The Joy of Genealogy
by Ted Ohashi
In 2002 we began an informal study of the history of our Tasaka family in Japan and Canada. This simple project gradually took on a life of its own as many family members joined in to contribute. I will call upon my experiences in working on our family history to explain how this undertaking impacted us in so many positive ways and to encourage you to undertake a study of your own family.
Recording a family history is a great hobby, it is a very social activity and it is fun. It draws family members together; it gives you things to talk about, to ask about and to wonder about. It makes your family closer and stronger and the interest spans generations.
The original immigrants in our Tasaka family were Isaburo and Yorie who settled in Steveston in 1903. Between 1904 and 1929, Yorie had 19 children of which 17 survived birth and 15 reached adulthood.
When we began the project, there were only two or three of us actively involved. The others fit somewhere on the scale of pro to con. But in the end, everyone was supportive and many people made contributions in their own way.
One important branch of genealogy is heraldic study. If you are from Britain, you have a Coat of Arms. If you are from Scotland, you have a tartan. If you are from Japan, you may have a monsho or mon (crest) and/or a ka-mon (family crest) that was first developed in the Heian Period (792-1185).
The ka-mon was initially used by the Kuge class who served the Emperor. In full battle-dress it was the only way to identify friend from foe. The ka-mon was later only used by the Imperial family, lords and shoguns and was passed from father to eldest son. Younger sons created variations as their own and women also had crests that passed from mother to daughter. Similarities in ka-mon can indicate an historical family connection. Finding your family crest may provide you with a link going back centuries and is a worthwhile project on its own.
The end “product” of our research was a book. People in the family acquired copies and read them. In some cases, some members of the younger generations used the book as the basis to write an essay describing their ancestry for social studies classes. This was an unexpected “benefit” of the project.
Almost as a direct result of the interest generated, we now have a Tasaka Family website. On the site, people post news. In today’s electronic world, as soon as a baby is born its picture is flashed to people around the world. Some members announce upcoming events. Others post pictures from their holidays. There is no end to the number of ways the website is used.
Recording the family history has given all of us an important connection to the past. As they say, a person’s interest in history increases as they come closer to becoming a part of it. Such a record helps us understand where we stand in an historical context. We have a new appreciation of the sacrifices made by earlier generations who paved the way for the opportunities we all enjoy today.
It also provides us with an insight into the character of our ancestors. Isaburo and Yorie Tasaka, the original family immigrants to Canada, took a possibly hazardous and certainly uncomfortable sea voyage to come to a country where they did not speak the language, with no guarantee of a job or income, no place to live or outside support. They must have been daring adventurers; risk taking optimists; independent spirits; survivors. These are some of the characteristics they passed on to future generations.
These qualities were undoubtedly useful during the early settlement years. Life on Saltspring Island, where the family settled, was difficult for an immigrant family with so many mouths to feed. The food supply was supplemented by Mother Nature. The boys went to the beach to look for crabs and other edible sea life. Mr. Yuen, a neighbouring farmer, allowed Fumi to keep eggs laid by his hens in the field. Another neighbour’s apple tree bordered the property and any fruit falling on the Tasaka side of the fence was harvested. Isaburo traded fish for fruit. Wild plants such as stinging nettle were also gathered and eaten.
These same qualities must have helped during the Internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II when school principals and teachers had to become labourers and fishers had to learn carpentry or farming.
After the war, the Tasaka family remained stoic regarding the internment experience. On those occasions when they did discuss it, they always made positive references. This is, after all, an ethnic trait. But more than half a century later and with considerable prodding from the younger generations, some real feelings began to surface. Of course Internment was hard. Certainly people were upset about the injustices. But the sense of “shikataganai” remains strong. This is a combination of the Oriental belief in fate and the North American phrase “those are the breaks.” It is a resignation to one’s destiny. It is not only “There is nothing I can do” but also “There is nothing I should do.”
Finally, producing a family history will help develop many skills. I don’t know how anyone practiced genealogy before e-mail, the Internet and digital photographs. But these are skills you will acquire or hone as you get into the process. Your writing and organization will also improve.
In compiling a family history, it is important to adopt the philosophy that if the project isn’t moving forward, it’s moving backward. Much of the history of people of Japanese ancestry in Canada is stored in the memory of the elders. I can only imagine how much richer and more complete our story would have been had we started just five years sooner when Masuko, Koji, Arizo, Sachu, Judo, Taisho and Iko were still living.
As our family members look back on the project and the roles they played, we share a sense of accomplishment and pride. That is why we are so pleased that the Nikkei Museum is sponsoring classes for people who are interested in recording the histories of their families. I hope to see you there. In the meantime, if you have any questions or need help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org