Photographer retraces footsteps of grandfather, great-grandfather in U.S.

by Munehisa Tokunaga

Kyodo

Misaki Matsui shed a tear as she stood in a vineyard in Southern California, viewing the same scenery captured in one of her late grandfather’s photos.

“I felt like I was able to unite with (her grandfather and great-grandfather), who were there about 100 years ago,” the photographer said.

In “Back to California after 100 Years,” a photo exhibition Matsui held in Yokohama from March 1 to May 6, she traces the history of her family by following in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather as they explored life in the United States.

“I hope this exhibition will give an opportunity to visitors to think about their own families,” she said.

Matsui, who left her advertising job in Japan and moved to the United States in 2008 to become a photographer, did not know that her grandfather had also lived there until very recently, because he spoke little about his younger days.

When she came back to Japan some time later, Matsui found some faded pictures in an old photo album of her grandfather.

She learned that her grandfather and great-grandfather migrated to the United States from Suo-Oshima in Yamaguchi Prefecture, a small island town in the Seto Inland Sea, in 1913, and were running a vineyard in Southern California until they returned to Japan in the 1920s.

Since only a few individuals at the time would have been able to afford a camera, “I felt that each of the pictures seems to be telling me how my grandfather was feeling back then and I decided that I must see the scenery with my own eyes,” she said.

But Matsui had few clues about where the pictures were taken. So she looked into scores of old documents, such as passenger manifests for ships bound for the U.S. and U.S. census records at immigration museums in Japan, the United States and the National Archives in California.

She also spoke to people who may have known something about the men.

Consequently, Matsui found out that they were moving around and changing jobs, and that they failed to move back to the United States after returning to Japan in the 1920s, although they had held onto the hope of doing so, because the U.S. government toughened immigration controls at the time.