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Finding my family: Omaye/Omae Family History—Part 1

*The below is an update of Shey's family history, which was written in 2021. 

The email header read, “I’ve found your family.”

I think I stopped breathing at that moment. I quickly opened the email.

“I’ve found him!” The email from Yuki, my contact at the Wakayama prefectural office, said, “his name is Junichi Omae, a 90-year-old man. I just called him right now and talked about how you are looking for him. He knows about your great-grandfather and has his picture. He started crying to hear your story. — Yuki”

Sgt. Tom Omaye, Shey’s grandfather, who she calls “Pop.”

My eyes filled with tears. This was a dream come true. Just before he died, my grandfather, Tom Omaye, gave me his many folders of research on our family tree. He had searched for years for any information about our family in Japan, to no avail. I made a promise to my grandfather, who had passed in 2018, and myself that I would do everything I could to find our relatives. It was now my turn to take over the search. 

To make the task extra difficult, our family in Australia spell Omaye with a “y” but in Japan it is just Omae. We didn’t have anything with my great-grandfather’s name written in Japanese, just his English version where he added the “y.” He probably did this to make it easier for English pronunciation, but it made the detective work harder.

I had been living in Tokyo for 18 months. In that time, I’d hired a genealogist, checked with the Kainan City office—the city in Wakayama prefecture where my great-grandfather was born, and consulted online forums, but all had turned out to be dead ends. Not being able to speak Japanese was holding me back. I needed help.

I learned there would be a conference in Wakayama for people with links to the prefecture in October 2023, so I immediately signed up. I imagined that maybe I would meet someone there who might be able to help me trace my family. It was a long-shot, but worth a try.

And this is how I met Yuki-san at the Wakayama Prefectural office, the same Yuki-san who sent me the email about finding Junichi Omae.

She was helping organise this Wakayama Kenjinkai Conference, and I shared my story with her as part of the application process. I also asked her if she knew anyone who might be able to help me find my family. She said she would see, but probably wouldn’t be able to help.

I didn’t know, however, that she was constantly recounting my story to nearly everyone she came across. After repeating my story, she would joke, “If you meet any Omaes, let me know.”

A journalist she had shared this joke with a few months earlier eventually called her. He had met someone named Omae in Kainan city, where my great-grandfather came from. The journalist had asked this Omae-san if she had a relative who had gone to Australia. She said, no. But… there was one other Omae family she knew of in the city. 

Yuki-san made a call to the other Omae family. Ninety-year-old Junichi Omae answered the phone. When Yuki-san told him someone from Australia was looking for relatives in Japan, he started to cry.

Shojiro Omaye, Shey’s great-grandfather who left Kainan and came to Australia.

It turns out that Junichi Omae’s grandfather was the brother of my great-grandfather, Shojiro Omaye. 

I planned a trip to meet him as soon as possible. The only problem was that Junichi Omae and his family could not speak English, and my Japanese is still woeful. 

I called a close friend, Etsuko, in Tokyo, who coincidentally also comes from Wakayama Prefecture. She is fluent in English and Japanese. I asked, “Etsuko, this is a strange request, but would you consider coming to Wakayama with me to meet my long-lost relatives?” She said yes without any hesitation, and soon we were on a plane!

Meeting the Omaes

Every time I thought about finally meeting my long-lost family in Japan, my eyes would well up. I had to keep it together. This was so important to me, but I couldn’t help wondering, was it as important to him? Would it be embarrassing being so emotional if he was not? 

I had the added pressure of knowing there would be a TV crew filming everything. I was hesitant at first when the request came to film the moment of encounter, but my husband convinced me it would be wonderful to have the moment documented. Not just for me, but for our extended family, and maybe to inspire others. 

We arrived in the pretty town of Kainan, with its narrow streets bordered by a tall, picture-perfect mountain range.

Shey at Kainan Station, Wakayama Prefecture.

There were six people and two cameras outside Junichi-sama’s house when we arrived. I could see a casually dressed man in the background, who contrasted the formally dressed TV crew. He was filming everything, and he instantly reminded me of my grandfather, Tom, who was always lurking with a video camera. At that time, I didn’t know this man was also a relative!

Waiting outside Junichi-sama’s house while the camera crew deliberated on how to film us; Masaitsu-sama (Junichi-sama's brother) is in the background already filming.

The initial introduction to the Omae family was stalled as the TV crew considered the best angle to capture the moment. “Is this really your first time meeting him?” they asked. “Yes, it really is!” I replied.

Then I was told to go and hide until they called me. 

My friend Etsuko and I stood waiting behind a building taking deep breaths. We were called forward. 

As we came out of hiding, I found myself standing in front of the kind-eyed Junichi Omae.

Meeting the family for the first time, Shey bowing to Masaitsu-sama as Junichi-sama looks on.

I was trying to hold back all my emotions, but my eyes were full of tears. We both bowed deeply and he introduced himself. I nodded, but I couldn’t get any words out. His eyes were full of tears, like mine, and I knew I wasn’t alone in my feelings.

He introduced me to the rest of the family, and I was surprised to learn the man with the camera in the background was Masaitsu, Junichi’s younger brother, who is 81. He really reminded me of my pop, Tom.

I was also introduced to Shuzo, another of Junichi’s brothers, who is 87, and also Junichi’s daughter, Sayuri.

From left: Sayuri (Junichi's daughter), Junichi (age 90), Shey, Shozo (age 87, Junichi's brother), Masaitsu (age 81, Junichi's brother), Masaitsu's daughter, Azusa Ueda

As I removed my shoes in the entryway, I was amazed by Junichi’s artwork. All the walls were covered in ancient scripts in circles created with acrylic metallic paints. He is incredibly spiritual but also a talented artist, and evidence of this is everywhere in his home.

Junichi-sama's artwork

Part 2 >>

All photos are courtesy of the aurhor. 

*This article was originally published in Nikkei Australia
 on July 4, 2023.


© 2023 Shey Dimon

Australia family history migration reunion Wakayama