Samurais don’t just make good Hollywood icons. If you have them in your family tree, they can help you go back further in time.
To be successful in Japanese family history research, you’ll need to know (1) ancestors’ names, (2) ancestors’ places of residence, and (3) the Japanese language.
One of the first places to start is with your family’s koseki (family registry). Shortly after the Meiji Restoration (1868), the Japanese government began recording information about every family in the country. In contrast to Western family tree research, where genealogists typically gather a variety of certificates and documents pertaining to an ancestor (and hope they don’t mismatch a person’s identity with someone else who had the same name), in Japanese research, there is no need to collect miscellaneous documents to reconstruct a person’s life and family. All the vital information (births, marriages, deaths, relationships, etc.) was recorded together in a single document, which underwent revisions as events occurred.
Extending the pedigree of an ordinary Japanese family back into the Edo Period (1603-1868) is a challenge. The government didn’t allow commoners to use surnames.
Sources such as kakocho (Buddhist death records) can assist researchers who wish to venture back into the Edo Period. Somewhat analogous to a Christian burial register, kakocho, where they survive, identify centuries of deaths in a community. Buddhist priests assigned posthumous names to the deceased that differed from names used during life, but sometimes marginal notes list both names.
If your ancestor descends from Samurai, it will be much easier to trace your Japanese family tree. Samurai, the class of military nobility during the feudal period, helped rule and protect Japan for a millennia. Back in 1980 in a forum presentation at the World Conference on Records, Dr. Kin-itsu Hirata and Dr. Greg Gubler stated that families of Samurai, Shogunate, priests and nuns, aristocrats, and the Emperor can be traced back several centuries earlier than peasant families. The Imperial Family, for example, has a pedigree dating back more than 2,000 years.
1. Dr. Kin-itsu Hirata, “The Search for My Japanese Roots: Using Buddhist and Local Sources,” World Conference on Records, Vol. 11: Asian and African Family and Local History (August 12-15, 1980): Series 802. FHL US/CAN Book 929.1 W893 1980 v. 11
2. Dr. Kin-itsu Hirata and Dr. Greg Gubler, “Family and Local History in Japan. Breaking the Impasse: Sources and Options in Japanese Family History Research,” World Conference on Records, Vol. 11: Asian and African Family and Local History (August 12-15, 1980): Series 818. FHL US/CAN Book 929.1 W893 1980 v. 11