Discover Nikkei

The Chosen Names


Who is Mary Mieko Sunada? It begins with my birth certificate. A baby girl is born Mary Mieko Nakata on January 1, 1948 at 1 a.m. at 1-4 Tanaka-machi Askusa Daito-ku, Tokyo, Japan. My parents are Yoneto Nakata from Sanger, California, U.S.A. and Yaeko Niikura from Gumna-ken, Japan.

My father, Yoneto, became the last of the Nakata family. He had no brothers or sisters. His mother got sick after giving birth to him and the family moved back to Japan. He returned to the U.S.A. after both parents had passed away. He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1941 and volunteered for the Military Intelligence Service (MIS). He received an honorable discharge on January 19, 1946. He later married my mother, Yaeko, and I was born in 1948. He died suddenly on May 28, 1948. I became his only living daughter.

My father wanted us to live together in the U.S.A. He wanted me to have an American first name. He, himself, took the name “James” to fit into American society. He loved American movies and enjoyed watching his favorite silent movie actress Mary Pickford. My first name became Mary.

Being an Oshogatsu (New Year’s Day) baby, my middle name had to reflect the biggest celebration in Japan. My father chose the name Mieko. The kanji is 美エ子. Unfortunately, I do not remember what kanji my father gave me for “e.” I do not know how to write it. However, the English translation is beautiful child. I became Mieko, his beautiful girl born at the beginning of a new year.

My last name, Nakata, would connect me to our family tree. The kanji is 中田. 中 (Naka) means middle or inside. 田 (ta) is rice or paddy field. Together, Nakata translates into “inside the rice field.” Nakata is a very common Japanese name like Smith or Jones. I wanted to reconnect with my Japanese relatives. When my mother passed away from Alzheimer’s on April 30, 2013, she left me the last known address of my father’s relatives. I wrote a letter and they replied acknowledging my father and mother but not me. I felt lost, alone and abandoned.

When I married John Sunada, I became Mary Mieko Sunada. I could have kept my father’s last name of Nakata. I chose not to do that. Even though my last name was changed, my memory of my father has not. Our sons would be given names to honor my father and other members of our family tree. The tradition of American first names and Japanese middle names would be carried on with our sons. The oldest son is James Shizuto Sunada. James is named after my father. He has my father’s wavy black hair, expressive eyes and wonderful smile. Shizuto is my husband’s middle name. Both have quiet personalities.

The youngest is David Hiroshi Sunada. The name David was chosen because no one had that name in our family. David has really developed his own character. Hiroshi is the name of my mother’s brother and my husband’s cousin. They all became strong and intelligent men. Although the Nakata family has ended with me, the Sunada family has welcomed me with open arms. I have added new memories and many more relatives. I have my own family with our sons carrying on its legacy of names.


* This story was developed during the Nikkei Names workshop held at the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, CA on September 28, 2014.


© 2014 Mary Sunada

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About this series

What’s in a name? This series introduces stories exploring the meanings, origins, and the untold stories behind personal Nikkei names. This can include family names, given names, and even nicknames!

For this project, we asked our Nima-kai to vote for their favorite stories and our editorial committee to pick their favorites.  

Here are the selected favorite stories. 


 Editorial Committee’s selections:

  Nima-kai selection:

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About the Author

Mary has been married for 43 years to John Sunada and they have two sons, James and David. Mary is retired from the Los Angeles Unified School District after 36 years of teaching. She is a member of the Orange County Buddhist Church, the Japanese American National Museum, and the “Go for Broke” National Education Center. Her interests are in fishing, dancing and traveling with family and friends. She has written other stories for Discover Nikkei.

Updated October 2023

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