Database of Over 50,000 Okinawans Who in the Early 1900s Emigrated to Over 29 Countries

Allen Toma
Reprinted with permission

Editor’s note: This article was published in the Hawaii United Okinawa Association’s “Uchinanchu” newsletter (March/April 2020).

It has been [more than] 120 years since the first Okinawans arrived in Hawai‘i. For many, the familial bonds between their descendants here in Hawai‘i and their families in Okinawa have declined or vanished. Through the generations, many in Hawai‘i have forgotten or lost contact with their relatives from their homeland.

Concerned with this trend, the Okinawan Genealogical Society of Hawaii’s mission is to “Promote, Preserve and Perpetuate our Okinawa family heritage through Education, Research and Networking” (

To enable Uchinanchu here in Hawai‘i to discover their Issei forebears who emigrated here and beyond, a painstaking effort was begun in 2000 to translate official Okinawan government emigration publications, “Okinawa Kenshiro 1900-1911” and “Okinawa Kenshi Shirohen 1912-1926.” The six-volume set contains emigration records, from the turn of the twentieth century, of some 50,000 Okinawans who ventured out to over 29 countries around the world.

The initial task — to translate only records of those who had emigrated to Hawai‘i — was spearheaded by June Arakawa and Nobu Takeno, with Ron Miyashiro developing the database, which in 2005 contained about 4,000 entries. In 2005, Nancy Tome and Bob Kishaba continued the translation, with Sally Tsuda performing data entry into a new database developed by Steve Miyashiro — a database which, by 2011, would grow to 15,000 entries. With help of Carol Chun and Ryoko Yamamoto, the translation and data-entry efforts continued. In May 2017, the 17-year project was completed, with the database containing 16,500 records of those who emigrated to Hawai‘i.

In 2018, Hiroaki Hara, on sabbatical from the Okinawa Prefectural Library in Naha, arrived in Hawai‘i to enroll in the Masters of Library Science program at University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa. In his possession was a computer file of the two publications noted above as well as additional emigre data. However, like the publications, this valuable digital resource was completely in kanji and kana characters!

The challenge was how to translate this huge dataset of 50,000 records, as each record contained 30 fields of information, such as emigre names, birthdates, passport numbers and dates, travel dates, the reason for emigration, home addresses in Okinawa and destination countries. The effort was complicated by the fact that in a written Japanese name, there is no delineation (i.e. space) between the last and first names — just a series of kanji and kana characters. Also, the vagaries of Okinawan names, with their multiple readings and subjective interpretations, made the task more challenging. In addition to people’s names, their original city, town and village names had to be translated, some which no longer exist.

Building on the database framework of Steve Miyashiro and the translation efforts by Shigeru Yoshimoto, Allen Toma created the new database using computer algorithms to separate the last and first names and to automate the translation process. Now, for the first time, this database is online and open to the public, so that anyone can try to discover their Issei [ancestors] who went to seek their fortune in faraway lands.

What sets this database apart is that it contains both the original kanji and the romaji (romanized) translation, so native Okinawans will be able to identify their kanji names even though the romaji readings might be in question or possess multiple readings. Additionally, the database can be searched in both romaji and kanji, and it aids in directing search efforts by offering a list of names from which to select. It can be accessed by going to the HUOA website:

Based on statistics drawn from the database, the Territory of Hawai‘i had the most immigrants (16,905), followed by Peru (9,955), the Philippines (8,974) and Brazil (6,557). In addition to South America and the South Pacific, Okinawans also emigrated to United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Russia and China. Most were between 16 and 25 years old when they left home. The number of emigres peaked in the years 1906-1907 and 1917-1918.

And (no surprise here), the most common last names are Higa (比嘉) and Oshiro (大城). So if your issei relative was named Kame Higa, be prepared to peruse through 161 Kame Higas who went to eight countries or only the 64 who came to Hawai‘i!

Now if your bachan was Ushi Higa, the numbers aren’t any better: 135 and 69 respectively! You may be also dismayed to learn that both men and women took on the names of Kame and Ushi!
So, if you are curious about the Issei whose hard work and sacrifice enabled us to enjoy the lives we live today, get on your computer or cell phone and join us in discovering our roots! Good luck!


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