Christmas in Japan may have become a holiday for couples, cake and KFC, but for me it has always been a time for 家族 (kazoku, family).

Each Christmas I spend back home in Hawaii is a reminder of my identity as a fifth-generation Japanese-American. Like many other American families, we gather with our 親戚 (shinseki, relatives) on Christmas Day every year to share a meal and enjoy each other’s company.

The holiday season, however, always used to fill me with curiosity — about the ancestors who came to the U.S. 100 years before us and the relatives we’d never spoken to living thousands of miles away. It was this curiosity that really sparked my interest in my Nikkei family history, and kick-started my ルーツ探し (rūtsu sagashi, “root-searching”) quest.

Derived from 日系人 (Nikkei-jin, person of Japanese descent), Nikkei is a broad term referring to Japanese emigrants and their descendants, regardless of their current nationality or degree of Japanese ethnicity. According to a 2014 census by the Association of Nikkei and Japanese Abroad, there are approximately 3.5 million Nikkei scattered around the world today.

Japanese immigration began after the 1868 Meiji Restoration, and boomed in the late 1880s and 1890s. Many of the original 移民 (imin, immigrants), known as 一世 (issei, first-generation), went to Hawaii, the U.S. West Coast and Brazil, often as 出稼ぎ労働者 (dekasegi rōdōsha, migrant workers) on sugar or coffee plantations.

These immigrants dreamt of getting rich and eventually returning to Japan, hence the proverb, 故郷へ錦を飾る (Kokyō e nishiki o kazaru, “To return to one’s hometown in glory”). However, due to tough financial conditions and the beginning of World War II, many were unable to realize this dream and ended up staying, often losing contact with their relatives back home. And so it was for my 曽祖父 (sōsofu, great-grandfather), a 二世 (nisei, second-generation immigrant) who ran a small farm and never once visited Japan in his 90 years.

With the passing of generations, it is not unusual for Nikkei to lose track of their Japanese roots. This is partly due to the issue of language: Whereas nisei may have plenty of chances to speak Japanese with their issei parents, 三世 (sansei, third-generation immigrants) and on tend to have fewer opportunities to learn the language as native speakers. For some Nikkei, it can be daunting enough just to string together a few sentences in Japanese, let alone “return” to their country of origin in search of relatives they can barely communicate with.

Linda Harms Okazaki, president of the California Genealogical Society, encourages Nikkei from all generations to look into their roots. Okazaki, who is not a Nikkei herself, became interested in Nikkei genealogy while researching her husband’s ancestry. Her husband’s father is a sansei who was repatriated to Japan after the war and ended up marrying a native Japanese.

Okazaki’s confusion about her husband’s family history and citizenship led her to pursue genealogy professionally. Since graduating from the National Institute of Genealogical Research in 2012, Okazaki has dedicated much of her time to helping Nikkei document their family stories.

For those wondering where to begin, Okazaki recommends starting from yourself and working backwards. “Think of it as a high school research project,” she says. Like any other genealogy project, when researching Nikkei family history, the most important thing is to collect every piece of factual information possible. Usually for many, the process starts with gathering family 出生届 (shusshō todoke, birth registration), 婚姻届 (kon’in todoke, marriage registration) and 死亡届 (shibō todoke, death registration) documents and piecing these records together for each generation.

One record that holds many answers is the 戸籍謄本 (koseki tōhon, family register), or the koseki for short. The koseki was also an idea of the Meiji Era, enacted by the government in 1872 as a way of recording the data of all citizens under one unified system. It was the first time in history that all Japanese citizens were required to have a 苗字 (myōji, surname).

Although one of Okazaki’s main jobs is helping clients obtain their family koseki, she warns Nikkei not to bet everything on one record. “One document does not determine your entire story,” she says. Instead, Okazaki urges Nikkei to be creative when searching for clues about their family history.

One piece of advice she has is to look for clues through religion. While Nikkei with noble family ties to samurai or government officials may be lucky, people whose ancestors were 平民 (heimin, commoners) may only be able to trace their ancestry back to the Meiji Period.

However, Okazaki notes that there may be records in the family 仏壇 (butsudan, Buddhist altar) or the 過去帳 (kakochō, death register), a document that records the 戒名 (kaimyō, Buddhist name) given to a relative upon death. Okazaki also advises looking at land records that may list a family’s 屋号 (yagō, trade name).

Local offices nationwide have also been digitalizing their koseki inventory and immigration records, which makes searching for relatives easier if you know your family kanji, village or address. It also doesn’t hurt to provide additional information, such as your relative’s 渡航日 (tokōbi, travel date).

More than anything, Okazaki urges would-be amateur genealogists not to be intimidated by the language. “You should not let the language barrier stop you,” she says, pointing out that she became a genealogist without much knowledge of Japanese. What is most important, Okazaki stresses, is to preserve your family history for the 次世代 (jisedai, next generation).

“Every family has a very unique story, and every story deserves to be shared.”

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