Experts say it is possible for a Japanese person to trace his or her ancestors back about 300 years. Of course, it does require a long paper chase, but the government, which likes to keep tabs on its citizens, has done much of the work.
The obvious place to start is the koseki tohon (family registry). This contains information on family members of the same surname, including the way each individual entered the family (by birth, adoption or marriage), birth and death dates, and the names of the natural or adoptive parents.
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