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The Journey to Discovery

Melinda Yamane Crawford has forged a path to merge her personal endeavors of family discovery while helping others do the same. As a member of the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society, Melinda had the resources, insight, and passion to co-found the Nikkei Genealogical Society specifically for the Japanese American community.

Like all immigrant stories, the Nikkei experience is varied in rich but complicated history. It’s akin to putting together a large puzzle with pieces representing timelines, geography, marriages, births, social changes, and worldwide events. Navigating through intricate webs of family roots is a challenging and overwhelming endeavor—uncovering details of lineages and truths over a wide expanse of generations requires time, credible resources, and a network of like-minded individuals to offer a helping hand.

Melinda and her colleagues have created such a space for people to discover their Nikkei roots. They offer opportunities to discover and preserve family heritage so families can pass on valuable information for generations to come.

Find out more about Melinda Yamane Crawford, the Nikkei Genealogical Society, and its group mission in the Q&A below.

Nikkei Genealogical Society's First General Meeting - January 25, 2014. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford. 

When was Nikkei Genealogical Society (NikkeiGen) founded and what inspired you to lead the organization?

On December 7, 2013, NikkeiGen held its first planning meeting at a small Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo, and our first general meeting was held on January 25, 2014.

The series of events that served as my inspiration had its start in August 2013 when I ran into my friend and fellow genealogist, Susanne Mori. It was during our brief conversation that Susanne shared about an upcoming workshop on Japanese family history research. Together, we attended Linda Harms Okazaki’s workshop, Finding Your Japanese Roots in the U.S. and in Japan, which was held on September 28, 2013 at the California Genealogical Society in Oakland, CA. Then, on October 19, 2013, we attended yet another workshop together—Chester Hashizume’s Discovering Your Japanese American Roots at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).

That same night and the following morning, a few ideas began to surface and take shape:

1) To reach out to other participants and instructors of the two workshops about the possibility of forming a new group. Both Susanne and I were so excited to meet others like us who were interested in researching their Japanese and Japanese American roots. Back home in Santa Barbara, Susanne and I are both active members of the Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society and had taken a number of intermediate genealogy classes through the society where we discovered and grew to value the collaborative spirit that flowed during those weekly class sessions. We learned about genealogy research best practices and took that knowledge to help each other with breaking down brick walls in our research.

Melinda and Susanne, Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society Volunteers, SB Fair 2015. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford.

2) To reach out to Madelon Yamamoto and volunteer some assistance with her family history research. Madelon sat right behind me in Chester’s workshop at JANM, and I was enthralled by her self-introduction during which she shared how she was 81 years old, had been relocated to Manzanar with her family at age nine, and now wanted to get started on her family history research. As it turned out, my friend Susanne and Tilden, another classmate from Chester’s class, shared a similar interest in Madelon’s story, and together we began to collaborate on researching and documenting her family history as a team.

From the Arai Family Genealogy. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford.

During our first planning and general meetings, I, together with Susanne Mori, Chester Hashizume, Linda and Ted Okazaki, Tilden Osako, and Madelon Yamamoto, founded the Nikkei Genealogical Society, or NikkiGen for short.

What is the mission of NikkeiGen?

Our mission is to promote, encourage, and share Nikkei (Japanese migrants and their descendants’) genealogy through education, research, and networking.

Can you please share a little bit of your background?

I was born at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, CA. I was the youngest of four children. My father and my oldest brother were born in Honolulu, Oahu, and my mother in Kula, Maui. When I was a year old, my family moved from West L.A. to Canoga Park, CA (now called West Hills). When I was in elementary school, I think that I might have been the only Asian in my entire school. At my junior high school, I had only two Japanese friends, and for all I know, they were the only other Japanese American students. Even in high school, I can only recall two Japanese American boys. At home, my parents were followers of the Christian faith even though they had been raised in and practiced the Buddhist faith when they were in Hawaii. While my father had attended Japanese school through his high school years and my mom through third grade, neither spoke Japanese at home nor made any efforts to have their children learn the language.

I’m Sansei on my mother’s side and Yonsei on my father’s side. That being said, I had always believed that it was my grandparents who were the first ones to immigrate to Hawaii. What I learned shortly after enrolling in my first intermediate genealogy class was that both sets of great-grandparents on my father’s side had been their families’ first arrivals in Hawaii.

Your father is an MIS veteran. I am intrigued and amazed by the patriotic heroics that all MIS veterans displayed. Can you kindly share your father’s role in the MIS and his life in the postwar era?

Richard M. Yamane, Fort Snelling, MN 1945. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford.

My discovery that my father had served in the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) fills me with pride mixed in with sadness. The latter I attribute to the fact that I never did have the opportunity to hear my father’s story. You see, my dad was killed in a tragic car accident in 1978 when he was 53 years old. It wasn’t until 2008, after my 14-year-old son selected an army photo of his grandfather for a grandparent’s art project that I began to unravel the story behind the photo of my father.

Thirty years after his death, I researched and revealed to my mother and siblings for the first time that our father had served in the MIS during World War II. From his discharge paperwork, I learned that had he served in the 6206th Intelligence Special Detachment. From the National Archives, I obtained a copy of the Unit History for the 6206th Interpreter Special Detachment for the period May 9, 1945 to December 31, 1945. While unconfirmed, I suspect that my father might have been in Japan during the initial Occupation of Japan. His unit history states that on August 29, 1945, “Twenty-one (21) Enlisted Men duty to detached service pending assignment to Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces, Middle Pacific, Army Post Office 500 (Tokyo, Japan) per Paragraph 1 Letter Post Office Personnel 220.3 sub 0, Headquarters. U.S. Army Forces, Middle Pacific, Army Post Office 500 (Tokyo, Japan), departed.”

Richard M. Yamane (lower right), Fort Snelling, MN 1945. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford.

While I would love to know more details about the role my father played in the MIS, his military personnel record file was destroyed in the 1973 fire at the National Archives National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and a request for any records from the U.S. Army Center of Military History also came up empty.

Regarding my father’s background, here’s a little of what I now know: After graduating from McKinley High School in Honolulu in 1943, my father spent 13 years working at Bishop National Bank as a member of the Internal Auditing department. During this time, his business career was interrupted by World War II. After enlisting in the U.S. Army on February 2, 1945, he eventually served as a staff sergeant in the Pacific Ocean Area, acting as interpreter between prisoners of war and the allied command.

In January 1957, my father moved with his young bride and his infant son to Los Angeles, CA. Shortly thereafter, my father joined the staff of McMillan Mortgage Company as Assistant Secretary. Other jobs he held during his career include Assistant Vice President for Fidelity Bank in Beverly Hills, CA; Vice President for Zenith Mortgage Company in Beverly Hills; and consultant for Trans Mortgage Company.

What can people expect to discover when they join NikkeiGen?

Because of our common interest in and/or passion for researching our Japanese and Japanese American roots, there is always a sense of excitement when we gather together, and new friendships are quickly formed. We naturally find ourselves sharing about ourselves, our families, what we are researching, and what we would like to learn more about. We brainstorm and share ideas with one another, and may help one another with research. During our meetings, we may have a special presentation or we may provide training or roundtable discussions on topics of interest, including but not limited to vital records, U.S. census records, immigration and naturalization records, internment and Department of Justice camp records, researching records in Hawaii, cemetery records, koseki records, and even DNA testing. We also devote time to family history sharing by individual members.

In addition to our general meetings, NikkeiGen offers workshops and participates in events, such as the Southern California Genealogy Jamboree, Manzanar Pilgrimage, and the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage.

Arai Family Pond, Manzanar Pilgrimage, April 2015. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford.

I am sure many extraordinary and fascinating facets of ancestry are revealed through the organization’s efforts. Is there a particular story that comes to mind?

There are many stories that come to mind. One such story is that of two of our NikkeiGen members. As I had mentioned earlier, Tilden Osako was one of my classmates in Chester Hashizume’s workshop and became one of the founding members of our group. Tilden, with his excellent research skills, personal knowledge of Hawaiian genealogical resources, and Japanese language skills, is a valuable and collaborative member of our group. His own family history research led him to contact me one day to ask for a favor. His mother is Issei, and she had been born in Japan-occupied Masan, Korea. Using my UCSB staff library privileges, I was able to acquire from the UCLA library a copy of a 1919 Japanese map of the former town of Masan, Korea that showed his mother’s birthplace. When Tilden went on a family trip to Hawaii, he took photos of my paternal grandparents’ tombstone and obtained a few delayed birth records for my paternal grandfather’s half-siblings for me. Most recently, I offered to help a newer member, Alice Aoto, with getting started on her family history research. She shared with me the names of her grandparents. The name, Morihisa, rang a bell—as it turns out, Alice and Tilden had a common ancestor. These second cousins met each other for the first time at our NikkeiGen meeting on February 28, 2015.

What do you find most rewarding as one of the co-founders of NikkeiGen?

NikkeiGen affords us opportunities to accomplish more together—bridging the generations, promoting discovery of family history and our Nikkei roots, and preserving our family heritage for future generations and ourselves. NikkeiGen represents a personal and on-going journey to discovery; remembrance; and honoring our past, present, and future generations.

Southern California Genealocial Society Jamboree, June 2015. Photo courtesy of Melinda Yamane Crawford.

* * * * *

In honor of Family History Month, UC Santa Barbara Professor of History, Luke Roberts, will present a lecture on the life of samurai Yoshiki Mori (1768-1807), who was a retainer for the Yamauchi lord of the Tosa domain.

The lecture will be followed by a panel discussion with two members of the Nikkei Genealogical Society (NikkeiGen): Melinda Yamane Crawford, co-founder of NikkeiGen and Barbara Horiuchi, a third generation Japanese American writer and artist.

Please join us on Saturday, October 24, 2015 at 2 p.m. at the Japanese American National Museum. Free with museum admission.

Get more information about the event here.

RSVPs are recommended. RSVP now.


© 2015 Japanese American National Museum

family genealogy heritage lineage Melinda Yamane Crawford MIS NikkeiGen roots Santa Barbara Genealogical Society Susanne Mori