Our Lives | TELLING LIVES

A story of family told across multiple continents

by Richard Solomon

Contributing Writer

Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu has two families: one hailing from Ireland and the other from Japan. His paternal ancestors emigrated from southwestern Ireland to the northeastern United States near the end of the 19th century. His grandmother died when his father was still a child, leaving her eldest daughter to raise the kids.

On his mother’s side, Murphy-Shigematsu’s great-grandfather was a hatamoto, a samurai in direct service to the shogun. His great-grandfather changed his name from Yamamoto to Shigematsu after fleeing the 1868 battle of Ueno during the Boshin War. He fled to the town of Matsuyama where he was protected by friendly samurai.

Murphy-Shigematsu’s parents met after World War II. Both worked in the building that served as SCAP General Headquarters, she as a translator.

His two older sisters were born out of wedlock. At the time, mixed marriages were not allowed in Japan. It was also difficult to get proper paperwork to take his mother to America, but his grandmother said that his father could move into her house (where his mother lived), because he was clearly a man who respected his mother and Japanese people. “She was far ahead of her time,” Murphy-Shigematsu says.

His dad moved in and his two sisters were born “Shigematsu” in 1949 and 1950. They gained Japanese citizenship under the Nationality Law that allows the children of unmarried couples born in Japan to assume Japanese nationality. Murphy-Shigematsu was born “Murphy” in 1952, an American citizen, after Japan marriage laws changed to permit mixed-race marriages.

Later, his father became lonely, living as a “foreigner” in Japan. He wanted to introduce his wife and children to his American family. In 1953, the entire family left Yokohama by boat to settle in Massachusetts. The journey meant saying farewell to Murphy-Shigematsu’s maternal grandparents, which devastated his grandmother.

His grandmother had none of her own children, but she adopted her younger sister, separated by a 20-year difference. In those days, such adoption was not uncommon. Murphy-Shigematsu and his two sisters were born in his grandmother’s house. When the family left for Massachusetts, his grandmother had to part with all three babies she helped rear. He did not see his grandmother again for two decades. “This was a period when, once you left, often you never came back,” which greatly grieved his grandmother, he says.

Murphy-Shigematsu reconnected with her when she was 76 years old. He was in his early 20s. He lived with her in Matsuyama, learning the language and Japanese culture from her. “As a troubled adolescent, she gave me new life just to be with her,” Shigematsu says. Their special relationship continued until her death, age 111.

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