how to begin.

Since many Japanese Americans have been in America for generations and most likely do not have the ability to speak or read the language, they often feel at a loss at where to even begin to find their Japanese heritage. Here are a few pointers to get you started:

  • Researching your family tree is the same for you as any other American UNTIL your immigrant ancestor. So look in the same places: FamilySearch, Ancestry, are good choices to search for census records, passenger records and vital records.
  • Just like any immigrant from any country looking to doing research in their mother country, you will have to know the town, village,and address, etc. that they came from, otherwise its a needle in a very big haystack. And unlike many countries, Japanese vital records are not available online and are restricted to only those who can prove direct lineage can have access. You will HAVE TO KNOW the address from where they came from, especially if they came from a big city. You can’t just say Kobe and expect to find the exact city hall (large cities have dozens) and be able to locate the records.
  • Where can you find the address if you don’t know? Ask older aunts, uncles and other relatives. Look for anything in anyone’s possession that might have Japanese writing on it. Many people have a koseki record and don’t know what it is because it can look unimportant with all its boxes on it, often with some crossed out, older ones printed on a tissue type of paper, or some are purple mimeograph copies. OMGosh, dance if you find one of those! Eureka, or BONZAI since we are talking Japanese here. You hit the mother lode!
  • Other sources to check for addresses are: passports, Naturalization records, internment camp records, military records, passenger records and personal letters.
  • Small older villages may have been swallowed up by bigger cities and towns, you can still locate them. Try Wikipedia on the village name, you may have to try searching it in Japanese and then use a translation to read it.

In some ways doing Japanese records may seem harder, but the effort is soooo worth the effort!

Don’t get discouraged! It is possible and if you need help, I would be glad to get you going or assist you in anyway.


  1. Marjorie says:

    Thanks for offering such reassuring words! I’m in Washington State, where many Japanese immigrants began their American lives in mining camps. We also have quite a few Japanese cemeteries, and of course the sad WWII internment camps on the West Coast. These records are often held by small historical societies – it’s definitely worth digging deeper than the state and county level to find them!

  2. Mari says:

    Hi! Thanks for this post. I have been looking for more ways to find my Japanese Ancestors. My father is Japanese. I have some of his information. I wanted to know his family their and also his parents as well as his grandparents. is that possible? Could you help me where to start?

  3. I’ve been trying to find my Japanese paternal relatives with very little success. I need to notify them of their brother’s death. My father passed away in December 2009 and I’m not in good relations with my mother. I am sansei (full blooded Japanese-Canadian – my father married a Japanese Canadian). I’m from Canada. All I know is that my father had 3 brothers and 1 sister and that he was the oldest in his entire family. They lived in Kyoto during the war (WWII).

    I’m not even certain where to start. My father would have been able to get his “koseki” a lot faster than I would. I don’t write Japanese and I can barely speak it which is pathetic since I was taught Japanese when I was a young child, but promptly forgot it all in favor of English when I started going to school.

    I’m hoping that I can make contact with my relatives since they have a right to know about their nephew and cousins (my children) – I was an only child.

  4. aska says:

    Hi..i want to find my father ..since i was a child i didnt have a chance to see him me to find my father ..ihave some information about him..his name is hatsuo odawara..please help me .thankyou


  5. frank says:

    My mother was born In Okinawa Japan. Her daddy was born in 1899 I would love to find out what info I can find

    • Frank, much of Okinawa’s records were destroyed during WWII. But, if some of the family stayed in Okinawa after the war, then they may have “reconstructed” their family records. If they
      immigrated to Hawaii, which many did, they may have reconstructed their records in Hawaii. It is worth checking to see.

  6. Sarah Jackson says:

    I’ve been trying to locate my grandmother’s family for years. She’s 100% Japanese, born and raised in Oita, Japan and later came to the United States with my grandfather, who was in the Army at the time. He was African American. I’ve known her my entire life but never been able to locate her family, meet or speak with them. I just know of them from having converations with my grandmother. I have her family registry. I know this can help, and if you could help me in any way possible I would greatly appreciate it. Hope to hear from you soon. Thank you.

  7. Nicole says:

    Hi – My grandfather was in the Korean war, stationed in Japan when he was only 17 years old. (1948-1952) I found pictures of him with a Japanese woman — similar to wedding ceremony pics. The only difference is that he is not wearing a white belt. What other ceremonies could this picture been taken for if not a wedding? He left Japan after the war and I never found out any additional information. He spoke once about a son. How could I find out if he was married in Japan and/or if he had a son? I have all his military information, but know nothing about the woman in the picture. Help please if you can!!! Thanks!

    • Nicole,

      If you email me a copy of the picture I can better determine the possible occasion. If he was married in Japan, he would of had to had permission from the military command. He could be recorded on his Japanese wife’s koseki record, but you would need to know her name, birth date and what her address was in Japan. Wish there was an easier way. Any old letters, journals might give you a clue.

  8. Michael says:

    I have been in the US since I was 5… I’m 65 now. I recently found out from my aunt that I have a brother still in Japan and that he is a year or two older than me. For some reason, my Mom (deceased) and my aunt were reluctant to discuss anything about their past. I have never known my real father but I know I still have relatives in Japan and I would like to find them. I do not know how to begin my search, especially with the language barrier. I speak no Japanese. Any help or guidance is appreciated. Thank you.

    • If you know the town your family comes from, it is possible to find this information on your family Koseki records. Read all the blog posts about the Koseki. If you need professional assistance to help you proceed, you can contact me at info@advantagegenealogy[dot]com. Happy hunting!

  9. Kathy, without knowing the name of the mother, her birth date and where she was from, or the name, birth date, and a more specific address than in a big city like Kyoto, it is next to impossible. Wish I could offer more hope.

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