Special to The Hawaii Herald
Eight years ago, our son Ryan had an ancestral epiphany while exchanging university graduation wishes among his friends. On a social media site, each shared their one wish for graduation. Ryan’s wish was to meet his grandfather and great-grandfather — vicariously, of course — both of whom had died decades before he was born. He said he felt he had turned out as he did because of his grandfather’s spirit.
In Japanese lore, there is a saying that goes something like, “Those who came before lead the younger generation, who, in turn, lead the next generation.” In my heart, I knew my challenge was to search our Dote family roots for him.
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Inspired by his wish, I embarked on a journey to Japan last October, hoping to trace our family’s Hiroshima roots to real-life people.
As the trip unfolded, it was made even more special by friends, family input (and stories), valuable community resources, and doses of humility and karma. Every step was met with challenges of one kind or another. But, okagesama de, it turned out to be truly unbelievable.
To those Japanese Americans who are fortunate enough to still have living parents, grandparents, and relatives or links back to their Japan roots, to people who toss around thoughts of “one day finding my roots,” I say, do it now, for time and the cycle of life wait for no one.
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My trip transcended 115 years, back to 1899, when my grandfather, Hatsutaro Dote, immigrated to the Republic of Hawai‘i with his new bride Kisa (Nakano) Dote, my grandmother. I found documentation of their passage aboard the SS Hong Kong online at the Hawai‘i State Archives. With no other records, that gave me a baseline date.
A friend, Karlton Tomomitsu, introduced me to the Family Resource Center of the Church of Latter Day Saints on Beretania Street. There, I found invaluable information, including parts of the Hawaiian and United States census. Digitized copies of actual census reports, handwritten in ink, described occupants at their residences. They also had old interrogations of families who had applied for a “Certificate of Hawaiian Birth” because Hawai‘i did not have a birth certificate system for non-Hawaiians until about 1910.
Life was hard for all immigrant laborers in Hawai‘i, my family included. Survival meant following labor contracts and moving from plantation to plantation. My grandparents arrived at a Kïlauea plantation on Kaua‘i in 1899 and then moved to Kahuku Plantation on O‘ahu in 1901, where my father was born in 1903. From Kahuku, they moved either to Lä‘ie or He‘eia. Surprisingly, the 1910 census finds the Dote family living in ‘Aiea, probably working for Aiea Sugar Plantation.
The family moved back to He‘eia after the 1910 census, in which Hatsutaro reported working at the Heeia Libby Pineapple Cannery. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to the upper Luluku area, in the Käne‘ohe foothills — just about the spot where Ho‘omaluhia Botanical Park is now located.
In the wet farmlands, Hatsutaro and Kisa became rice farmers. My older brother said grandfather also had moonshine stills hidden in those forests, where he made liquor.
Possibly in the 1920s, Hatsutaro purchased a parcel of land in Käne‘ohe, at the corner of then-Kamehameha Road and Kea‘ahala Road. It became the Dote home. For 50 years, that lot enabled six of the eight Dote children to become American entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur spirit ran through Hatsutaro’s veins, perhaps inherited from his parents in Saka who, I later learned, were oyster harvesters and fishmongers.
Judging by the number of businesses they created, my grandparents were both entrepreneurial and very hardworking. Their eldest son Tadashi, my father, built a feed and farm supply store on the property in the mid-1920s. Hatsutaro opened a beer tavern and Kisa operated an okazu-ya, where three of their daughters worked as cooks.
Sometime before World War II, my father worked in the Los Angeles Farmers’ Market district, where he learned new methods of grocery marketing and was introduced to the supermarket concept — a larger store selling many items in a single building. He subsequently returned to Käne‘ohe and transformed the feed store into a small Dote’s Market with visions of expanding. Around November of 1953, Tadashi built, which, then, was one of Käne‘ohe’s largest supermarkets.
Around 1939, Kisa Dote fell gravely ill, so Hatsutaro accompanied her back to the Dote family home in Saka, Hiroshima, where she died in 1940. She was cremated there and Hatsutaro and my father Tadashi, the eldest son, brought her remains back to Hawai‘i in a simple blue and white ceramic urn.
World War II further compounded my problem of not having family records. Hatsutaro, who owned a tavern in Käne‘ohe frequented by U.S. soldiers and officers, was interrogated. He is believed to have destroyed all of the family records brought from Saka, lest he be imprisoned for being disloyal to America. When questioned about family records, he stated in Japanese: “I misplaced it shortly after the war began — when I was examined.”
Nothing resulted from the wartime questioning and the Dote family continued its businesses.
Hatsutaro died in 1949 — four years before I was born. With his passing was lost my family’s direct link to Saka village.
In 1967, my father visited our Saka relatives for the last time. He died in 1969 without telling me anything about our Saka roots. The Hawai‘i Dotes made their final visit “home” to Saka in the 1980s when Hatsutaro’s last surviving daughters (my father’s sisters) — Margaret Kotada, Elsie Tahara and Florence Tsutsumi — visited Saka. I remember seeing a blurry snapshot of the three women — by then, all in their late 70s — standing at a gravesite on a mountainside. Presumably, this was the Dote family ohaka (grave). My 10-second chance glimpse of this one photo in the 1980s was imprinted in my brain. I did not know then that it would serve me well in my 2014 search for our ancestral grave.
By 2011, the last of Hatsutaro’s and Kisa’s children had passed and the link to our Saka family seemed extinguished for good. Through 100 years of living in Hawai‘i, very little information had been passed down, and only a few of Hatsutaro’s grandchildren (my generation) recalled even snippets of unlinked stories.
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With my son’s comments to his friends always in the back of my mind, I began to search for our roots in earnest after I retired in 2011. I was optimistic, but the realist in me knew the chances were one in a thousand.
I began by attending a seminar on finding your family roots at the Japanese Cultural Center to Hawai‘i. I also asked my older brother for names, dates, towns — anything he could recall. My brother had spent his early childhood with our grandfather and provided me lots of oral information and favorite “jiichan stories.”
I also asked my cousins, but their remembrances were second-hand; none had lived with our grandparents, as had my older brother and my parents, who had followed the old tradition of the eldest son taking care of his parents.
* * *
By accident, or perhaps karma, four people appeared out of nowhere and helped me at different stages of my search. Karlton Tomomitsu, Masago Asai and Michael Takashita were new friends, while photographer George Kodama was a longtime friend.
Karlton was somewhat skeptical of achieving success after hearing what little information I had. But he was intrigued by my son’s wish and my resolve. To demonstrate my resolve, I told him about a 2001 incident in which then-Gov. Ben Cayetano assigned our state agency to search for some World War II employment records that the state retirement system could not locate. The case was finally resolved as a result of “what if” searching of historical documents and sheer tenacity. It taught me to keep plodding ahead creatively, even if what you uncover makes no sense at that moment.
After hearing my story, Karlton and I devised a plan, which was critical since I was starting out with so little ammunition. He gave me a list of things I needed to do, and deadlines. We held progress meetings every other week. Karlton served as my translator, initially contacting the Saka records office on my behalf. Soon thereafter, he got busy at work. Still, we kept in touch monthly.
Another new friend, Masago Asai, a native speaker originally from Nagasaki, appeared in my life just as I began thinking that this was a crazy quest that I should give up. Masago gave me new encouragement and helped me obtain my family koseki-töhon (family registry) and served as my “power of attorney” for the Saka government office. She translated all of my Japanese correspondence. Together, Masago and I wrote to the Saka records office for research assistance on Hatsutaro Dote. First, however, I had to provide evidence of my direct relationship to him via certified copies of our Hawai‘i death and birth certificates. Weeks of silence went by, until, finally, one evening, Masago called me, her voice filled with delight.
“Jeemu-san! At-tah! At-tah! We got something, please come soon to open this! It’s a fat envelope!” I was ecstatic.
That night at home, I sat facing our butsudan (Buddhist altar) before my parents’ and grandparents’ ihai (memorial tablets). I thought about the words, okagesama de . . . “because of the efforts of so many, I am here today.” I wondered if I possessed the depth to “see” okagesama de. Would I be able to “see” all that came before me in my life? The same ancestors that had protected me by their shadows? The ancestors that had inspired my 21-year-old son?
Suddenly, I remembered Karlton’s somber words to me: “Do you really want to find out about the past? If you do, this is your journey forward.”
The next day, I met with Masago: We were excited, yet cautious. Much to our surprise, the envelope contained four koseki-töhon, all possessing my grandfather’s name.
Handwritten, some in old-style Japanese kanji (Chinese characters), the koseki-töhon traced back to the birth of my great-grandfather, Sakuji Dote (Hatsutaro’s father), on Nov. 10, 1843.
This was a remarkable start, a fortuitous beginning.
Over the next few weeks, Masago translated my family lineage into English. There were some questions due to old-style Japanese and illegible handwriting. Still, I was happy and amazed.
It turns out that my grandfather had married twice in Saka. He immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1899 with his second wife, Kisa, who bore his eight children in Hawai‘i. Hatsutaro was the eldest of seven children and the eldest son, and all of his siblings would be deceased by now.
The last name entered in the koseki-töhon was Shigetoshi Dote of Saka. If he were alive, he would be 84 years old. Due to privacy laws, the Saka office would not release any addresses or telephone numbers and we couldn’t find a Hiroshima telephone book in Hawai‘i nor online. That’s when I knew I had to go to Saka.
Was Shigetoshi alive? Even if he were, would he remember stories of Hatsutaro who left Saka in 1899, 31 years before Shigetoshi was even born? We had to find Shigetoshi.
Although the information in the four koseki-töhon was incomplete, I knew that a puka wasn’t necessarily a dead-end.
I quickly sought the translation assistance of Tatsumi Hayashi, a volunteer at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, to help fill in the gaps. Hayashi-san was encouraged by my son’s graduation wish, which I explained was the genesis of my search. (FYI, the JCCH provides expert Japanese translation services for a fee, which is discounted for JCCH members.)
Hayashi-san translated the four koseki-töhon, even juxtaposing names and dates from the four onto one chart. He asked about my family’s religion. In Hawai‘i, we are Higashi Jodo Shinshu, but in Saka we were Nishi. Hayashi-san found the names of two Jodo Shinshu temples in the area, which I could consult to search for the family gravesites.
Hayashi-san also surmised correctly that the tiny fishing village of the 1890s was vastly different today. He downloaded a government map of Hiroshima in 1900 from the internet as well as a 2014 aerial map of Saka. How different the area looked! Only the mountains looked the same. He also downloaded an aerial photo of Saka’s mountainside, near the ocean. “There, you see these little squares on several of these hills? That could be where your family ohaka is . . .”
* * *
The third partner in my search was Michael Takashita, a local boy who also lives in Ösaka. While back in Käne‘ohe on business, Michael asked if I was ever going to take the trip to Hiroshima that I’d been talking about for more than a year. After updating him on the information that was only now coming together, he began planning my trip: train routes, schedules, airports, what to anticipate, how to catch trains, even how to tell a Western toilet from a Japanese squat toilet by looking at the door.
At this point, Karlton re-entered the story. I cannot speak Japanese, so this whole trip would be a gamble without a translator at my side. Karlton was on the tail end of a trip to Japan, which he extended for a few days to help me find any relatives and the Dote gravesite in Saka.
My plan was to travel throughout Saka with Karlton as my interpreter. Fellow photographer George Kodama, my fourth friend, decided to come with me to Hiroshima so he could visit his own family’s countryside home. George had not been to Japan since 1959.
Michael’s help one month before our departure proved invaluable. He would stay up all night, searching the internet and translating Japanese resources. On the night George and I landed in Ösaka, Michael had calculated our every move. He was staring at his computer, waiting for my email because he had calculated every minute between the Honolulu International Airport and arriving in Hiroshima on the Shinkansen! Finally, on the Shinkansen, safely en route to Hiroshima, I emailed Michael. He replied immediately, writing, “You don’t know how relieved I am to receive your email that you’ve made it! Take care!”
Always be grateful for your friends and associates.
* * *
We reached the Hiroshima JR Station just before midnight. Karlton greeted us at the exit gate. After a few hours of sleep, we met for breakfast. George planned to meet his family, while Karlton and I caught the train to Saka, 30 miles away. At the Saka JR Station, I was walking at a leisurely Hawai‘i pace. The crowded terminal had already emptied. Karlton kindly reminded me, “This is Japan; we have to walk a little faster.”
All of the taxis were gone by the time we exited the station. We caught a cab that had just pulled into the Saka Station. As we got into the taxi, we asked the driver to take us to the old address we had. He said the area was now made up of commercial properties, but that he would take us there so we could look around. En route, he pointed to an area where much of the land had been filled in. The area was the old seashore, which made sense since Hatsutaro came from a fishing family.
Warehouses and a large hospital now occupy the old Saka block. We were sad that the Dote house of the 1850s no longer existed, but I took some photos of the area, anyway. We asked the driver to take us next to the temple nearest to the old seashore — the address that the JCCH’s Hayashi-san had found. The driver squeezed his spotless taxi through bushes and streets so narrow that I could touch the houses. With each turn, the road got narrower and narrower. Finally, the driver stopped and apologized — he said we would have to walk the last hundred yards between the houses, up to the temple. But he promised to wait for us.
When we finally reached the temple, it was closed. My heart sank.
“All this way from Hawai‘i and the temple is closed,” said Karlton, disappointingly. He decided to take a chance and knocked on the door of the minister’s cottage. A petite woman with a homemaker’s apron slowly opened the door.
“Sumimasen,” we said, bowing politely. The woman was the minister’s wife. Karlton explained why we were looking for the minister, or Shigetoshi Dote, or the Dote gravesite. We showed her the koseki-töhon and explained my relationship to Shigetoshi-san. She asked us to wait a moment and retreated back into the cottage.
She returned a few minutes later to tell us that she knew Shigetoshi. Although now retired, he had been an active leader at the temple for many years. Karlton and I looked at each other with wide smiles on our faces. “He’s alive! They know him!”
She offered to call his home for us and disappeared back into her house, only to re-emerge, saying there was no answer and she didn’t know how else to reach him. Karlton asked for his address. After having traveled all the way from Hawai‘i, it would have been a shame to not at least have seen his house.
After reading the original koseki-töhon with his name as the last entry, she gave us his address.
The taxi driver took us to the Dote home. It was 11:30 on a Wednesday morning and no one was home. A neighbor came out, wondering why a taxi had pulled up with strangers taking photos of her neighbor’s home. The driver explained. She said she knew Shigetoshi’s sister and went back into her house to call the sister. Our hopes buoyed momentarily. Karlton explained, “Neighbors here watch out for each other.” But disappointment, again — no one answered the phone at Shigetoshi’s sister’s home.
Just then, another neighbor and his wife emerged from their home and politely asked the driver to move his taxi, so they could leave. The driver apologized and explained why we were taking photos of the home and blocking the one-lane road. Upon hearing Shigetoshi’s name, the neighbor said that Dote-san was at the senior center today. At that moment, the driver realized that he knew the man we were looking for, as he sometimes drove Dote-san to the senior center!
Karlton and I shook our heads in disbelief. We hadn’t told the driver who we were looking for and, of all things, he knew Shigetoshi Dote! Out of Saka’s 13,000 residents, this one taxi driver who had arrived at the Saka Station just when we needed a taxi knew the man we were looking for — my cousin! Serendipity didn’t get any better than this.
At the center, the seniors were just about to begin eating their bentö lunch. Through the shoji panel walls, we could hear about 40 people enjoying each other’s company, laughing, talking and opening their bentö. The taxi driver went inside and talked to 84-year-old Shigetoshi, who thought this was a joke for a TV comedy show. The room turned silent. The taxi driver eventually convinced him that this was not to be a TV show and he came out to meet us.
Shigetoshi was the splitting image of the 1930s photos of my grandfather. I raced over and gave him a hug. He stepped back in surprise, but in the next moment, hugged me back. There, on the front steps, we began talking through Karlton. When he saw my copy of the Koseki-töhon, he flashed back 80 years ago, recalling details and dates about Hatsutaro and my father Tadashi, memories that kept coming out like a floodgate had just burst open. Suddenly, he stopped and signaled for us to wait. A few minutes later, he returned with his older sister Mitsuko in tow. She was at the senior center, too! She looked all over like my Dote aunties. With tears in my eyes, I hugged her in happiness. She could not believe any of this was happening and just sat there quietly for a while, wondering if this was just a dream. Then she told us she recalled my three Dote aunties’ visit in the 1980s. “How are they,” she asked. I had to tell her that all three had passed on. They would have been happy to know that she still remembered their visit from nearly 35 years ago.
Karlton whispered to me, “You planned this over an 18-month period and travel halfway around the world, not knowing who might be alive. We end up with the one taxi driver who knows your cousin and we find his 87-year-old sister at the same center and they both recall all these memories — all within 90 minutes of arriving in Saka. This is not possible . . .”
We could hear everyone inside enjoying their bentö. I told both cousins to go back in and enjoy their lunch and that we would return in the afternoon. I then asked Shigetoshi if, later, he would show us the site of the Dote family ohaka. Shigetoshi looked up at me and said he would take us to the ohaka right now. We begged him to finish his lunch first, but he insisted that he “must do this.” His cousin from Hawai‘i had come all this way to pay his respects to our family. That could not wait, he insisted. He gave our driver directions to the foothill path to the mountainside. Shigetoshi then climbed on his bicycle and zoomed off, down the narrow alleyway. This 84-year-old man beat us to the mountain.
From the narrow road, the mountain loomed above us with a haphazard access trail. It was an extremely steep mountainside climb, at least a 45-degree angle with uneven steps. Like a sure-footed mountain goat, Shigetoshi trudged forward slowly, step-by-step, with me behind him, trying to keep up. He motioned for us to sit and rest on appropriately placed sitting stones. He explained that people visiting gravesites have to carry their water buckets and flowers up the steep terrain, so the sitting stones are important. I was out of breath by the second resting stone. Shigetoshi wasn’t even puffing. He said he had already passed on his ohaka-mairi (grave visitation) duties to his only son, a schoolteacher.
As we approached the midway point up the mountain, Shigetoshi showed us the Dote family’s tall gravesite. He explained that his father had built the foundational niche to consolidate the various Dote family graves into one gravesite, while my grandfather had built the tall monument. We offered our prayers.
He then opened the doorway, exposing the large chamber holding 11 ceramic urns. I told him that many of them looked like my grandmother Kisa Dote’s 1940 urn.
We talked until about 3 that afternoon. Shigetoshi had not eaten his lunch and had ridden his bicycle to the mountainside, then climbed up 150 feet. The October sun was already low on the horizon and a chill was beginning to fill the air. We headed down the mountainside only after agreeing that he would meet us at our hotel next to the Peace Memorial at 5 o’clock so he could take us to dinner. I insisted that we take him to dinner, but he refused, saying this was his celebration. I began to counter, at which point Karlton said, “Don’t make a fuss like we do in Hawai‘i; be culturally respectful of his respect towards us.”
With that, Karlton and I caught the train back to downtown Hiroshima, happy beyond words for all that had transpired that day.
By chance, Shigetoshi found himself being driven to town by the very same taxi driver we had ridden with all day. Throughout the evening, Shigetoshi kept repeating that this was no ordinary day: It was an historic celebration warranting a special fugu (blowfish) dinner and a full night of entertainment.
Throughout the evening, Shigetoshi made hundreds of statements I’d never heard and encouraged me to investigate further. I think I should return to Saka in the spring.
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This trip marked a beginning. I was gifted with an unbelievable first-glimpse into my family’s ancestral past. Even now at home, three months later, I quietly reflect upon how fortunate I was to have been able to travel into my past and to have been aided by friends who helped me fulfill Ryan’s need to know — and, yes, mine as well.
I know my duty now is to record this for my son and for the generations of Dotes to come.
Jim Dote retired from the state Department of Human Resources Development in 2011. Besides continuing to document his Dote family roots, he also does freelance graphics and photography work. The Herald thanks Jim for sharing this moving story with our readers.