By Alice Kane
The original immigrants to the United States, the issei, or first generation, intended to get rich in America and return to Japan. Mostly young men, issei endured hardships as temporary migrant workers, but tenaciously succeeded in acquiring farms and starting businesses in California and Hawaii. Issei women arrived in larger numbers after the 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" between the United States and Japan, many as picture brides to established issei men. Nisei, or second generation, are their children who grew up embracing American society and culture. The Sansei, or third generation, are the grandchildren of original immigrants from Japan.
Japanese American family history research can be conducted using standard genealogical resources such as censuses and city directories, as well as records documenting military service, probate, and land transactions. Laws from the 1920s prohibiting land ownership by Japanese make researching issei owners difficult as they made purchases under their children's names or as incorporated companies. Records related to the internment of Japanese Americans can be found in the NARA branch in San Bruno, California. Investigating local and state legislation for references to Japanese residents may yield record sources specific to Japanese in these jurisdictions.
How-To and Other Guides
Asian American Genealogical Sourcebook edited by Paula K. Byers
NEHGS, 7th Floor Reading Rm E184.O6 A828 1995
A Student's Guide to Japanese American Genealogy by Yoji Yamaguchi
NEHGS, 5th Floor E184.J3Y335 1996
Raking the Ashes: Genealogical Strategies for pre-1906 San Francisco Research by Nancy Simons Peterson
NEHGS, 5th and 7th Floor Reference F869.S353 P48 2006
Vital Records and Family Genealogies
Koseki are registers of Japanese families. Under Japanese law since 1872 (Meiji Restoration), all households are required to report births, deaths, marriages, divorces, adoptions, and acknowledgments of paternity of all Japanese citizens. These registries are located in the city/town halls, so knowing the hometown as well as the family name or household head is helpful in finding a koseki. Consulting the latest Japanese references detailing former and present place names, as well as addresses of the local government offices for those places, will be helpful.
Joseki are registers of family members withdrawn/removed from Koseki for reasons of death, marriage, or renouncing Japanese citizenship. Such registers are also kept in city/town halls where a particular person or family lived.
Kakocho are Buddhist death registers which record a person's name and death date, among other data. Such registers are kept in the Buddhist temples near where the deceased person lived. For more information about researching in Japan, visit FamilySearch.org.
FamilySearch, Japan Genealogies, 850–2012
This collection is not searchable by individual name. Images of titles held by the National Archives of Japan in Tokyo are organized first by the family surname and its kanji character(s), then the country/region/town described in the keizu. Genealogies published during the Edo period (1603–1867) have many errors and should be verified.
The major entry points into the United States for Japanese immigrants are Honolulu, Hawaii, and San Francisco, California. Ancestry.com has a large collection of databases containing passenger list images for these and other ports in the United States. Note: Occasionally Japanese passengers were confused with Chinese passengers and may be included in Chinese-specific immigration databases. Use "Chinese" in the keyword field of Ancestry's Card Catalog search to quickly bring up a list of these databases.
A publication of the National Japanese American Historical Society, its articles provide insight into the Japanese American experience. A list of available issues between 1998 and 2003 is available on the website.
Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers Directory
This searchable directory allows users to locate titles by the publication language.
Books, Articles, Blogs, and Wikis
Being Japanese American by Gil Asakawa
Berkeley, California: Stone Bridge Press, 2004
Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 by Roger Daniels
Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1988
Want to maximize your research? The experts at NEHGS can help! We offer a number of services that can help you break down brick walls and expand your research.
Chat live with our experts!
Do you have a genealogy or local history question? Consider our free, online live chat service! The service is available to all, Monday—Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET.
- I recently heard that the Wales Family Association collection was donated to NEHGS. Are these papers available online?
- What is the 19th century definition of a homesteader?
- How or where would I be able to locate volume 4 of the Newport, RI Probate Records Index?
- What resources could I use to find more about local Massachusetts regiments from the Civil War?
- I discovered that my ancestor was christened 45-50 miles away from where he was born in Norway. Could you tell why my ancestors would have traveled so far?
Visit AmericanAncestors.org/chat and type your question in the window in the lower right corner.
Meet one-on-one with our genealogists
Want hands-on research guidance from a professional genealogist? Take your experience to the next level with an extended research session with our Personal Genealogist for the Day service. In-person and online sessions are offered as half-day (three-hour) or full day (five-hour) options.
- Find elusive ancestors—Whether you are searching in the U.S. or abroad, in the 17th or 20th century, our genealogists have the knowledge to assist you.
- Locate and use records—Vital records, military records, deeds, probate, and more—if you’re wondering where to look for them, how to read them, or what data you can find in them, we can guide you.
- Get more out of technology—Feel like you could be making better use of your genealogy software? Curious about websites and databases that might be relevant to your research? Let us help!
Hire our experts in Research Services
Whether you are just beginning your family research or have been researching for years, NEHGS Research Services is here to assist you. Our team of experts can:
- Conduct hourly research
- Break down “brick walls”
- Retrieve manuscript materials
- Obtain probate records
- Research and prepare your lineage society application
- Organize your materials and files
- Write narrative biographies about your ancestors
- Create customized family charts