The Unraveling of a Transnational Family’s History

Gerald Kato
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

When he was in his teens, Stephen Miwa was puzzled by his mother’s cryptic remark: “The Miwas are unlucky.” She never explained what she meant, but her words haunted him for decades. After she died, he began exploring his family’s past in order to better understand the Miwas’ journey to find a place to call “home.” “Tadaima! I Am Home: A Transnational Family History,” published late last year by University of Hawai‘i Press, is the story of that journey by the “unlucky” Miwa family.

Working with the distinguished journalist, researcher and historian Tom Coffman, Miwa traced his family history back five generations to Hiroshima, to his great-great-grandfather Marujiro, who was born to a samurai family when the samurai class in Japan was overtaken by modernization. Falling on hard times, Marujiro, like so many others, from low-rank samurai to farmers, made their way from Hiroshima to Hawai‘i as imin (immigrants) to work on the sugar plantations.

Marujiro’s journey to Hawai‘i would mark the beginning of what Coffman describes as the Miwas’ “transnational family history.” The family tried to “make a life in both Japan and the United States, more or less simultaneously,” while building family businesses. In many ways, it is a familiar story of hard work and determination to build a new life in Hawai‘i while maintaining strong family ties in Japan. Those loyalties were severely tested by the outbreak of World War II, the American internment of those of Japanese ancestry, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war and its impact on Stephen Miwa’s grandfather, James Seigo Miwa, at one time a successful Honolulu merchant, is at the core of this story about the unlucky Miwas and why, despite all the family endured, they persevered, survived and thrive to this day.

Coffman writes the story with grace and understanding, having done extensive research built on stories and documents collected by Stephen. Especially useful were the schoolboy diaries of Stephen’s father, Lawrence Miwa, who lived in Hiroshima during the war. Coffman skillfully uses this material and provides a historian’s perspective in what is a short family narrative.

One of the challenges in writing a family history of this sort are the many gaps that exist in the story. While genealogy may be fairly straightforward — and Japanese köseki tohon (family registry) maintain a record of names and dates — first-hand emotional details that animate lives, such as what our ancestors thought, how they lived, why they did what they did — details that make for a compelling narrative — are often absent and left to speculation and imagination. It’s obvious that Coffman faced this problem when writing about James Seigo Miwa, who, while he lived a rich life, did little to maintain a personal record of that life.

James was born in Japan. In 1914, while a young boy, his grandfather summoned him to Hawai‘i. Unlike other Hiroshima immigrant families who remained on the plantation, the Miwas became merchants. James would spend years in Hawai‘i building a successful import-export business in Hawai‘i, Hiroshima and San Francisco. Unluckily, however, he was never an American citizen. When World War II broke out, his strong business and community ties made him a prime target for arrest and incarceration, first at Sand Island in Honolulu and later on the Mainland, where he ended up in the U.S. Justice Department camp at Lordsburg, N.M.

Although life was miserable for the internees, not much is known specifically about James’ life there. Coffman relies heavily on the recollections of other prisoners, such as journalists Yasutaro Soga and Otokichi “Muin” Ozaki, to fill in details about life in the camp. “It seems certain,” writes Coffman, that James would have participated in the debate over repatriation to Japan. It’s a good guess that James, still a citizen of Japan, was part of a civilian prisoner exchange and was traded to Japan, where his family was at the outbreak of the war. James would live out his life in Hiroshima. He was not totally unlucky since he and his family survived the atomic bomb that killed over 100,000 people in Hiroshima that fateful day of August 6, 1945. James taught his family to persevere and thrive through hard times. While he hoped to return to Hawai‘i again, he never did.

The period before and after the atomic bombing was meticulously recorded in a diary by Fumio Lawrence Miwa, Stephen’s father, who was a teenaged schoolboy at the time. This makes for the most compelling first-hand account in the book. Luckily, Lawrence was outside the blast zone on the day Hiroshima was destroyed. He eventually made his way back to Hawai‘i to study at Mid-Pacific Institute and then went on to study business on the Mainland. All the while, he battled to retrieve the Miwa family’s assets in Hawai‘i and San Francisco that were lost during the war.

Lawrence was lucky. He survived Hiroshima. He found success in business, married, raised a family and is happy to be alive.

For Stephen Miwa, Coffman’s book brings the family odyssey full circle — from Hiroshima to their immigration to Hawai‘i, the internment camp experience, their return to Hiroshima and, in a wayward journey, back again to Hawai‘i.

If the Miwas were unlucky, they are unlucky no more. They can proudly say, “Tadaima! I Am Home,” and to that, readers can respond, “Okaeri — Welcome Home.”

“Tadaima! I Am Home: A Transnational Family History” author Tom Coffman; Stephen Miwa, representing the Miwa family; and translator Tatsumi Hayashi will discuss their work on the book at a Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i author panel and book signing on Saturday, April 20, from 10 a.m. to noon in the JCCH Gallery. The event is free and open to the public. A two-hour parking validation will be given for any Gift Shop purchase of $10 at the event. For more information, call (808) 945-7633.

Gerald Kato is an associate professor and chair of the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa’s School of Communications. He is a former newspaper and broadcast journalist who covered government and politics in Hawai‘i for many years. Kato also served as an interviewer on the oral history project for the late U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.


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