Dr. Lorraine S. Mito, Ed.D
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
My father, Gisaburo Yamane, was born in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1909. At the age of 13, his parents sent him to Kona, Hawai‘i, to become the adopted child of his uncle and aunt, who were childless. Dad was the second son of his birth parents and one of their seven children. He was a mischievous child in his youth. When Dad died in 1963, we lost all contact with our relatives in Hiroshima.
I never imagined that a friendship made in 2000 when I was selected a Fulbright Teacher and spent three weeks in Japan would lead me to my Japanese roots in Hiroshima and Kumamoto. I was introduced to Aichi Prefecture, where I visited educational institutions from kindergarten to the university level. It was at Toyota High School that I met Mr. Yoshio Muro, the principal. I did not know it then, but we would become lifelong friends.
In his welcome address, Mr. Muro said he had graduated from the University of Hiroshima, where he had majored in geology. At our farewell banquet in July, Mr. Muro sought me out to tell me that his daughter Rika would be visiting Hawai‘i in August. I said I would be glad to meet Rika and did, in fact, meet her. With that, my friendship with Mr. Muro was sealed and continued to grow — we became Yoshi-san and Lorrie-san.
Yoshi-san and I got to know each other better by exchanging emails. In one of those emails, I asked him if he could help me find my relatives in Hiroshima, in Kabe-machi, Asa-gun, Kameyama-mura. I knew the names of my first cousin, Akiko Yamane, and my uncle, Sadao Yamane, who was Dad’s younger brother. My father used to require us to write letters to them, which helped us practice our Japanese language.
Within a day, I received a phone call from Yoshi-san, informing me that he had located my relatives through his contacts with principals in the area. He gave me addresses, phone numbers and other details. It was a miracle! I was elated! I told him he was a subarashii (splendid) miracle worker!
In the meantime, I wrote a long letter to my uncle — in my poor hiragana — informing him of his family connections in Hawai‘i. I also sent pictures of each of my sisters’ families. He said he was surprised and happy to receive my letter and that he had always wondered what had happened to his brother’s children.
I asked Yoshi-san if he could analyze our family’s koseki tohon (family register), which Dad had kept. I said I would send him a copy of it. He said he would be happy to study it. Through his efforts, I was able to trace my family roots back four generations.
In November of 2012, my husband Clifford and I traveled to Hiroshima to meet my relatives. Uncle Sadao and his wife had passed away by then, but my first cousins were still there. Although the house had been rebuilt and modernized, my cousin — the son of my uncle and aunt — and his family live on the property where my dad was born. The city of Kabe had grown and was now Asakita-ku (ward), encompassing the areas of Asa-gun and Kameyama-mura.
The Yamane home was nestled high in the mountains of Hiroshima, at the edge of the forest line. I always imagined the home to be on flat lands, surrounded by rice paddies. I think I watched too many samurai movies!
The rice fields were on the side of a hill with ditches, streams and small bridges leading up a narrow, winding road to the home. It was nostalgic and I felt a warm sense of welcome, as if Dad was greeting us and welcoming us home! I asked my cousins if the family grave was nearby because I wanted to go ohakamairi (grave visit) and pay respects to my ancestors). No problem, they said; it was close by. After a while, they took me to the cemetery. I was ready to jump into a car to drive there, but everyone started walking up an incline behind the property, toward the top a hill. There, a line of graves greeted me.
Silently, I said, “Hajimemashite, konnichiwa. Watakushi wa Gisaburo no nibanme no musume, Sachiko desu.” (“Hello, it’s nice to meet you. I am Gisaburo’s second daughter, Sachiko.”)
The oldest gravestone was a triangular-shaped rock. It was where my great-grandparents were probably laid to rest, along with my grandparents and my father’s siblings. The newest gravestone held the remains of my uncle, aunt and other family members who were interred in that one grave.
I met all three of my surviving first cousins and their families. They had traveled quite a distance to meet us — from the outskirts of Hiroshima and even from neighboring Shimane Prefecture. I also met the wife of my deceased male cousin and their two daughters. The sisters said my aunt had always wanted to visit Hawai‘i, but since she never made the trip, they wanted to give me one of her many kimono. I was so honored to bring home her precious kimono and obi. I was able to obtain a copy of the family kamon (family crest) at the same time.
Since 2012, my husband and I have been to Hiroshima twice, reconnecting with my cousins over dinner. They are all such happy, humble people.
Akiko married a rice farmer and is a professional sushi maker. Yumiko retired from the izakaya (pub) she owned and moved to Matsuyama where she lives with her son, who is a teacher. Aiko and her husband live in Shimane, where both work as curators at an art museum. Emiko, whose husband Teruaki, my first cousin, passed away, lives in the Yamane home — she is a retired preschool teacher. Emiko said she gave up rice farming because the deer and the monkeys were a menace to the crops. She now leases out the field.
After that successful journey, I asked Yoshi-san to examine the koseki tohon of my mother’s Kusano family. My father had kept her koseki. Yoshi-san was able to locate my mother’s first cousin, who was living in Tamana-gun, Kumamoto, and actually traveled there from his home in Nagoya to find my relatives. Once again, I was able to obtain the Kusano family mon from a photo Yoshi had taken of her kimono.
The Kusano family home is located far in the hills of Kumamoto on a property with many tall trees on it. This is where my mother’s father, Tokutaro Kusano, grew up prior to immigrating to Hawai‘i.
Yoshi-san told me that after the war, the family sold the trees, which were used in the effort to rebuild Japan. The home has since been rebuilt on the same property.
My husband and I traveled to Kumamoto specifically to visit my mother’s 88-year-old first cousin. Unfortunately, she was down with a cold so we missed that opportunity. She lives with her son, who works at a hospital. I wrote her a letter (again, in my poor hiragana) and sent her pictures of our family, describing who we were. I have not yet heard back from her.
Several years later, my cousin went to Kumamoto and learned that there was a Kusano Museum there. The Kusano clan was a samurai family who had supported Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Some of the clan members committed seppuku (honorific suicide) since he lost the battle to the Tokugawas.
Yoshi-san then worked on my husband’s Mito family lineage, whose roots were in Hiroshima. I had obtained a copy of their koseki, which Clifford’s cousin had kept. Yoshi-san located my father-in-law’s first cousin and a nephew — they lived in Hatsukaichi in Hiroshima. We met both of them on one of our trips and learned that they love to drink Asahi Beer. Neither of them knew much about the Mito family’s history, although they brought us a picture of the family’s mon — the ume (plum) blossom. We were able to validate information that Yoshi-san had found in the koseki and the family tree.
My next challenge is to work on my mother-in-law’s family, the Sakamotos and the Yamashitas, whose families lived in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto. Grandma Mito is 99 years old, so I should get to it quickly.
Thanks to my dear friend, Yoshio Muro, our journey to locate living relatives in Japan became such a rewarding adventure. The Muros visited Hawai‘i in 2014 and we hosted them and took them to the Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Mrs. Muro, a retired principal, is also an opera singer. These days, she helps the elderly at the community center. Yoshi-san is an avid marathon runner who participates in at least six marathons a year. He also grows vegetables in his front yard. Their son is a judge and their daughter is an architect.
Yoshi-san no okage de (because of Yoshi-san), I have such a rich history and knowledge of my family and where they lived. I am so grateful to have such a good friend whose invaluable assistance enabled us to meet our kin just by following the threads of our koseki tohon. Thanks to Yoshi-san and his knowledge and patience, I was able to trace my ancestors and find my furusato (family home). The spirits of my ancestors live on in the original lands of the past, in lush and peaceful hillsides surrounded by lands that were made productive by their hard work and which provided a livelihood for them.
Kokoro kara kansha shite imasu (my heart is filled with appreciation). Every year, my husband and I venture to different parts of Japan, but we always either visit the Muros or, at the very least, call them and talk with them. Yoshi and his wife are eager learning to speak English, and I am trying to improve on my Japanese. It is hard to believe that we have been communicating with each other by email for 17 years! I thank the Fulbright Fellowship Program for giving me the opportunity to meet such a fine man.
And, I thank my father who sent me to Japanese School for 11 years to learn Japanese, in spite of my resistance. I can just hear Dad saying, “Didn’t I tell you that it would help you someday?”
Dr. Lorraine Yamane Mito grew up in the coffee fields of Kona and taught in the Hawai‘i Department of Education for 36 years. She is a member of the Advisory Board for the College of Education at the University of Phoenix (Hawai‘i Campus), where she has taught for the past 21 years. Mito also assists schools with special projects, loves to travel and enjoys her three grandsons.